Oct 22, 2018
Work with Me: Why Good Technologies for Older Adults Falter
By Margaret Franckhauser, MS, MPH President and CEO, NextFifty Initiative
At 82, my neighbor John was living alone and receiving treatment for lung cancer. The treatment affected his nervous system so his balance and coordination were impaired. He was at great risk of falling and injuring himself.
His daughter, an experienced nurse, secured a fall alert system for his home – the kind that had a base unit connected via Bluetooth to a device he was supposed to wear. The concept was this: he was to wear the device around his neck and press the button to summon emergency help if he needed it. Nice in theory; failure in real life.
Eventually John did fall, but the device he was supposed to wear was sitting on top of his dresser. He laid on the floor for hours before someone found him.
His daughter scolded him when she arrived at the hospital. Why didn’t he wear that incredibly useful device she set up? What was he thinking? His answer, “It makes me feel old and helpless. I don’t like feeling old and helpless.” John is not alone. Thousands of well-conceived technologies, purchased by loving and caring caretakers to keep their loved ones safe, go unused. They decorate dresser tops across the nation.
And that is the tip of the iceberg. Lots of theoretically great technologies sit idle because product designers don’t think to engage actual users in the design phase. When the product comes to market, some are purchased by well-intentioned family members, but often the product never hits sales targets or meets the utility goals the designers envisioned. Why is this? A common reason is what John shared – some devices scream, “I am old and frail.” This may come as a surprise to innovators, but even people who are undeniably old and frail do not want to be viewed that way.
There is no question that the “longevity economy” – the portion of the economy generated by the activities of Americans age 50 and older, is huge. AARP reports that it represents at least $7.1 trillion in current annual economic activity and is growing steadily. Every day, more people enter that economy, and that is great news for innovators. As a group though, older Americans want their purchases to reflect their changing interests. They don’t dislike innovative technologies, but they want them to reflect an understanding of their capacities and preferences. For example, when I look at my smartphone, I am convinced that some app designers have failed to recognize the user community (myself included) whose near vision has diminished with age. I simply cannot see well enough to read some app screens, and I won’t spend my time fiddling with an app to make someone else’s technology work for me. I just move on until I find an app I can actually see and use. And I am not alone.
The longevity economy holds great opportunity for innovators because older adults develop needs they didn’t have in their younger years, and they are willing to spend money to meet those needs. Promising ideas have a chance. But innovations need to work for older adults in order to be successful. They have to demonstrate utility without labeling the user as frail or incapable. The only way to know if an idea really resonates with older adults is to test the concept with older adults...not their children or professionals who work with them, actual older adults.
Ask the right people. Ask the right questions.
Unsurprisingly, they will tell you when they can’t read the font size, that a device makes them feel stupid, that an innovation causes feature fatigue or isn’t cool enough. They tend to prefer recognized devices modified for new uses rather than new, unrecognizable designs. If that safety alert technology John’s daughter set up had been embedded in a watch, I think he would be more likely to have worn it; he wore a watch every day his entire adult life.
For innovators wanting to score a hit in the longevity economy, I suggest you make friends with older adults, engage them in the design phase and test concepts with them and their colleagues. It’s the research and development phase that cannot be ignored. Most will be delighted to participate, and they will offer sincere feedback and offer solid suggestions. Taking their advice will help move a good idea from the top of the bedroom dresser and put it into meaningful use.
NextFifty Initiative is an independent, Colorado-based, nonprofit organization that was formed to create brighter, longer and healthier futures that unlock the potential of communities. NextFifty Initiative has an advanced grant making approach designed to support concepts, projects and innovations that will benefit generations for years to come.
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