Why tech firms make a mistake by not catering to seniors


Bruce and Esther Huffman sit at their computer Sept. 15, 2011, in McMinnville, Ore. The elderly McMinnville couple has gained unexpected fame after their accidental webcam video reached viral status on YouTube. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
December 5, 2011

Liddy Manson is the president of the independent living technology company BeClose. From 1997 to 2006, Manson was vice president and general manager at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive (WPNI), then the online subsidiary of The Washington Post Co. Liddy holds an MBA and certificate in public management from Stanford University and a BA in music from Yale University.

My 82-year-old mother loves her cellphone. It’s a state-of-the-art 1998 clamshell with our phone numbers written in her perfect cursive on labels stuck to the flip top. When I suggest that there are phones with autodial and voice recognition, she refuses to upgrade.

“I have a system,” she says. “It works for me.”

She’s similarly devoted to her laptop, which was purchased in 2000 and runs a long-since-abandoned operating system. Her dot-matrix printer finally gave out, and she called me to complain that it’s impossible to get a printer that’s compatible with her computer. “I think the computer companies do that on purpose so we have to buy new things all the time,” she muses.

I try to explain to her that the pace of technological change is not linear — that suddenly the computer she loves so much has become 1,000 times slower than the ones on the market now.

She’s not buying what I’m selling.

I can feel her getting increasingly cut off. The world moves so quickly now and is so inundated with stimuli that she feels trapped in a game of endless catch-up. Phone trees drive her to distraction, offering countless choices fired off in rapid succession, none of which address her concerns. All she wants, she says, is a friendly voice on the other end of the phone to talk her through her options. My siblings and I try to help. We bark the “obvious” solution through our smartphones on her behalf as we rush to work — a far-from-perfect solution.

My mother’s not alone. My friend’s mother calls her grandson every time she has a computer issue. He’s become Granny’s “Geek Squad,” closing his eyes, envisioning her device and asking, “Granny, do you see the little ‘X’ in the upper-right corner? Click that.” Presto! She can buy her plane tickets.

Americans older than 65 now number 40 million — that’s roughly 13 percent of our population. The U.S. Census Bureau says that 11 million are older than 80, and, if the seniors I have encountered are any indication, very few of them are going to learn to use the spectacular, innovative and intuitive devices younger consumers can’t seem to live without. If anyone missed the viral video of the elderly couple trying to figure out their new webcam, unaware that it was actually in use, I encourage you to take a look. It was viewed nearly 5 million times in 24 hours.

Still, shockingly few companies are providing pragmatic technologies to aid these 40 million people in their lives. In my work, I’m constantly amazed by the antiquated or inadequate technology used to serve the elderly. The “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” buttons are almost the size of garage door openers, and seniors are supposed to wear them around their necks at all times. What’s more, they are supposed to somehow manage to push them after they’ve fallen and lost consciousness. I fail to see how that is in any way practical.

The reason that panic pendants have gained adoption is that they’re simple: When a crisis happens, press the button. The elderly demographic needs innovation that reduces the complex into a minimalist interface that distills, rather than magnifies, information and choices. Today, most laptops come with dozens of preloaded games and gizmos littering the desktop. What would happen if they arrived instead with a start-up screen that looked just like the AOL sign-in page from 1999 but had state-of-the-art technology underneath it? Wouldn’t that get people on Skype, Twitter and Flickr faster?

I understand that innovation for a demographic that eschews the new might seem like an oxymoron. But the reason the elderly aren’t embracing iPads isn’t because of their age. It’s because cognitive processing slows down somewhere in the mid-70s. Their brains are struggling to keep up with the self-checkout at the grocery store, much less to learn a completely new way of communicating. They lose feeling in their fingertips. This makes using tablet technology particularly difficult, since they’re not entirely sure whether they’re touching the screen at all, much less where the central point of pressure is.

Manufacturers may be disappointed to discover that the baby boomers, who have come of age using computers heavily, probably won’t use state-of-the-art technology when they enter their 80s. Rather, expect their comfort zone to be consistent with 10-year-old technology, because that’s all their eyes, ears, fingers and brains will be able to handle. To me, making innovative technology feel familiar to those who can’t process it is a fascinating problem to solve.

After all, there will be 60 million of them once the youngest crosses the 65-year-old line. Isn’t that a market big enough to serve?

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