Growing old with good mobile user experience


The age dynamics of the world are changing with alarming rapidity.

The potential support ratio (PSR) is a measure of the number of 15 – 64 year olds worldwide capable of supporting each of those aged over 65. In 1950, the PSR was 12:1, i.e. there were 12 younger people for every 1 person over 65. By the year 2000, the PSR had fallen to 9:1 and, by 2050 it will be 4:1 worldwide and just 2:1 in developed countries.

This was the scene set by Professor John Clarkson from the University of Cambridge’s Engineering Centree in his presentation to the Mobile Phones for the Senior Market Conference in London this week. He went on to explain how the age pyramid was rapidly inverting in countries all over the world, changing from a shape dominated by large numbers of youngsters at the bottom to one top heavy with rising numbers of elderly.

Cross-over benefits of inclusive design

He went on to explain how more than 18% of the UK population currently has at least one loss of capability, which could be anything from reduced dexterity to failing eyesight. This is a number which will inevitably grow as the country becomes increasingly elderly. However, even today, there is also significant overlap with people who don’t necessarily have a defined loss of capability, but simply find products too difficult to understand. If these people are included, more than two thirds of the British population falls into a category which could benefit from more inclusive design.

He cited an example of the coffee and tea pots developed for Scandanavian Airways (SAS). By changing the design of the pots, SAS were able to reduce the strain placed on the shoulders of cabin crew when they were pouring hot drinks for passengers. The principles used for this have now gone on to be applied to a wide range of inclusive designs, targeting both the elderly and those who simply want a better designed product.

There is no doubt a significant market opportunity for products which help to combat the signs of ageing now affecting an ever increasing percentage of the population.

Several market-specific solutions already exist

Approaches to this vary in the mobile market. The Conference heard from Arlene Harris, founder of Jitterbug, a US provider which delivers an end-to-end package of handsets, network (as an MVNO) and services for the upper age ranges of the elderly market. Her company believes strongly that better handsets do not represent a solution in themselves. Although they have worked with Samsung to develop customised handsets for the needs of seniors, they also focus on the various networked services, ranging from a phonebook which can be managed over the web by the customer’s younger family members to operator-assisted calling which ensures the user always gets through to the right person.

She painted a picture of a heavily youth-orientated mobile business in the US, where advertisements tend towards the ‘edgy’ and stores are staffed by fast-talking sales people under the age of 30. In contrast, Jitterbug sells direct and through retail partners who have a better reputation with seniors, including local pharmacies and department store Sears.

According to Harris, it is only through this combination of better marketing, high quality customer service, dedicated applications and customised hardware that the needs of seniors will ever be properly met.

Recognising cognitive differences in your target market

She spoke of some quite fundamental differences in cognitive process between those under the age of 30 and those in higher age brackets. It is her belief that people under 30 have evolved a form of thinking which mimics the internet, capable of seeing multiple webs of relationship. Those over 50 tend to think in tree and branch stuctures, while those over 70 generally think in one dimensional checklists. As a result, products targeting these customers need to be sold in a very different way.

There were also presentations from Chris Millington, Managing Director of DORO and Eveline Pupeter-Fellner, CEO of Emporia, both of which produce handsets specifically for seniors. Their products follow similar design principles, with appearance sacrificed in favour of brutal simplicity. The work they are both doing to understand the needs of seniors is admirable and their commitment to the functional requirements of these customers is self evident. However, their design also creates a self-limiting market, with the products unlikely to appeal to any but the most elderly or those who have the product forced upon them by a family member.

This tendency towards patronising design was something identified by Chris Cowpe, Non-Executive Director of Age Concern Enterprises, the commercial arm of the well-known charity, and formerly head of advertising agency DDB. While with DDB he was responsible for some of its more memorable campaigns, including the Barclaycard Commercials casting Rowan Atkinson as an unfortunate spy and the launch of BT Cellnet.

Customers as individuals and steering clear of patronising advertising

He talked about the ‘June Whitfield’ effect, referring to the ageing actress and bastion of middle class values who seems to appear in every daytime TV advertisement promoting products for the elderly. By his own admission, Cowpe – 58 – is on the cusp of this market, but made it quite clear he never wants to buy anything endorsed by Ms. Whitfield. When he looks in the mirror, he’s still convinced it is a young Keith Richards or Robert Redford staring back at him.

Cowpe told delegates 80% of the country’s wealth was controlled by the senior market. 80% of people over 60 already have mobiles, 70% over 70 have mobiles, but only 5% use them more than once per day. Based on these figures, he felt it was time to enhance the marketing, design and services offered to encourage people in this age group to actually want to use their phones and use them for something genuinely useful.

Opportunity for value-added services

He picked up on a theme identified earlier in the day by Arlene Harris, referring to the opportunity for additional value-added services beyond voice and text. Harris had already told us that 20% of most developed nations’ GDP goes towards healthcare, particularly in the later stages of life, and that she felt automated, remote healthcare applications represented a huge opportunity.

While this seems unlikely to happen while the handsets designed for seniors continue to offer such basic and closed architectures, it is clear people are starting to think about what kind of additional services might be possible once that landscape changes. In particular, there might be interesting possibilities to shift the payment model for getting devices into the hands of elderly customers, with healthcare providers or other entities with a public service remit underwriting the cost because they deliver significant lifestyle benefits.

The new elderly

Returning to his central point about the ‘new generation’ of older customers, Cowpe also identified the huge opportunity in providing products to those currently in the 40 – 60 range, who over the next few years will start to experience some of the first signs of ageing. They will want products which maintain their individual style and functional preferences, but will favour those which can subtly assist them as they overcome those early problems of slightly reduced dexterity, worsening eyesight and gradual hearing impairment.

Resources for inclusive design

Professor Clarkson’s team at Cambridge have been working on a freely available inclusive design toolkit which allows designers to simulate the gradual advancing of years, showing how a particular interface might look to someone with various eyesight impairments or at different stages of hearing loss. It is well worth investigating.

Although I wasn’t able to stay for the full day, the event provided valuable insight into the needs of numerous customer groups. It also served to reinforce one of the central principles we apply to our consulting and research work at MEX – we must recognise every customer as an individual. While the term ‘senior’ is a useful banner for a general call-to-action, there really is no such thing as an ‘average’ elderly person representative of this market. Every person will find age comes to them in a different way and they will have different needs and different levels of support available to them. The companies which succeed in this area will be those who see beyond the badge of ‘senior’ and recognise the other usage preferences which make us who we are.


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