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CBC Radio column: Tech for seniors

By DJ Kelly March 9, 2011

In this alberta@noon column on CBC Radio One with guest host Holly Preston and I talk about technology and how it impacts the aging. There’s a lot more tech being built for seniors. We chat about why and what are the changes in designs being made to tech to cater to seniors.

albertaatnoon March 9 2011

Unfortunately we only had 4 minutes in the end instead of the usual 7 or so we normally have, so I didn’t get a chance to get to any of the awesome examples I’d prepared. So in the interest of not having wasted that time I’ve included my notes for the interview below so you can see the examples. (Apologies if I’ve ruined a bit of the “magic” of radio for you by doing this.)

1. We’ve always had senior citizens, so why are technology companies only now starting to take our aging citizens seriously and design for them?

  • If you’re thinking of starting a company the great idea that sparks you to action is usually a solution to a problem you have in your own life. When you reach retirement age most people aren’t looking to start a company, so all the ideas that are starting new companies tend to come from younger people.
  • And because they are solving a problem that they have, they are not taking into consideration the needs of different parts of the populations – such as the aging.
  • There are two main reasons we are starting to see a shift and more products and services taking older Canadians into consideration.
  • The first is the sheer number of seniors. With baby boomers hitting retirement age, there are now more people 65+ than ever before. Any smart company who doesn’t want to immediately rule out a large portion of the population as a potential customer are going to think about how to market to this group.
  • The second reason is comfortably with technology. The baby boomers that are starting to hit retirement age are more used to using technology in their lives over the past 20 years than the generations that came before them. Just because they are retiring doesn’t mean they are going to stop using a computer or a cell phone.

2. Why do we need to design differently for seniors? Aren’t they people just like everyone else?

  • Yes, but there are differences in their acceptance of technology. And there is a sharp decline in Internet use after age 65
  • A 2007 Pew Tracking Survey that showed 85 percent of adults in 18-24, 25-34 and 35-44 age groups used the Internet. By contrast, only 39 percent of adults between 65 and 74, and 24 percent of adults between 75 and 84 were Internet users.
  • Secondly, as anyone who is getting older can tell you, the body doesn’t work the way it used to.
  • Aging potentially involves reduced mobility, reduced vision, and even reduced cognitive resources. You have to design things with this in mind otherwise this group may have difficulty with your product.
  • Research shows that as a result of the normal aging process it takes older adults roughly twice as long as younger people to learn a new word processor. That’s even true for older adults who have prior experience with another word processor.
  • The reality is the older you get, the more you experience things differently.
  • Researchers at MIT have formed a group called AgeLab where they have developed a suit which limits the mobility and vision of the wearer to simulate some of the conditions seniors face every day.
  • You can’t lift your arms above your head, your head can only turn so far, your head is a can only tilt so far in relation to your spine, you wear glasses to limit sight, etc.
  • The researchers then wore the suit to the grocery store and tried to purchase products that market research shows are popular among seniors. There findings show that much of the grocery store layout is very difficult for seniors and they are starting to publish that research in hopes stores will implement changes.

3. What other sorts of things are designers doing to make products and services easier for the 65+ crowd?

  • If research shows cognitive abilities can be impaired and fine motor control becomes more limited it’s very easy to design with that in mind – and often those designs make the product better for younger people too.
  • Some of the most popular design changes for seniors involve simplifying menus and interfaces, making bigger buttons, and using images instead of small text.
  • It’s no coincidence then that the iPad has become such a hit with seniors. Anecdotal evidence shows it is gaining in popularity among this age group at a pace that far outstrips any recently released gadget. It’s easy to use.
  • It’s not just new products being created however; it’s also proving to improve current products too:
  • General Electric’s appliance design team has started empathy sessions for their designers where they do things like weighing down pans and taping the designers knuckles to simulate arthritis.
  • This has lead to recent innovations such as the wall oven which is at a height that the user doesn’t have to stoop and bend as much and avoid imbalanced positions.
  • Boeing, the company that builds airliners, is redesigned it’s interior cabin with aging baby boomers in mind as well.
  • The interior of a plane hasn’t changed much in 20 years but now with an aging population (as well as a heavier population) companies like Boeing are giving design a second thought.
  • They are getting rid of the bi-fold lavatory door in favour of a less cumbersome sliding option, and they are designing overhead bin latches to be more intuitive. At the same time they are doing research into the materials their seats are made of to make them thinner while maintaining comfort. The result is more leg room which is even more important for a customer with limited mobility.
  • The car company Volvo is probably making some of the biggest changes however. They know with more seniors that means more people are driving at a later age. Eye movement they have conducted have shown that younger and older drivers literally see different things. For example when at a stop light  seniors focus on markings and road signs, while younger drivers focus on moving things like people and other cars.
  • Building off that research we’re starting to see cars that can sense impending collisions and even apply the brakes themselves to avoid that collision if the driver is not responding.
  • Most of these advances will not only help seniors but improve usability of the product for everyone else too.