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Aging in Place Technology Watch May 2011 Newsletter

Age before beauty -- how about plain old tech design usability?  Palo Alto pundits pondered SRI's 2011 'Ten Tech Trends' this week. Fortunately for the cynical among the non-attendees, a transcript was provided.  "Trend # 1 -- Age Before Beauty -- Baby Boomers will dictate the technology products of the future."  Hmm. Arguments for having more tech designed specifically for older adults included referencing the big-buttoned Jitterbug phone and the fact that the whole country will soon be like Florida (population? weather forecast?). Supporter panelist Steve Jurvetson made the case for more age-inspired entrepreneurship, but Ajay Senkut from Clarium Capital objected (along with the attendees) and said that boomers and beyond would buy and use technology that is well-designed for all. The flip-side of this trend should have been discussed and wasn't -- why is so much tech disproportionately designed for the young and then surprises vendors (see Kindle, see iPad) when it is used by older adults? To me, this element of surprising vendors with adoption trends speaks of inadequate market research and pre-launch analysis. 

Emergency response systems appear on smart phones.  The PERS market has been comparatively unchanged, lo, these many, many years -- wearable devices with average age user in their late 70's, 80's and beyond. But PERS devices have also been whined about --'seniors don't want to wear them, they are bought after an incident, they're generally not mobile-enabled and left at home' -- blah, blah, blah.  Along come some smart phone PERS applications -- Guardly, vSOS, BuddyGuard, and others -- for $9.99/month, linking to a call center when you press the (app) button on the phone. So I asked three PERS industry veterans to comment. They bit my e-mail head off quite quickly about smart phone pitfalls, pun intended: "opening the phone while having a stroke or heart attack or a dangerous fall that challenges physical & mental coordination", "seniors don't have smart phones", and "women keep them in their purse and couldn't reach them if they fall".  These reactions are troubling: why wouldn't vendors want to offer a smart phone application anyway, just in case someone among a younger age range would like to buy it?  MobileHelp, ActiveCare, and the evaporated Wellcore PERS offering (which in my opinion did not evaporate because it was mobile) all launched on the premise that seniors' mobility matters. Absolutely. Seniors will buy smart phones. Phones will be more usable. There is no stigma associated with having a phone nearby. So how can being a part of the smart phone app groundswell be harmful to the PERS industry? Speculation is welcome.

Do versus view -- media consumption devices with bad keyboards.  Swiping and poking at smart phones  narrowly missing potholes and manholes, and now with an iPad and BlackBerry Playbook in the house as well, I am struck by a tremendous and really horrendous change underway. The wonders of multi-touch not withstanding, we are turning into terse-typing viewers of messages from others, really more media consumers than communicators, game players where the game just requires a few letters or touch.  I'd sooner shoot myself than type the above two paragraphs on an iPad's or Playbook's keyboard -- inserting numbers, links or punctuation, not to mention switching windows, it's exhausting.  And nobody seems to expect to write a lot on these devices. So once again in the history of technology, we are back to predominantly read-only devices that stymie our voices and turn us into punctuation-free apologists when we do type, trailing our truncated missives with "sent from my XYZ handheld" as though that is a good excuse for sounding semi-literate or worse.

And from prior blog posts:

Older adults will rapidly become ‘immersed’ in multi-media, multi-devices. Whether it is Facebook, Google Talk, playing a multi-player game, or commenting on a newspaper column, we are moving inside a garden of interaction modes -- of engaging with children, grandchildren, and people we haven’t seen in years. The pace of entrance into this garden is accelerating and one day we will look back and notice that it mirrors other groundswells of uptake from our past. Remember when folks didn’t want to put their credit card online?  Now we just want to keep our IDs from being stolen and shared on the street. The so-called digital divide that is keeping some seniors out of this garden is preventing them from accessing a host of benefits – including benefits themselves. Has anyone noticed how so many organizations offer a discount for transactions done online and that Social Security just stopped sending paper checks?

What does keep vendors in the market and surviving – even in a downturn? For products that must be explained, understood, supported, installed, and explained again, vendors need channels with tentacles that reach all the way into hands of the end user, caregiver, or adult children. These channels can be referring, requiring little or no investment other than suggesting the product – like geriatric care managers, social services, or doctors. They are local by definition, reached by calling on them or demonstrating at trade events. Once a vendor has established a track record of installed and satisfied customers, partnerships are possible, like relationship agreements with big senior housing, healthcare providers or large carriers – like Verizon or AT&T. These partnership agreements amplify and enhance: even if the relationship results in few deployed or sold-through units, each builds on the ability to gain the next and the next, ultimately with a partner that commits to utilizing the products. They can include dealer/reseller channels, that is, small businesses who understand the senior cohort (versus the home theater customer) and can go the distance of the last 50 feet into the older adult’s home to survey the environment, install and support.

Hype alert -- for senior housing residents -- iPads may both amaze and confound.  Caution -- this is not a review, even though I have a brightly lit iPad next to me as I write this text on a PC. I still love my PC because I've become fond its high feedback QWERTY keyboard with its easy-to-find punctuation, mouse access to grabbing text and URLs easily, and other conveniences that have rather grown on me over the years.  I admit to loving the iPad for reading a book, as a home music streamer, watching a movie on a plane, looking at my street from a satellite, and examining news sites.  But this is not about me. This is about the use of an iPad in senior housing settings. For example, check out this video made by a Colorado news station (warning -- it's Flash, for you iPadders) that shows an iPad tutorial for the over-88 senior housing residents -- which I just watched for the third time.

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*** And if you or your organization would like more guidance in any of these areas, learn more about Aging in Place Technology Watch offers of retainer-based services.***

Hope to see you soon at one place or the other (noted on the home page as well).

All the best!



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Hi Laurie. Thanks for including Guardly in your post. We're not all that surprised to hear that the industry pundits you reached out to dismissed the use of smartphones as the delivery vehicle for a personal safety service. As you correctly state, seniors are buying, and will continue to buy these types of devices. The smartphone market is growing significantly faster then the "dumb" phone market and seniors are a big part of that growth. Baby Boomers are accustomed to using these types of phones and they'll continue to rely on their iPhone and BlackBerry as they age.

If you're a senior and you're ready this post, we'd love you to visit http://www.guardly.com and download our new personal safety service. Your comments and feedback will be of great value as we continue to evolve and improve our product. Thanks!

Laurie, to comment on the Age before Beauty segment....

I've pondered the youth-favoritism in the tech sector as well. As one who has often worked along side designers, I can tell you the creators of the technology often begin with themselves in mind. There is an invisible standard of "normal" from which they start designing something new. If the research and product development cycle supports it, consideration for accessibility, diverse user demographics and varying skill levels may be taken into account. But if the product is moving fast enough and is "hot" enough, those will be ignored or minimized. It's just too easy to get to market and make money off of young people who don't present barriers. Those who aren't ready adopters are often treated with a sigh.... "If they could just catch up." I'm not sure if this problem is getting better or worse. I'd like to think that some newer technology (like touch interfaces on smart phones and tablet-based computers like the iPad) will make this better. Yet, the tech sector is constantly trying to one-up itself, leading to little consistency (from vendor to vendor, and often with varying versions of products from the same vendor) for end users. While Ajay's comment is well intentioned -- well-designed technology should serve anyone/everyone -- computer thinkers (like Ted Nelson) have been saying such for a long time and yet we still find ourselves with these dilemmas.

Hopefully, the sheer number of baby boomers and seniors engaging technology will cause designers and vendors to correct course. It may also help when the current generation of young technology designers grows up a little.