Income and wealth inequality are the subjects on everybody’s minds these days. Along with global warming, the gap between haves and have-nots is arguably the fundamental problem facing humanity. Equality keeps not happening, though, and one of the major drivers of the persistent division between the global north and global south is access to technology and all the information it puts at an individual’s disposal. It’s to the point that the United Nations passed a resolution in 2016 that declared internet access to be a human right, like drinking water and freedom of religion.
People have always been split between the top of the heap and the bottom of the barrel, of course. Factors like wealth, geography, social class and how many horses you could field for the king were always big drivers of inequality throughout history. What’s different now is how the fault lines have shifted to split people in new ways, based on access to the internet. People all over the world have high-speed Wi-Fi, even in Bangalore and Nairobi, but there are people in West Virginia and London who can only access the internet from a public library.
Some of this is unavoidable. Tech companies can’t be in business unless they’re always rolling out the next big thing, a streak of innovation that’s largely funded by early adopters. These are almost universally young, hip and living in an urban center like Tokyo or Toronto. By the time the new stuff is common enough for everybody to be using it, support has ended and the developers have moved on to the next big thing. In a time of rapid innovation, a natural elite develops that always has cash for the latest iPhone or cool new app, which is obsolete by the time the price drops to meet the lower rungs of the public.
One surprising gap that’s opened up as a result of this is between old and young. While children — even poor children — eventually grow up to become Silicon Valley’s most coveted consumers, seniors are often left out in the cold, technology-wise. Even the apps that allegedly cater to their specific needs — apps for mobility, health care, concierge services and even dating, for example — seem to seldom get used. Seniors who could benefit from these services are either avoiding them altogether or they’re adopting them late, in fits and starts, and then barely using them.
Pew Research found that over 40% of seniors now own smartphones, while nearly one-third have tablet computers. Still, the study found that 34% of older adults say they have no confidence in their own ability to use technology.
Probably the best explanation is that apps for seniors get developed in the same way as apps for teens: The focus is all on function, slick design and extra features. This appeals to young people, who tend to pick up quirky features fast and work around inconvenient bugs. Seniors, on the other hand, don’t have an easy time with any departure from how they’ve always done things, and all the bells and whistles of the typical app just crowd them in and make them less likely to engage.
I have seen this challenge firsthand as the founder and CTO of a company that is committed to connecting aging citizens with a home to love via a personalized experience built on industry expertise and powerful technology.
One solution is a redesign — not the apps, but the design process itself. Most tech companies beta test their new stuff with target demographics, then, if absolutely necessary, they retrofit an app to more senior-oriented features. This has been the subject of academic research, but progress has been slow.
Instead of that approach, better results can be had by involving seniors every step of the way and genuinely valuing their input. In effect, the teen-crazed tech developers have to slow down a bit in the development process and try to see their product from a different perspective — not the way hip 20-somethings in Silicon Valley will look at it, but the way a member of the target 60-something demographic will actually use the program.
Here are some other attributes developers should consider in order to make their apps/programs more senior-friendly:
• A more streamlined design, with less irrelevant clutter on the screen.
• Clearly written instructions included either on active screens or in an easily found directory.
• Fewer features, or the option to run on “slim mode” with as few confusing add-ons as possible.
• Larger icons and controls, with an emphasis put on short-gesture distances and minimal reaching and tapping.
If this bridges the age-related tech gap, it’s on the side of the angels. In the next article, we’ll take a look at several examples of developers and tech firms that are bridging this gap and are really trying to bring modern tech to the most reluctant market of all.