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Smart phones are impossible to use -- no wonder seniors refuse

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.

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Peter wrote: "Don't hold your breath for the smart phone makers to address the needs of the senior audience anytime soon. This is exactly why Presto didn't create a smartphone experience for seniors as our follow-on product to Presto computerless email. The platforms are not conducive to a great senior experience regardless of the Apps running on them."

As a 75-year-old woman who has owned a Smartphone for six years, I might be able to shed some light on the issue.

My cell phone use averages 11 minutes per month. You read that correctly: 11 minutes per month. I feel no need to be in constant contact with anyone in the world. I can darned well wait until it is convenient for me to sit at one of my computers (two towers and one laptop) to reach out to the world. I don't even subscribe to a dataplan for my Smartphone (this is possible with the older Smartphones, but not with the newer). I find it handy to be able to carry Word, Excel, & PDF documents with me without carrying a separate PDA or other electronic device.

As an engineer, I believe that you are trying to solve a non-problem. It may be a disease of the young that they cannot cut the umbilical (in the current discussion, an electronic link) to their cohorts. Failure to use/desire/own Smartphones is not viewed, by me, as a disease of the old.

Have read many comments on smartphones. I don't find them difficult to use, just inefficient. Yes a 10 year old may be a wiz at a smartphone, but they aren't doing anything all that important and efficiency is not an issue. The MOST intuitive persons, especially in the tech field, are the 40+'rs who grew up inventing this stuff. Believe me, smartphones are not intuitive nor efficient. With my plain cell phone, when my friend Ray called, and I missed the call, upon return to the phone I would see he called, flip open the phone, press send and the call-back was made. Total of 1 flip and 1 press. With my Samsung smartphone, I have to wake up the screen, swipe to unlock, press to see recent activity, press Ray's number, press to dial. That's 5 operations. Smart phones are designed for about 90% entertainment anyhow, so I guess efficiency is not at the top of the list.

You hit the nail on the head, Michael: Smartphones are for entertainment - which many of us do not need and probably can't be sold on. I'll stick with the practical.

Laurie makes some great points in this article. Smart phones are too complicated for much of the population including seniors. Other problems that many people face, including seniors, are lack of dexterity and visual limitations. Both of these issue make the use of smart phones very difficult. As Laurie states, we really need to address the platform before we move forward with development of solutions that will rest on that platform.

As a person who falls into the Baby Boomer category, I have to say I do not agree with your thoughts on Cell phones, apps and more. I am nothing special an educator and lifelong learner, technology, including smartphone have made life easier. Seniors are much more technology literate than the earlier senior generation. Personally, I want all seniors to have access to the new technology and be trained on it. Technology opens doors to lifelong learning.

63 years old...have had 3 smartphones. Have downloaded 30 +/- apps that sounded as if they would be functional. I use only the camera and flashlight.... I suspect the same folks that design smartphones also design TV remotes. Have about 60 buttons on my remote and only use numbers/ up vol. down vol./ up channel down channel and On/Off. Will be glad when K.I.S.S. design theory comes back into vogue. ( Keep It Simple Stupid).

Not with your numbers, but with your interpretation.

I think the issue IS more "the money" than you think AND also the "styles of communication" that are engrained for many years. If we define "seniors" as anyone 60 and over (a group to which I recently joined), our world of "communications" has historically been the US Mail and the (plugged in the wall) telephone. My friends and relatives - more senior than me - much prefer to pick up the phone and call than to send an e-mail, text message, tweet or anything else. It is simply the way they have been doing so for many years. Why change?

I believe the "smart phone" adds things that most seniors simply don't need. And, if you have to pay an additional 40, 50, 60 bucks a month for a data plan on top of the basic phone bill, why waste your cash? (I also disagree that "seniors have the money.")

Personally, I have a iPod Touch and and iPad both which works on WiFi only, and a pre-pay cell phone that costs me $15 per month (the nice LG phone cost $29). I don't need anything else. I can find free WiFi just about everywhere (all my friends have a wireless network in their homes too). Oh, and yes, I still enjoy sending real birthday cards and the occasional letter by post in the US Mail.

I will grant you that the usability of many of these devices leaves much to be desired for older eyes and fingers. And, yes I have been a geek all my life and love the high tech gizmos (I run a web design and technology consulting business). But if you are motivated to learn to use the new toys, you certainly can and will. I believe many older folks have just (justifiably) figured it out that they don't need these things.

If you want to talk more about this topic, give me a call! ;-)


That came from the Pew income gap link:

"In 2009, households headed by adults ages 65 and older possessed 42% more median1 net worth (assets minus debt) than households headed by their same-aged counterparts had in 1984. During this same period, the wealth of households headed by younger adults moved in the opposite direction. In 2009, households headed by adults younger than 35 had 68% less wealth than households of their same-aged counterparts had in 1984."

In my opinion, the manufacturers should embrace the concept of the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII) where the device adapts to the profile of the user. This wouldn’t be complicated for these billion dollar companies. Initially it would be done per each device (not on a global network where it would be automatic). There would simply need to be a one-time set up the first time the user signs into the device. During this brief setup the user answers a couple of questions regarding their abilities, their wants, and their needs. The current interfaces (launcher) that we all find to be cumbersome would then be adjusted automatically to this profile. I’m not saying this would make the device intuitive for all users but it would be a step in the right direction. Currently, at my company (Good Innovators) the first thing we do with our smart devices for seniors is dump the default launcher and load a friendlier interface. We get this launcher free from the app store. We then customize the device for the user based on a user profile. Even for us, there is some complexity in the process so we can’t expect others to make these changes on their own. Our ultimate goal is to eliminate the need for a user’s guide which we still have to provide.

I've just turned 70, and I have taught and will continue to teach classes to older adults on how to deal with modern technology. As for "smart" phones, I purchased direct from Google a Nexus 4 that is state-of-the-art (by most definitions) has very simple basic phone functions, and an easy to use directory. I use a $30/month 1500 minute T-mobile plan that has (essentially) no phone internet connectivity, but I use WiFi all the time. When recommending this and other phones, I teach students to only chose the apps they need, and then I teach them app-by-app how to use them. Usually, once an individual overcomes the hesitation to dive into the first app, further learning comes much easier. Since I began teaching seniors computer skills at a community center in 2001, I have found that the fear of dealing with the "new" can easily be overcome with a good guide or mentor.

I've been teaching seniors to use iPads for 3 years.

Smartphones are not impossible to learn but it takes a special senior to do it. Most people in my classes get a tablet from their kids, "My daughter insisted."

As you can see from my blog I have learned how to move people from the purchase to getting apps. It takes 3 classes and months of work for them, or anyone to learn. There is nothing simple or intuitive about a computer unless you use it for months.

I tell my students it isn't them. They're trying to get a grain of sand to do things it was never intended to do. peace

I read your article on smart phones.  I'm 89 years old and have been on computers since 1990.  I went back to college to get my MA in Human development and Gerontology so I had to become computer literate.  This all changed my life for the better.  I also have an I Pad and smart phone which I've gradually learned how to use.  My husband on the other hand is 92 and couldn't handle any technology.  So I got him a Jitterbug which is the best and easiest cell phone invented.  He uses it all the time and is able to communicate with all his family.

Smartphones are too small for seniors. Tablets are the devices, mostly because of bigger screens, easier touch, less need of glasses. Single WIDGET in Android OS, single BUTTON in Windows 8, ICON on IOS as APP interface. Configuration is needed before deployment, small training, phone support but in my experience seniors are doing much better than expected.

I agree. I won an iPad last year. I hadn't bought one because I thought I was too old to learn anything new. Then, I sat down with it and it started to 'teach' me. This device has changed my life! Battery charge is longer than any phone. I'm able to have FaceTime chats with my son and granddaughter. Wifi is everywhere. I read magazines on it, take photos, do the NYTimes crossword, pay bills, make stock trades, etc. I seldom need my bulky laptop. A smartphone wouldn't make sense for me; I am mostly at home and have four cordless extension phones so I never have to jump up to answer the phone. At around $35 bucks a month, why would I want a phone that I have to carry around? For the car, I have a simple cell phone for emergencies at a pay-per-minute rate. A tablet, with the nice size screen (I stream movies on it) is the way to go for seniors! As far as configuration and classes, I might benefit from a class, but I used my iPad right out of the box. My ten-year-old granddaughter is a pro with her iPad mini. It truly is intuitive. Keyboard is easy and font can be enlarged for easier reading.

Well, in your case it seems you have lots of cash that allows you to scatter all kinds of devices around your home and in your car. But what about people who don't have the cash to splurge on a whole lot of devices? They'd probably like to have one good all-in-one device. I think that's what we're talking about here.

What else can be said? Totally spot on.

I have found that seniors are coming in droves to tablets. We have weekly classes regarding the usage and apps available. There is a waiting list of residents wanting to learn all the tricks of the trade. As Steve pointed out seniors lack of dexterity and visual limitations hinder usage of the smaller smart phones but the tablets are bigger and brighter and seem to be an answer for tech savvy seniors. It's not uncommon to see a group of residents sitting around using our free wi-fi connection communicating with family and friends via the internet, sharing photos of great grandchildren and watching family sporting events posted on you-tube.

Great article again Laurie, I was bummed there wasn't a punchline to that first half of that joke.

Obviously I can't argue the statistics or the way smart phones have made you feel here over the years, I can only throw out there what I've seen. Over the last 18 months here with building Cariloop and beta testing it, almost ALL of the people I sat with here in Texas were at least 50 to 55 years of age. I could tell you all sorts of stories about how inept they were with basic PC technology and terminology, but then they'd pull out an iPhone out of their purse or bag and zip right through their texts, emails, facebook, etc. like they had been doing it for years and years.

Honestly, for awhile, I didnt know what to think. Here I was trying to sell technology to them, and couldnt figure out if they had absolutely no idea what I was talking about or if they were just pretending. Agree on the comments here about the iPads, think those are definitely a way to go for seniors if the phone GUI is too small. Really hoping these numbers continue to improve!

Laurie, I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. Despite all the hoopla about simplicity, the bottom line is that smartphones are not designed for seniors. Usability, price, and relevance are critical to senior adoption and, we at GreatCall, are taking on all three of these components, starting with the Jitterbug Touch. We’ve taken the native Android home screen and, based on usability studies with seniors, customized it to optimize navigation. Now we’re addressing native apps and improving their user interfaces. Our goal is to make Android more senior friendly by focusing on real needs of our demographic and by fixing what makes using smartphones and finding apps difficult. And as we learn which apps are most popular among seniors, we will create a relevant library of ‘recommended’ apps available through shortcuts. Today, among these are three popular GreatCall apps: Urgent Care, MedCoach and 5Star Urgent Response. Our next version of the phone, to be released this year, will have more features including a larger display.

Amen to this! (I JUST go one for my husband and myself - finally. I am a tech person (for graphics programs and web design) and getting used to these phones has been a challenge, to put things mildly. I have no clue how people of "all ages" are supposed to get used to this technology!

My mother is 87 and she loves her IPhone 4. She texts, takes photos, recieves emails and videos, gets directions and searches the web. As a family, we kept mom up on the newest stuff, so when she moved from her old flip phone to the IPhone it was not only easier, it was a benefit to her ability to keep in touch at all times. She texts me when I'm at work, when she's sitting in the Dr's office, and sends me bible verses for the day. I don't understand this ageism. If you want to believe you're too old, go right ahead, but my mother isn't!

Your mother sounds like she does not struggle to keep track of new mobile technologies - good for her. However, this discussion is not 'ageist' as you claim. Rather, the discussion focuses on the need for 'devices' (in this case, mobile phones) and 'human-machine interfaces'(the operating systems that allow you to use the phone as intended) that are 'intuitive', i.e., they are easy to use and do not oblige the user to spend considerable periods of time learning how to use them. Also, the compact size and dizzying array of functions and applications on such devices require a degree of manual dexterity that many seniors no longer have, for various reasons. This is not to say that younger folks are not challenged by such issues either - they very often are in my experience!

I have neurological issues which cause trouble with anxiety and "switching gears" from one task to another.

I've decided that I want to keep my computer to for computer functions and I really only want to get phone calls on my phone. I've always had texting turned off too.

I'm probably not the only one with concentration problems who believes that smart phones can be "too much information".

You definitely are not alone Paula. I have MS & Firo which may also be a part of the problem for me (I was told a while back that "multi-tasking" is not my strong suit which I thought of when I read what you said about "switching gears".)

Having been involved with small groups of older adults testing brain games (not yet going to clinical trial due to the difficulty reported in using touch screens in general), I quite agree that the technology is not quite there yet. Even if you explain in detail how exactly a particular app works or how a particular game is played, the touch screen sensitivity for older adults is exceedingly difficult for most. I've observed that even when working with larger tablets can be equally frustrating. While there may be some older adults willing to adjust to touch screen usage, by and large it is a major obstacle in doing any large scale clinical trials until this aspect is resolved.

From our field test on different countries, we don't see people will stick to any particular device(iPhoe/PAD/PC..) and this is depend on the situation(healthy, assistant living..) and environment(home/nursing home/hospital/senior apartment..). Even we build our own device but we still looking for other devices for different kind of elderly. The reason why we build our own device is for the dementia elderly/family/caregiver at home and this is a particular situation. In general, I still never see any one device can fit all the elderly in different situation.

You're so right on, Laurie. I was having a conversation with a friend, and both our parents had struggled to use an iOS device. There's clearly a whole segment here that is being left out.

Just get us a manual already. No, really. It's hard enough when it's not intuitive. We grew up reading the instructions (or checking them afterward to see where we messed up.) It's just lazy and/or cheap to not provide one.
It's not just that - though I think in my case a manual, and better reception, and being able to fit the fool thing in my pocket, might get me to move beyond the flip phone. My 84 year old mother is likely to have other problems. She tells me that they were learning about tornado preparedness and heard that it was easier to call someone out of the area and send a text message. She's thinking of learning to text on Dad's cell phone. And later she says "My hands don't work."

I'm 70 and have moved along with the tech device evolution. My gripe is the complexification of simple elegantly efficient apps and services. As soon as an app is perfectly at my service it is "improved" or "added to" or "integrated with". If only I could keep the elegant, efficient simple app and the the so-called "better" app would be separate and chosen if I wished.


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