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For some seniors, will the digital divide ever be closed?

User interfaces are poorly designed – so a new inclusive one must be designed.  A $20 million grant just went to the University of Wisconsin to contribute to a user interface design that could help many deal with technology that has been designed without them in mind. Professor Gregg Vanderheiden says: "There are many people who, because of disability, literacy, digital literacy or aging, can't use the technologies they encounter. As a society we are designing the world out from under these people. When a person encounters something with a digital interface — a computer, Web page, TV, themostat (for the iPhone generation) -- the interface on the device or Web page instantly and automatically changes into a form that the person can understand and use."


Devices and software (upgrades) are not intuitive – so AARP provides training.  You and I know the time sunk with a new device or software tool that you have never encountered or that just changed dramatically. Those who want to connect and learn tablets and smartphones can take one of the AARP TEK training workshops either in person or online.  This is an initiative, of course, that will never be done, because a new version is ‘coming soon’ to completely upend the one you have. 


Technology designers do not understand older adults – so products are not used. The older population controls much of the wealth (and thus buying power). Apparently that is irrelevant -- the design-for-me and my cohort has been the technology industry’s mindset for years. As Paula Span’s NY Times article observes, to design for seniors means first relating to them.  That would seem to be a near-insurmountable barrier, judging from the AARP fitness tracker debacle, or from the CHCF research report on boomers and mobile health -- when Viant Capital’s Scott Smith is told by a fitness tracker exec: “You are not our core demographic.”


The Internet is not accessed by a large segment of society – proponents are baffled.  The Washington Post’s recent article sheds light on some reasons – but no clear process to remedy. Even though the Internet is the source for finding skills and jobs, for one in five, cost is the problem. For some, libraries are increasingly the solution. But training and libraries don’t tackle the underlying problem of the tech industry’s design-for-me ethos. If you go back to the actual Pew report key chart, what are the non-usage reasons, particularly for the 39% of the 65+ (the largest percentage of any age group)? "Too difficult to use" was cited – which is a problem for everybody at first tech encounter. Let’s see, you need to have access to a device; be within or visit an environment that offers a high speed connection; you need access to software; and finally, knowledge about how to use it.  If you are reading this, that is now easy for you, but maybe it was not always so. And perhaps if you are a boomer or younger, you think this won't be a problem for you, because you are already so technology with-it. Maybe that's true. Or maybe as you age, you become comfortable with a particular user interface and device. Yet the ever-innovating industry will one day mandate a transition nightmare, impacting seniors the most, that they (that is, you) won't understand and won't want. 

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