Age is an Opportunity

I have once again read an excellent article by Ms. Judy Siegel. The title of her article relates to the use of activity trackers in older adults. She describes the value of these devices and issues that arise from the use of data collection tools, geared towards the elderly population.

As the baby boomers age past 65, they still stand a significant chance of benefiting from new technologies that will extend their life spans. Unfortunately, key technologies to cure diseases like diabetes, Parkinson’s, heart disease and others, are still lagging. These cures will come. But the question is when.

Considering that this aging baby boomer market is so huge, it really is a surprise that  relatively little directed technology for the elderly has been designed. There are apps that offer bigger buttons for people with poor eyesight or a hand tremor. But a real focus on the interests of the elderly still seems to be missing.

One way to identify such interests is to ask the older population what they want. Unfortunately, people may often not appreciate what they do not have, until it is created. Once upon a time, many centuries ago, people functioned  with simple cell phones rather than Apple iPhones. Yes, it was a trying period and probably at least one of the causes for the dinosaurs going extinct. But it seems to be that it was only the unique vision of Steve Jobs that identified the market for the iPhone.

What the world basically needs is a Steve Jobs for the aging baby boomer market. I am personally surprised that no such person has presented him or herself. There is a gold mine of knowledge and experience in people beyond the age of 65. The actual age of 65 being considered old enough to retire is effectively an historical gaffe, and should be changed as soon as possible.

In addition, there are those over 65 who have amassed a significant cache of funds. It strikes me that a group of former financial wizards could pull together the funds to be used by former top-level engineers to design killer applications for baby boomers. Such a group of individuals would be far more sensitive to the subtle difficulties that older users face on a day-to-day basis, when interacting with technology.

I will give a simple and very personal example. My father-in-law is a brilliant gentleman who is both a member of the American Bar Association as well as an ordained Orthodox rabbi. He still learns religious studies on a regular basis and is up to date on the news and family events. On his most recent visit to Israel, he wanted to access his email in order to read his incoming posts and then respond to them.

The first obvious problem was the overabundance of icons that, at my computer’s resolution, were very small to see. For example, there were four ways on the screen for my father-in-law to open his email account. He asked a legitimate question, “why do you need so many”. I really didn’t have a good answer. I can imagine that the designers of the webpage wanted to place a mail icon in any location that a person might look. But rather than assist my father-in-law, it only confused him.

I simply cannot believe that there isn’t a website designer out there, who is over the age of 60, who could not design a far cleaner and more self-explanatory interface than the one my father-in-law was using. Voice commands are no longer a stranger to browsers. So, it would be very legitimate to include the option for voice commands to be used by an older population. I recently heard of a startup that can track the voice changes in a person with Parkinson’s disease, and then compensate for them as time goes by. Imagine such a tool being integrated into every browser on the market. For any individual with voice difficulties, such technology could be totally liberating.

I can easily imagine my father-in-law speaking the command “computer, open email”. And I can also imagine him using equivalent voice commands for almost all activities, including voice to text for writing the contents of the emails. Ev0en if the interface would regularly pop up a validation question such as “are you sure you want to send this email now”, this would be a small price to pay for the overall simplification and liberation of the email experience.

Needless to say, the same issues arise with all types of computer interactions. Facebook is a marvelous tool for keeping in touch with friends. I would expect almost every individual over 65 to be using Facebook in order to keep in contact with friends who may have moved far away. As people age, they tend to lose friends to many reasons. Keeping in contact with the friends who are still active would likely solve a great deal of the loneliness issues that elderly individuals face. But I have also personally seen older people struggle with the Facebook interface. If you find yourself saying, “granddad, just click on the close window button”, then it is already clear that you are speaking a language that your grandfather [who may actually speak 10 languages] has never heard.

So, Facebook also needs an overhaul. Whether it is simply stripping the page of distracting images and reducing the most common functions to large buttons, there is unquestionably a need to modify even this popular website for the elderly. And no one can understand what modifications are needed more than the elderly themselves.

I hope that the major software companies will eventually realize that they should be hosting entire teams of older highly trained developers and designers and engineers and advertisers, all in order to address a part of the population that is consistently ignored. And as I noted above, if individuals within this population have the funds, then don’t wait for the “big boys” to wake up. Do it yourselves and do it better than anyone else.

Thanks for listening

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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