Technology for Seniors – The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

AdobeStock_57199720-300x300Whether you’re a card-carrying member of an older generation or a younger person looking to buy a new gadget for a parent or grandparent, finding technology solutions that are functionally effective for seniors while also being aesthetically pleasing can be a major challenge.

Despite the fact that Americans in the 60-and-over age bracket are adopting technology at a faster pace than ever before, most tech designers and manufacturers are missing the boat.

Instead of collaborating with members of the target audience to design products and technology solutions that meet the needs (and wants) of this mature demographic, most tech companies fall back on delivering traditional devices and products that are at best simply clunky and at worst downright embarrassing.

The saddest part is that it doesn’t have to be this way.

If technology designers and manufacturers would just take the time to listen to the people they profess to serve, they could solve these issues easily. Until then, it’s helpful to be aware of the kinds of problems you’re likely to encounter when shopping for technology for an older person.

Mistakes technology companies make and how they affect consumers

Unfortunately, there’s no lack of things technology companies get wrong when trying to create products for older adults. These mistakes range from merely annoying to almost insulting.

Designing products no one wants

The first mistake companies make is going full steam ahead on a product without doing the relevant market research to see if anyone even wants the product. This often happens because tech entrepreneurs assume they know best. They think they have a brilliant idea, and they run with it. But if the intended users don’t like the product, they won’t buy it. If you’re selecting a product for an older family member, be careful not to waste money on something that will go unused.


Paying little (or no) attention to aesthetics

There is a tragically large number of “senior technology” products that are absolutely hideous. Though these items may have been designed with the best intentions, they fail to take the user’s sense of self-respect (never mind their sense of style) into account. The typical medical alert device is a common culprit. While technology that automatically calls for emergency assistance is a good idea, most of the devices that provide this functionality are large and ugly. They may serve the purpose for which they were built, but they also stigmatize the wearer. As a result, many people refuse to wear them. A more extreme example of this is the bulky hip protector intended to mitigate injury from falls. Again—best intentions, but not at all appealing.

Disregarding privacy concerns

Those who did not grow up immersed in the world of ubiquitous technology and social media tend to have a much lower threshold when it comes to privacy and data security. They may not understand all the technical ins and outs of how data security works, but they have very definite opinions about which information they are and are not willing to share. Bear in mind that a device or piece of software that requires the user to share a lot of personal information may not fly with an older audience.

Assuming the intended audience has the requisite tech skills

Another byproduct of growing up before the age of the internet is a lower level of fluency in the “language of technology.” Young kids today seem able to operate an iPhone without even thinking about it. Millennials grew up with technology. Even GenXers have the advantage of being exposed to technology early on in their professional lives.

Boomers and others, however, don’t have that experience to fall back on. This means that technology designs need to compensate for a lower level of familiarity. If this is a concern for you, you should look for products with simplified and streamlined features. You may also want to be sure the company provides easy-to-understand instructions, help guides, and excellent technical support.

Pigeon-holing all “seniors” into a single category

While the AARP classifies anyone over 50 as a “senior,” there can be a world of difference between someone who is 50 and someone who is 70 or 80. A lot can change in a few short years. Also, there are some 40-year-olds who have more in common with the stereotype of a senior citizen; and some 90-year-olds who go skydiving. The bottom line: no one wants to be typecast.

Unfortunately, many technology companies lump everyone over 50 into a single category and—worse—treats them more like patients than people. Tech companies who want to reach a more mature audience need to do a better job of getting to know that audience as a group of unique individuals with unique and diverse needs.

Marketing products to the children

Finally, many technology companies make the mistake of focusing all their marketing and sales efforts on the people they assume can influence an older person—children and caretakers. While this might seem to make some business sense, it overlooks the fact that seniors are not usually excited to hand off decisions about the products and devices in their homes. A piece of technology may promise peace of mind to the people worrying about a senior, but if that senior doesn’t embrace the technology, everyone will be back at square one.

A future full of seniors – technology must adapt

According to a report from the United Nations, the global population of people 65 and older is already at a historical high of more than 600 million. And this number is projected to hit a full billion by 2030, and 1.6 billion by 2050.

This makes “seniors” a force to be reckoned with.

Hopefully, technology companies will start to look at this audience in a new light. Older adults should have direct input into the development of products that are supposedly designed to make their lives easier. And technology companies should realize that they would benefit greatly from listening more closely to their intended audience. After all, seniors of all ages are the experts about how technology can fit into their lives.

Meanwhile, we can all continue shopping with a critical eye, taking all the issues into consideration when making a purchase for ourselves or for a loved one, and calling technology companies out when they come up short.

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