Every time a technology divide is crossed, a new one is created. For years, we have documented the incremental growth in Internet use among older adults. And now, 41 million (13.3%) of the 315 million US citizens are 65+. Finally Pew announces, for the first time, that 53% of that 65+ population is online. Using whatever -- it doesn't say. But hang on now, almost 70% of affluent adults own smart phones. Yippee! But when it comes to the 65+ and smart phone use, the sleeping market giant of older adults online still dozes -- only 11% of the 65+ have them. Although smart phones represent 56% of mobile phone use, senior smart phone users represent only 23% of all those mobile phone users -- and their mobile phone usage is the lowest percentage of any of their other online access methods. So why do you suppose that’s the case? It surely isn’t for lack of money – they have significantly more wealth than younger cohorts.
My take – the usability of smart phones is pitiful. I should know. I’ve had several in the past few years. And I am highly motivated to use the device, regardless of who makes it. I have pinched, swiped, pressed, zoomed, dragged icons around, tipped the device vertically and on its side. I’ve navigated to-from, here and there, and occasionally I even speak marginally well-understood instructions. I've searched blogs for tips on how to accomplish tasks. Each time, I've tried to shape the phone's apps into the set of tools that I need to be comfortable. Each newer phone has sucked hours out of my life and tested my tolerance for frustration. As my angst has grown trying to make the phone do what I want (which, so help me, is to be more like the last phone that sits broken nearby), my hands begin to shake. I curse, I search for a manual. Oh yeah, there isn’t one with this phone – but you have the option to download it if you like. Why no manual? Because the arrogant nerds who develop and review the product think that its use is, and of course you know I am not kidding, absolutely intuitive. And not just Apple. Samsung is also intuitive. And so is the new BlackBerry. They're all so intuitive -- maybe to the designer and geek reviewer who look at the device through the lens of their previous experience.
So an older adult walks into a phone store. No, this isn’t the start of a joke. The joke is the shopping experience. The sales rep’s ability to explain and demo the phone is an even bigger joke; and the biggest joke of all is on you -- after you get it home and are alone with its uncharged shiny little self. There you are, a-wishin’ and a-hopin’ that you have (as I luckily do) a calm techno-wizard in the house who has mastery of all devices, past and future. But what if I didn’t? Let’s recap: older adults have the money, but they clearly don't like this category of technology. And even down a decade from the 65+, I am willing to believe that those who have them use them, but they are as baffled and easily frustrated as I am. It is because the 'intuitive' user interface is unlabeled, undocumented, far too complicated. And it relies on an unexplained mix of gestures that only repetition makes feasible, periodically launching what you didn’t intend to launch or crashing in the middle of what you do intend. And have I even mentioned the typing experience? Or the laughable (sad) results of what I type and what others send to me? Well, forget that.
The apps, they are arriving in droves – but long before the platform is acceptable. It is a reality check that in this article about smart phones for the elderly, the best the author can do is mention a phone from Fujitsu that wasn’t even released when he wrote about it. Yet press release after press release this week and ahead of us after upcoming conferences, you will read about this health app and that, all delivered on a smart phone platform -- with some of these platform/gadgets so big that new purses and pockets will be required. Need to take your meds? See our app. Need reminders like sticky notes? See our app. From Singapore, donate your smart phone so that seniors can also have friendly apps. (Arggh!) Why these apps even have a 10 Best for seniors list! Go figure. Go forth and try them out. Good luck.