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10 barriers to boosting tech adoption by older adults in 2021

Access to technology is a vital sign.  Non-adoption is not an option. Post Covid-19 we have reached a technology dependency level that is worrisome (see remote hacking), problematic for young people (see social media impact), positive/negative impact on depression in older adults. But when viewed in aggregate, lack of access may be worse. Consider categories like smartphones and text messaging, voice assistants, wearables, cameras, computers, tablets, digital health, medication management, home security services, fall detection, fintech, hearables, location tracking, online shopping and more. What? You know older adults who could use a few of those categories, but likely are not. Why not? Perhaps they are worried about barriers, from A to Z: 

  • Awareness matters first and foremost. Using any one of the above tech laundry list items depends on knowing that they exist. Remember the nightmare of online-only sites for vaccine registration?  Who could have anticipated that offline older adults who would benefit most from vaccines could not register without help? This same sudden awareness of tech benefit applies to those who could only visit the doctor via a telehealth consult. Or those bank shutdowns, leaving only online banking. Or stores either close or are perpetually out of stock or lowest prices (for anything) are only online. The maxim – what you don’t know can’t hurt you – does not apply. Searching for solutions online takes practice.  Google offers tips on how to search effectively, so does LifeWire.
  • Accessibility.  For those with vision or hearing issues, technology is a life saver – whether informing a blind person of nearby obstacles, enhancing conversations over restaurant noise, and making websites more usable, etc. For those who don’t think this means them right now, just in case, check out the Accessibility sections on the Microsoft, Google, Apple site (too cute). Also Samsung or IBM offer detailed information on their websites. Some of this may be government compliance and some just good business.
  • Anxiety.  It is so often repeated by family members -- an older adult may be fearful around a new technology,  afraid something they do will break it, they won’t be able to use it, they worry about their privacy. AARP has long noted this in publications, also mentioning psychology and motivation about technology use as possible barriers. Other studies also have observed that if there is something to be gained, a benefit, older adults will overcome their anxiety and learn what they need. If technology were better designed, others say, enabling standard features and capabilities with customization options, it would be easier to overcome trepidation about trying something new.
  • Configuration Assistance. Setting up a new smartphone is time-consuming and daunting for anyone who hasn’t done it before. That’s why you see so many gloomy people waiting around to get help in phone stores. From the second the phone is turned on, there are so many steps and options, and so many nearly irreversible -- what happened to the data being ‘copied’?. Setting up a new smart speaker is not simple. As we move further into the Voice First world of smart speakers and assistants, once they are properly set up, users will hopefully then encounter the spoken question “What do you want to do?”  Device set up (see Smart Thermostat steps), navigation, usage, and understanding new features should increasingly be the standard in all tech designs that want to include the large older adult population. 
  • Out-of-the-box Startup Experience – hold the manual. For starters, the owner’s manual is long-gone from any box. And hard to find and view unless you are very motivated. Apple Support does not suggest printing the documentation (that’s so yesterday). Instead, download the user guide and view it in the Apple Books app, where you can (surprise!) also see top books, audio books and Oprah’s book guide. Or you can read CNET’s suggestions of what settings to change Right Away! So you’ve mastered the basics, but want to use Apple Pay on the watch. No problem – there’s a website to help in case you did not prefer Apple’s. In fact, the startup experience for devices and apps has spawned a revenue industry in the absence of hard-to-find manuals – tech guides funded by ads. Did the tech creators decide to make devices so hard to get started with that these sites were needed? Or was that just an unanticipated feature?
  • Customizing the Interface – good luck. The device is out of the box and powered on. Yay. If it’s a phone, then at least the device is in view. If it is a watch, that means downloading an app on the phone from the correct app store. If it is a smart speaker added to a collection, ditto for the app on the phone (or website). One might have thought that ‘Hello’ was all there was to it. Nay. Back to the watch – one must pick from free or fee-based watch faces, then add appropriately labeled ‘complications.’ That term is not a joke. You want 24-hour time, the local temperature, and a host of colorful face choices? If you don’t want to be told to Breathe, that lever is in an app. Your hands tremble from Parkinson’s – so you want to invoke voice interactions like ‘Will I need an umbrella today?’ But that may not be, uh, obvious. So that leads us to:
  • User Training – without it we’re toast. Taking full advantage of a device that is not intuitive requires customization and begs for definitions of symbols and terms. All that requires training -- lots of it. Ah, a sentimental moment – training for smartphones that were gifted in 2011. Sigh. Okay, out of the box gets the device powered up. Customizing the interface, okay, sort of done for now. But taking and uploading a photo onto ‘The Facebook’ may not jump off the non-existent manual page. Tech designers long ago gave up on intuitive, or design-for-all, or other quaint historical concepts. Easy Mode is not obvious, so users are forced to customize a screen full of wiggling and darting widgets and screens, and the need to download or buy apps that enable even the slightest change to be made. And from the day the feature wars between platforms began (not on a smartphone or watch), each new release has demanded more and more training to help users have a clue about the symbols, gestures, and arcane processes that keep online training sites huffing and puffing -- or talking tech heads on YouTube hustling to keep up.
  • Price – it adds up. What a single tech item costs may not seem like that big a deal. The Apple Watch, for example, now retails for $399-499. That price could seem like a lot to one person, or quite reasonable to another. But put it into the context of its ecosystem of piece parts. Now we start talking about real money. And you already needed to have an iPhone ($729-over $1000), The watch’s 6 months of included Apple Fitness leads to a subsequent yearly cost of $79. Apple Care (in case a device needs replacing) for $219. Wi-Fi in the home ($70/month). Clearly the cost can rise into the thousands of dollars per person. For older adults on retirement incomes, these a la carte prices can seem daunting by themselves – and further, are rarely added up at time of device purchase – and certainly are not calculated in subsequent years as devices become obsolete, break, are given away or traded in. But time flies, and one day, it begins to seem like a complicated and intimidating collection, as one study noted, interviewing older adults who became anxious, as one study participant noted: “You can have too much technology; if you've got a phone and a tablet, and a laptop and a computer, you're swimming about in it.”
  • Support -- Proliferation of devices can be a nightmare. The combination of purchases over time adds up to real money. But the combination of devices adds up to intimidation and support complexity complexity, especially if all of these devices cross the ecosystems of say, Apple, Android, Google, Amazon – and telecom carriers like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast. And did we mention car technology? Tech support may be acquired from national organizations like Geek Squad and more (Nerds on Call?). These serve small businesses as well as in-home users.
  • Zoom – a modern miracle – and its own source of intimidation. It’s amazing to have the ability to sit in front of a computer screen and see family members or old friends -- or keep up with a job from home. Zoom acquired as many as 200 million users world-wide during the Covid-19 pandemic. But there were problems (including uninvited and invading guests – leading some organizations to ban Zoom – and multiple sets of guidelines to be issued. Many issues were fixed – and Zoom lives on – a useful tool for older adults, generating yet another step-by-step guide for getting started.



Excellent job, Laurie Orlov! Your list of barriers is already a long one, suggesting that there are many innovations needed in tech. Maybe your advice will be used by our current university students in their entrepreneurial ventures! Keep up the great work.


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