Busting The Myths About Technology For Seniors

10/10/2017 15:03

There is a sobering thought from telecoms giant Ericsson: "Technology will never move as slowly as it does today".

This is good news for companies which want to sell faster internet connections, devices which can do more things and be more connected, but what about those people who are left behind?

It's often thought that almost no-one is. Talk to social workers who look after the homeless and drug addicted and you'll learn that even those who have nothing, have a mobile phone. But there are some people who are locked out by technology.

They are those for whom technology has passed them by. It's important to remember that they are old, not stupid. It doesn't help that many of the devices designed for older people are labelled "simple" with the negative connotation that the word might have when you think of a person being simple.

The two big myths about technology for older people are that the products need to be "simple" and that the customers need to be taught to use technology.

The thing which is missing here is familiarity. It's not technology which is intrinsically difficult, it's how you understand it. I collect typewriters and took my 1930s Imperial over to my mother so that she could teach me how to set the tab stops and margins. Hand a twelve year old a cassette recorder or millennial a slide projector and they will struggle.

What older people need is technology they feel comfortable with. It's easy to think that double-tapping and swiping are "natural" but they are not. They are a learned behaviour. Indeed someone used to a mechanical world will press harder on a screen when an icon fails to react because they are used to having to force metal contacts together to make a connection. Pressing harder used to work.

There is a vicious circle of not making products older people can understand, because older people don't buy them and so the customers get left further and further behind. The chip manufacturer MediaTek produces reference designs: recipes for how to use its chips so that phone manufacturers can make products with minimal research and design. The reference design for its 'old people' phones is appalling, but the majority of Chinese factories unfortunately follow the recipe to the letter.

It is not worth most manufacturers' time in doing the raw research and developing the right solutions because the phones sell in comparatively small volumes and at very low prices. It's worth making your £200 Android phone better and different when you will sell tens of thousands, but the low volume senior phones get unwanted and confusing features like microSD card slots and dual SIM, when deeply concave buttons would be of more use to a customer with shaky fingers.

A fantastic guru on accessible technology is Ian Hosking, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge's department of engineering. He's done a lot of work on the design and technology curriculum for A level students, for mobile phone companies and the National Health Service. He says that a familiar way of providing technology for older people is through providing an operator style system they can call. There are now services available which do this and he described them to me as "spot on as everyone knows what an operator is".

It's a model we need to keep in mind technology is outpacing the familiar. Use Microsoft Word and the save icon is a 3.5inch floppy disc. I can't remember when I last saw one of these and many people reading this will have never used one. A piggy bank would be a better "save" icon.

Just as Ericsson's view promises faster moving technology, it also promises faster receding familiarity.


Uk Tech