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Smartphone Makers: Don’t Leave the Elderly Behind

They may not make up the sexiest market segment. But don’t forget Grandma and Grandpa!
February 28, 2013

AllThingsD reports that Fujitsu is pitching an Android phone it’s calling the Stylistic, aimed at the “mature consumer” (read: old folks). Technology for the elderly may not be the sexiest topic, and seniors in general may not be the coolest demographic, but technology companies should be doing more of this. There may or may not be a business case for laving R&D on seniors, but if nothing else, it’s the right thing to do, and could inspire a kind of generational trickle-down brand loyalty to the sons, daughters, and grandkids who would buy these products.

I recently went on a cruise, where iPads seemed to be a hit with the retiree demographic (which, it turns out, makes up the majority of a cruise). I saw at least one cruiser in the sun on the Lido deck, sporting a copy of a book called The iPad for Seniors. “My son gave it to me!” “My daughter gave it to me!” These were common exclamations overheard from seniors with iPads.

Call them late adopters—those brave enough to adopt at all, so late in life. But there was a selection mechanism at work here. These seniors had iPads, I suspected, because their kids and grandkids had already deemed them tech-savvy enough, or apt enough pupils, to learn the machine. I’ve seriously weighed the question of whether my grandmother—who admittedly falls on the extreme Luddite side of the scale, even for a 90-year-old—would be able to use an iPad or iPhone. Even though her face lights up a little when we explain to her how it could help keep her connected with her family, she fumbles with an iPhone when we have her hold one. There’s too many icons; they’re too small. The OS is unforgiving of stray, accidental inputs.

The whole thing, while famously and decidedly simple for someone with an average understanding of technology, simply doesn’t cut it for someone like my grandma. As a result, she, and other seniors like her, are left behind.

Kudos to the companies AllThingsD reports on who are making smartphone experiences custom-tailored for our less hip, elderly loved ones. Kyocera, too, is touting such a device, called the Mi-Look. “Available in Japan,” informs the site, “the basic cellphone is designed for senior citizens living alone, and includes a number of monitoring features for family members.” Even just to judge from the photographs in the AllThingsD post, I can instantly see that my Grammy would have a much easier time with either of these devices (setting aside the wee hurdle of her not knowing Japanese, with the Mi-Look).

The last company the post calls attention to is one called Emporia Telecom, which specializes in products for “first-time mobile phone customers,” per Emporia’s site. A typical product offers one-click picture taking and a “Call for Care emergency button.”

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to wonder why companies wouldn’t pour a lot of money into R&D for the elderly. They’re a market segment on the way out, after all. And the next generation of the elderly will have not been elderly when touchscreen mobile devices were introduced. They’ll be dyed-in-the-wool iOS pros.

Having said that, I think even the big guns like Apple, Google, and Microsoft should be dedicating more resources to designing products specifically for the elderly. If Apple were to release an iPhone specifically for seniors, I’d buy one for my grandmother in an instant—and would be a more loyal Apple customer for it. Furthermore, it seems possible that when designing extremely simple products for the elderly, some of the design innovations companies might happen upon could turn out to be useful in mass market devices, too.

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