Director, Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Royal College of Art
More than 14 million people in the UK can be termed 'digitally excluded' and the majority of these are older people. Many have never had access to a computer or a smartphone during their working lives and cannot justify the costs of buying a piece of digital technology or the complications of learning to use one in later life.
This means that many older people are missing out on the benefits of being online in terms of information and services, many of which are less expensive if purchased over the web. Therefore a key challenge for service developers and providers in an ageing society is to find new ways to design for digital inclusion. But despite the clear nature of this digital design challenge, many technology companies are today making the same mistakes in terms of understanding the real needs of the older user that hardware manufacturers made 25 years ago.
How to access and use digital services is not made sufficiently clear, there are too many options and features, and both sensory and cognitive abilities already affected by ageing are placed under further strain. Cognitive understanding of digital technology, which is typically designed by young engineers with little understanding of later life needs, is a particular issue for concern.
Older people raised in an era of light switches and wireless sets have a different mental model from today's digitally connected consumers, who have grown up with new technology and interact with it in a very different way. Many older people take an 'analogue' approach to devices; they understand the simplicity of single action and single effect - flick a light switch and the light comes on, turn a knob and the radio comes on and the more you turn, the louder the volume. They struggle with a mental model which demands multiple actions before an effect - in other words, which demands that they scroll down a menu, select, double click, scroll down a second menu, select again, double click and then something happens.
Many digital way of thinking just don't feel right for older people. It is not that they are Luddite – they have been adapting to technological change in various forms throughout their long lives – it is simply that they find the mental models of the digital era hard to grasp for perfectly understandable reasons. It does come down to the divide between 'digital immigrants' and 'digital natives', but there are simple solutions to the problem.
At the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, we have been looking closely at this issue and working with a number leading digital players in the field to find ways forward. Two important things need to be considered. First, designers should look for more intuitive and age-friendly ways to communicate how digital technology works, perhaps using analogue metaphors and devices. Second, they should actively involve older people as partners and collaborators in a co-design process, and stop treating them as passive consumers or research subjects.
For example, during an international design challenge we organised with the Norwegian Design Council, one team worked closely with an older Oslo resident to address her problems with sending and receiving texts. As a result, the designers experimented with creating an electronic 'chalkboard' to transfer data on a mobile phone to a much larger, more intuitive visual interface that is more easily understood and more easily used by older people with memories of the traditional classroom setting. You just place the mobile phone on the digital device and the 'chalkboard' automatically lights up.
In a similar vein, our research team worked on a project with Samsung to understand the problems that older people have in setting up a smartphone – the troublesome 'out of the box' experience fumbling with SIM card, battery and charger. Creative workshops were set up in three European locations to involve senior citizens in creating solutions, by decorating bananas with stickers. The design solution that eventually emerged from the research involved the use of a hardback 'storybook' that contains the SIM card and battery within its pages and leads the older user through an understandable narrative to set up the phone.
In both cases I have described, pre-digital archetypes of communication were aimed at achieving digital inclusion - and older people were directly engaged in a co-design process to find creative new ways to overcome the digital divide. I believe that if we want more of our older citizens to enjoy the social and economic benefits of being online, we need to find more effective and sensible ways of thinking to get them there.
6 January 2012