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Design for all – what we wanted and what we got

Here’s a test. Can you look at a list, for example, of technologies that vendor websites claim are aimed at older adults and their caregivers -- and substitute younger beneficiaries or health care recipients?  Do designers who develop applications, devices, and websites that appear to target older adults do that exercise of substitution as they proceed from concept to pilot to delivered offering? Was that what was meant in the concept ‘design for all’ in this prescient report ‘Connected Living for Social Aging’ sponsored by AARP in 2011?  Per the report’s definition of ‘Design for all’: User experiences that appeal to all age groups, persisting across versions and devices 

What does senior-specific mean? We can tell that app stores and search engines think they know what is meant by ‘senior-specific’. Note the proliferation of apps and websites targeting seniors, and wonder, has the ‘design for all’ concept lost meaning or relevance? Now that user interfaces (think cars, chairs or smartphone screens) can be adaptive/adjustable to the needs of owners from use of a different key in the car or tap on a screen, why create specialized software at all?

Consider further the definition itself. Should ‘design for all’ mean for all people, for all devices or both, as the report argued? Consider this phrase from the report: “design-for-all technologies will provide our own personalized network of devices that recognize where they are through our authorized and turned-on GPS location tracking; they automatically know streets have changed and offer the latest directions—no need to download new maps.”  Not easy in 2011, but standard operating procedure today, along with privacy concerns and transformation (not necessarily with our permission) of user preferences into data, along with product and service recommendations.

The advice to vendors from the 2011 report -- did we get what we wanted? Below are the points of advice to vendors derived from 30 interviewees for this document who ranged from academic experts to CEOs to futurists. The guidance was pointed, but was the point achieved?  Thoughts welcome!

  • Transform senior technology products to be health-specific.  A design-for-all world will gradually eliminate the need for niche vendors who market software, hardware, devices for a senior audience. Instead, vendors will create health condition-specific offerings for chronic disease management or assistive technologies that cross all age ranges.

Takeaway: Niche offerings for seniors remain because the ‘intuitive’ user interface isn’t really and no one wants to be made to feel stupid.

  • Separate user interfaces from physical devices. Software version changes, new functionality and invasive viruses plague us. If the computer is infected, as prices drop we may be as likely to discard it as repair it, in the same way we send our now-obsolete cell phones into the recycle bin when we discover the smart phone carried by our peers and family members. In the future, we will pop on a new external ‘skin’ and pay to subscribe to new features as they appear in the cloud, our existing device adapting to new capabilities rather than starting over.

Takeaway: Popping on a new skin (either outside the device or within the software) is quite easy.  Paying for new features? For all of the 'free' software where we are the product, many might appreciate a paid version in which the software is the product and users can go back to being, well, users. 

  • Craft a total customer experience that blends online and offline worlds.  Just as customers today expect to be able to chat online if they have a problem, they delight in vendor experiences that are as great online as they are offline.

Takeaway: Online retail has made the transformation nearly complete, as more stores close, or buy online to pick up in the store replaces shopping.  Chatting with a bot, unfortunately, has replaced discussing a product with a person, and customer experience has deteriorated, replaced by (retailer) cost reduction.

  • Create public-private partnerships to lower cost of connection.  With more widely available high-speed infrastructure, vendors will benefit from sliding scales of access pricing, facilitated by partnerships with governments and non-profits.  Why should they want older adults online, subsidizing to make it happen? They want to lower their costs of service, ensure that programs offered can be utilized, and keep an aging population connected to alternatives for better health, working, and social meaning. 

Takeaway: Much has been done, but according to Pew, 27% of the 65+ population is not online – theories range from cost, perceived value, and a correlation with lower income and education.  And technology deployment is more complicated as devices proliferate – which created more comprehensive training capabilities.

  • Understand that design-for-all means experienced by all.  To reach a broader audience across income and age spectrums, vendors must expand programs that reuse no-longer-need devices, formalizing and advertising ways to enable iPads to be reconfigured for community and senior center use, laptops to replace desktops, and smartphones to replace cell phones. And Pew Research studies show that smart phone users, particularly older adults, download apps that they don’t use because they don’t know how.

Takeaway:  Re-use and redeployment has happened – as for apps, they are a-plenty, including scam apps.

  • Engage with older adults to turn bystanders into buyers.  Too often market research can be self-fulfilling prophecy. The data shows us that certain age groups aren’t buying -- therefore we shouldn’t market to those age groups. Instead, vendors should assume the opposite – go out and find why products aren’t penetrating specific age brackets and learn about barriers or missing capabilities. Using input from all age groups will expand market reach – yielding benefits for all.

Takeaway:  Considering design, including tech, awareness of an aging population is growing as the boomer age wave moves through. But senior-friendly design and testing of general market consumer products (not just tech) is under the radar, if it is happening at all.


Companies that are trying to produce or sell products and services to the elder market need to stop relying on what their “young” employees and consultants are telling them and get their advice from some real “elders” and then listen closely to what we have to say. 


What they are doing now does not seem be working so well. So what have they got to lose?


Laurie Orlov always writes thoughtful blog articles and this one on design for aging or hashtag#longevity markets is no different, but the situation is even more woeful than she suggests. Not only is hashtag#technology and solution design poor or non-existent for older adults but in many cases, we are going backward by trying to envelope huge swathes of people without thinking of their particular needs. For example Boomers in the US are a 77 million population with incredible diversity! How can we, therefore, better educate startups and innovators to appreciate how to best tackle this challenge intelligently?

Perhaps we should start to create a curated list of poor or sub-optimal design for older adults (or ones that are just plain embarrassing) as examples to ideators and entrepreneurs to avoid!

Great article! Though, I think many of us are missing the point. We continue to harp on bad design, poor design, and all the challenges of designing for seniors, without suggesting something in its spot. It's like giving someone feedback, without offering any suggestion for next time. What really needs to happen, is for someone to take a shot at creating guideline/framework for designing for older adults. Something that every senior care company could standardize on, very similar to NIST controls. There may be research that is out there already that could help to lay the groundwork for something like this. I believe that only talking about the negative parts of existing designs isn't beneficial, there must be a metric or something to compare it to that everyone can be standardized on.  If we want more people (young and old) working in this space, we have to be more positive and think about standardization or frameworks to build technologies that are beneficial.

It could be that a "questions to ask" list would be helpful, but Jon's earlier comment about the wild diversity among older people is well taken. How could one develop a standard that could meet the needs of people who might vary in age by 50 years and who have a wide (and perhaps changing) set of capabilities, preferences and needs? It seems to me that a use-case scenario such as major industrial design firms use might be beneficial.