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March 13th, 2018

Aging Adults Deserve Cool Ideas

Design by its very nature should be inclusive, equalizing, and liberating. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. In no other arena do I see this prejudice played out more evidently than in the products designed for people in their later years. Objects created to keep this population happy, healthy, and safe rarely seem to accomplish any of those things.

When I first heard of the Jitterbug (a mobile phone created to enhance legibility, ease of use, and personal comfort), I thought, “What a great idea.” A phone my parent’s parents would love to use could bring new opportunities for communication, engagement, and empowerment. Instead, the end product was an antiquated, overpriced, off-brand flip phone with big buttons and an amplified earpiece. This offensively ugly device felt like a Band-Aid covering a gunshot wound.

Others felt the same and today Jitterbug (now owned by GreatCall) offers an affordable, simplified smartphone to serve seniors. By running a limited version of the Android Operating System, the GUI interface was distilled for easier use. The Doro 824 is another example of a smartphone aimed squarely at seniors. It too runs a stripped-down Android interface designed to make life easier on mature eyes, ears, and hands.

The fundamental style problem, however, still glaringly misses the mark. Both of these handsets are scooped right from the existing budget bin and carelessly rebranded. I wouldn’t be caught dead with one.

I contend that it is hubris to think a touchscreen is the only way to make a smartphone smart. Features that improve accessibility could be both sleeker and more open minded. We have an amazing opportunity to create new lines of communication between family members who struggle with advanced technology. Why major players like Apple or Samsung have chosen not to engage is a mystery.

Accessible electronics touch on only one corner of a larger design inequity regarding advancing age. With products designed to improve lifestyle or safety (hearing aids, mobility assists, or medical devices) compliance is often a key issue. Keep in mind also that these individuals must confront and accept vulnerability and need—not an easy hurdle. If encouraging compliance is the mission, then a greater level of empathy, care, and thoughtfulness is vital in the creation of these objects.

So, how do we foster change?

First, recognize that getting older does not mean the loss of a desire for style or grace. Older consumers don’t stop caring about how things look and feel. “Mom jeans” and “old man glasses” are the things we’re stuck with, not what we desire.

Older consumers should be approached just like any other client, consumer, or market. Our mission should be to make things that people love to use. An inconsiderate style makes for an inconsiderate product. If it’s worth making at all, it’s worth making beautifully.

It also might be worthwhile to examine your own feelings. In the same way that careful introspection is required to identify bias, privilege, or inequality related to race, gender, or orientation, we must do the same with our perceptions of age.

Is there any reason a “life alert” wearable device should be any less stylish than the latest fitness trackers? Why can’t a pill dispenser be as attractive as a sleek soap dish or razor holder? Even oxygen delivery presents an opportunity to make a fashion statement.

Perhaps, if we believe that people of all ages deserve to feel trendy, then important life enhancing products would have both higher compliance and a more positive effect on lifestyle.

The men and women who built our economy, shaped our culture, and fought our wars are given short shrift by products we market and sell to them. Please! No more ads of sunsets, rocking chairs, and fizzing dentures. We can do better.

Crafting physical tools to improve life may be challenging, but it is a noble undertaking. Remember, if you are young now, the time will come when someone will try to sell you “oldster” merchandise. You won’t like it. If you’re closing in on that older population, you know what I mean. Let’s aim to be active participants in the abolishment of ageism. One cool product at time.

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