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Empower the user -- product design assumptions for boomers and seniors
Socially and personally, information access empowers. BCS (once known as the British Computer Society) published an interesting report this month called "The Information Dividend: Can IT Make You Happier?" This study of 35,000 examines the relationship between access to information and the means of getting it with responders' life satisfaction. It concludes that IT has a positive impact on life satisfaction for all levels of income and other factors that are typically used to determine well-being. And the study, according to the authors, demonstrates that access to information and technology "extends the sense of freedom/control which improves well-being." Most intriguing, it found that correlation with life-satisfaction as it relates to information technology was greatest among the most disadvantaged -- that is, those with lower incomes and the least amount of education.
Technology access empowers us -- but not 'them'? Those who are reading this (including some recent blog comments about ageism) would agree that if they were cut off from any online access, if their smart phones, computers and networks were removed, they might be, at minimum, uneasy, if not miserable -- they would be suddenly 'unempowered.' So let's think about recent product designs for seniors -- whether it is computer-less e-mail, whether it is a single-purpose PERS device for emergency use, whether it is a device placed in a senior's home to reassure baby boomer children that their parents are okay, whether it is an automated phone-like device, or calling services to check on a senior. And during this ATA week, think about telehealth devices for reporting biometric status of elderly chronic disease sufferers -- these designs offer no mouse, no keyboard, and no information beyond disease-related questions at hand. All of these products are designed on an assumption:
Boomers will adapt, but mom and dad are tech-phobic and won't. Although their baby boomer children, the nurse, and the other responders are presumed to be fairly tech-literate to respond to transmitted information offered on multiple device platforms, the user -- that is the senior/care recipient/patient is deemed incapable and unwilling to do more than the single purpose device requires. And of course, designers know this because "their mother, grandmother, mother-in-law, father, uncle, etc. 'won't' use a computer or anything that resembles it" -- thus validating this anecdotal assumption -- or assumptions are confirmed by statistics that reflect the low penetration of internet and broadband access among older population groups.
But why not just think a bit about empowering the user? What if designers of caregiving technologies or inventors and marketers of products that target 'computer-phobic' seniors are actually wrong about the user? What if the (fairly low) Pew Research numbers about Internet use and broadband access among American seniors are misinterpreted as accurate inputs to product design, but are just artifacts of a society that assumes some, and therefore all, older people/patients/care recipients are tech-phobic? What if, as the BCS study demonstrates, women (the archetype for age-related products and services) gain the greatest sense of freedom and control over their lives with access to information, and therefore the oldest women would be the greatest beneficiaries in terms of well-being if they had access to IT beyond the single-purpose device or call? Perhaps the target market for PERS devices, even automatically alerting ones, are also the optimal target for a computer and an Internet connection? For an 82-year-old frail woman living alone, how about co-marketing (or even mentioning) a solution that includes the PERS device and a touch-screen laptop? Maybe HP would sell more Touch Smarts if Philips co-branded them? And for the most tech-phobic, how about suggesting a training program and follow-on product that does have a mouse and a keyboard?
In the not-so-distant future, maybe even now, chances are that one or another of these products designed on assumptions of tech-phobia will fall into the hands of someone who may have a friend or a neighbor with full Internet access and wonders why the tech-phobic person is shut out. It's just a matter of time.