I’m from Tech and I’m Here to Help You
“Age Tech” is growing fast, but is it ready for us?
Numerous articles assure me that new technology will make our lives infinitely better in our dotage. The breakthroughs include better remote monitoring of older loved ones, robot companions, reminders to take all our daily medicines, more telemedicine via computer, cheaper and more effective hearing aids, and more. The money, the entrepreneurs, and the inventors are flocking to the “Age Tech” sector, estimated to be worth $9 trillion!
This is all very exciting. What I have not yet seen is which of these wondrous tech tools ship with a 14-year-old tutor as standard equipment, to explain how to work these devices. Or failing that, manufacturers should be held to a guarantee that their wares are easy to use by those of us who are neither computer science graduates nor digital natives.
I say this as someone who gets along with most technology most of the time. That is, I am neither a Luddite nor a total technical dunderhead. I use computers to write, make spreadsheets, email, follow social media, join Zoom calls. In the past year I taught myself to record and edit audio files. I use smartphone apps to snap pictures, send texts, and listen to music, and occasionally even as a telephone. I have launched a web page or two.
On the other hand, there is some technology I will never understand and never master. I abhor the very concept of search engine optimization. I will never be on Tik Tok – not that the world will mourn the loss. And I will never be able to operate any television that requires me to use two or more remotes.
Why is some tech within my grasp and other tech outside of it? I have a theory. I believe the difference between the tech I can master and the tech I cannot has little to do with me and a lot more to do with the product design – in particular, whether it is designed so that any average adult can figure out how to use it right away. You would think this would be obvious, but apparently you would be wrong. If you have ever unboxed a tech product and tried to process the instructions, written by engineers – possibly in Bangladesh – who lack the imagination to see the world through the eyes of non-engineers, then you know what I’m talking about. To my mind, great tech is anything you can plug in, turn on, and use right away (or at least has written instructions so clear they must have been composed by a native English speaker).
I seem to have some backing for my theory. Laurie M. Orlov, founder of the influential blog Aging and Health Technology Watch, notes that “many tech offerings are still too hard to set up and use.” Many products have failed, she writes, because they were created with “inventor-centric thinking” – the notion that the technology is so dazzling that once the product launches, users will be compelled to buy. User-centric thinking, on the other hand, designs products that solve a problem or meet a need for the user. Design from this perspective also tries to make the product as easy as possible for the user to operate.
User-centric thinking also tends to emphasize customer support – not pre-written answers to frequently asked questions, but live help desks, training videos, and other valuable support. Nowhere is this support more necessary than for products designed to integrate with other common devices such as TVs and smartphones. Right now integration is particularly difficult, because there are few common standards that product designers adhere to.
It must be something like the early 1980s, when personal computers first flooded the market and the number of proprietary computer operating systems equaled the number of computer manufacturers. That changed when Apple convinced software developers to create tons of software products that only worked on Apple, and IBM entered the market like an elephant stampeding through the garden, and then there were only two competing systems. The “age tech” sector currently is still in the giant free-for-all stage, making it nigh on impossible to integrate your remote monitoring program, for example, to your smartphone.
By the way, adults 50 and older will control 51% of technology spending by 2030, according to an AARP study.
Age Tech’s Challenges
Here are some other observations from Orlov about ways that age tech needs to improve:
Privacy and security features must be built into software and website design. Scams targeting older Americans rob them of $3 billion annually.
Products designed to integrate with other devices must be either intuitive to consumers or well-supported. Support could be on-site support provided by partners, remote configuration, or both. Technologies that don’t support consumers and frustrate them don’t get widely adopted.
Upgrades must be invisible or painless. Consumers increasingly expect personalized interfaces that update in the cloud.
Smart displays and voice-first interfaces will be everywhere. Touchless technology and voice-enable interactions are easier for older adults to manage than touch screens – and likely will result in fewer frustrating missteps.
Bottom line: if technology is giving you a hard time, don’t assume it’s your fault. It may well be a product that’s not ready for prime time.
Still Seeking Retirees to Interview
For a research project, I’m looking for people who have retired within the past five years to talk about their experiences in transitioning from work to non-work (or less work). I’m also looking for people who plan to retire within three years. If you’re willing to be interviewed, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.