Why are products for older people so ugly?
As the market for products aimed at older users explodes, some entrepreneurs are turning to a radical idea: actually get the customers involved.
On a drizzly Tuesday afternoon in San Francisco, people are filtering into a small conference room appointed with a whiteboard and subdued black-and-white photography. As the seats fill up around the long white table, a woman dressed mostly in red, with sparkly silver nail polish, invites everyone to her upcoming ukulele performance. A man in a blue plaid shirt passes around a container of heavily iced hot cross buns. A woman in a green turtleneck chitchats about the presidential power struggles in Venezuela. They’re here to talk about technology—a scene that should be entirely unremarkable in a city filled with small white conference rooms where people are doing exactly the same.
“Okay, everyone ready?” asks Richard Caro, the meeting’s leader, an Australian with neatly cropped silver hair, alert dark eyes, and the demeanor of a kind professor. “Let’s start with you, Lynn. You’ve got one here”—he glances down at his notes—“that says ‘hearing aids.’”
Lynn Davis, a 71-year-old retired project coordinator, says her sister-in-law recently talked about a pair of $300 hearing aids she’d bought online and loved. Excited, Davis had Googled the product, only to find a lengthy blog post that “ripped it apart.”
“Ha!” chortles the woman sitting next to her. “A piece of junk!”
The comment sparks a spirited back-and-forth about hearing aids. Caro, at 63, is one of the youngest people in the room: the average age of the 11 women and five men gathered here is somewhere in the mid-70s. A retired computer programmer says she has considered buying hearing aids that can be programmed at home. A man with an iPhone sticking out from the pocket of his flannel jacket talks about the signal-to-noise ratio. A redhead wearing a hand brace describes her stereophonic pair, which affords her surround-sound hearing.
“Wow, you’ve got the Cadillac!” one woman cracks.
“For the money,” the redhead responds, “I have the Ferrari.”
They are the Longevity Explorers, part of Caro’s experiment to improve the way technology is developed for older adults. They’ve been meeting here since 2014. Throughout most of the meeting Caro sits quietly at the head of the table, hands clasped together, and just listens. He wishes more people—especially entrepreneurs—would do the same.
Elizabeth Zelinski has a story she likes to tell. It’s about the company that made a wearable pad to prevent people from hurting their hip if they fell. “They couldn’t sell the thing,” says Zelinski, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. “Because, guess what? You know why? Nobody wants to have a big butt.”
If they had just done some user testing, she says, “they would have saved themselves from a lot of heartache.”
It’s a familiar tune to engineer Ken Smith, director of the mobility division of the Stanford Center on Longevity. He says one of the biggest mistakes designers make is to assume that around the age of 60 people lose interest in aesthetics and design. This can have dire consequences for products meant to help people with their health. No one wants to stick a golf-ball-size hearing aid the color of chewed gum in their ear, any more than they want to wear a T-shirt that reads “SENIOR CITIZEN.”
Similarly, there’s a common perception that people of a certain age simply can’t or don’t want to learn about new technologies. There is only a kind-of, sort-of, not-really kernel of scientific truth to this. Zelinski, a specialist in neuroscience and cognition, says aging causes changes to the medial temporal lobe—the part of the brain associated with new learning. And your white matter, or myelin, which helps speed the transmission of information from one brain cell to another, is going to get funky, she says. “People just need longer … they need more exposure to something to learn how to use it. It’s not that they completely lose the ability to learn.”
Experts say older adults who still work, or who spend time with younger family members who use technology, are more apt to pick it up. Also, says Zelinski, “a lot of the technology that older people are interested in has to be something that they find easy to use, that’s affordable and compelling.”
That sounds like what anyone would want. And yet the list of lousy products for older people is long. Smith describes clunky walkers, ugly canes, and institutional-looking grab bars—although he adds that he’s recently seen some cleverly disguised to look like towel racks or other household objects.
Smith’s division has helped bring to market a number of products for the older consumer, like a line of Stanford-designed shoes for people with knee arthritis. One of the options even looks like a slick running shoe, rather than a Frankensteinian orthotic.
Engaging older people in designing for older people “is a good thing,” says Smith. “Because younger people do tend to have this picture of designing things that are functional for older people, but not really understanding what makes them happy.” Presented with products that are “brown, beige, and boring,” many older people will forgo convenience for dignity.
That’s why last year, as part of an annual global design challenge he runs at Stanford, Smith brought in the Longevity Explorers so that the designers could actually meet some older people. Smith said the workshop helped—his young finalists came away thinking of older consumers as less of a stereotype, and more as individuals with heterogeneous tastes and needs.
A handful of major companies are trying to set an example by doing something similar. Design heavyweight IDEO brought on Barbara Beskind, then 89, as a designer in 2013 to help it create products for older people. Hazel McCallion, former mayor of Mississauga, Ontario, was 98 when Revera, one of Canada’s largest providers of assisted living, hired her as its chief elder officer in 2015.
But progress is incremental, perhaps because aging still gives people the heebie-jeebies.
“Unfortunately, the first thing you hear when you say ‘Well, so much of the population is aging, they’re living older’—people will say, ‘Oh my God! What are we going to do about this problem?!’” says Smith. “And you know, if you back off a step, you realize this is, like, one of the great accomplishments in human history.”
Caro has an adventurous streak—he once heli-skiied the Himalayas—but he is not brash. He gathers his thoughts before he speaks, and when he does, he uses his hands judiciously for emphasis. He’s mastered Silicon Valley Neat Casual: Button-ups under top layers that suggest athletic activity, dark jeans, an Apple watch.
He arrived in California from Melbourne, with a stop to study lasers at Oxford University as part of a doctorate in experimental physics. After a job at a pioneering laser eye surgery firm in Boston, he spent the 1990s at startups and medical-device companies in Silicon Valley and ended up going solo as a management consultant and angel investor. Then, five years ago, he decided to take on the problem that had been nagging him for years. For older people, he says, “all the existing products were ugly and stigmatizing. It just seemed there was a fertile opportunity that was being missed.”
After he’d conducted about 100 interviews with people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, one thing stood out: many of the people he met missed feeling useful. “There’s this huge demographic of people who have sort of been put aside and told to go off and play bridge and bingo and not contribute to society,” he says. Zumba and lectures were fun, but not fulfilling.
An idea took shape: Why not get people together to talk about aging and use those discussions to pinpoint problems technologists should tackle? It would be a resource for product developers, as well as giving the target audience some influence over the companies gunning for their dollars.
“We weren’t sure we could make it interesting to them so they’d want to come back,” he says. “We weren’t sure anything useful would come out of it. We weren’t sure of anything.”
It turned out to be an experiment that paid off. Today there are eight Longevity Explorer “circles,” as Caro calls them: five in Northern California and one each in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. There are about 500 members, most of whom are in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, although there are members in their 60s as well. He often gets emails from people who want to either join a group or start one, and he is gradually greenlighting circles throughout the US, run by volunteers. The circles are enabled by Caro’s company, Tech Enhanced Life, a public benefit corporation.
Circle meetings go like this: Members start by writing down topics they want to cover (like hearing aids) on sticky notes and passing them to Caro, who cycles through those suggestions before introducing a discussion topic. He uses the same topic at multiple circles, and it’s usually from a theme that has cropped up at more than one meeting. (The day I was there, the topic was “What do we do about the fact that the world seems to be shrinking around me? I’m not ready to just sit in my armchair and wait for the end.”)
Practical demonstrations are encouraged. At one point during my visit, a woman whipped out a tool she liked for opening packages (plastic clamshells are even more maddening when you have arthritis). Explorers recommend and review gadgets and digital tools—everything from ride-share apps to jar openers—and those conversations get turned into guides on techenhancedlife.com.
One of the site’s most popular pages is a roundup of toenail clippers—it turns out the difficulty bridging the distance between your hands and toes is a common side effect of gaining years. Content for older adults and their caretakers is free; a small fraction of the information deemed of more interest to companies or researchers lives behind a $45-a-month paywall.
Today the company is funded mainly by Caro, two other cofounders, and a handful of investors, but eventually Caro wants it to pay for itself. In 2017, after feedback from Explorers that they would like to weigh in on product development, not just the finished goods, he introduced “sponsored explorations”—a paid service for companies designing products for older adults. Each Explorer gets a fee, usually in the range of $100 to $500, for taking part in focus groups, information--gathering sessions, and other projects. They’ve done them with early-stage companies, venture-backed startups, and “humongous companies that everyone in the world has heard of,” Caro says. He’s evasive, though, about who those clients are and how many sponsored explorations have been conducted, saying only that the number is “more than 10 but less than 100.” The products have involved everything from robotics to fintech—and frequently, he says, the companies come away realizing that their assumptions were “completely wrong.”
Charles Mourani met Caro at a conference in Palo Alto when he was two months into building Mason Finance, a service targeted at older adults interested in selling their life insurance policies for cash—the kind of thing many turn to when they’re hit with large, unanticipated expenses, like medical bills.
Mourani’s team still hadn’t tested its product with users beyond their own parents and grandparents: “It’s not like you can just simply show up to a retirement home,” he says. So he hired the Longevity Explorers. Over the course of 2018 they ran three different projects, and the results, he says, were “eye-opening.”
Among the things that surprised Mourani was the Longevity Explorers’ proclivity for reading the terms of service. Younger users breeze through this step on most websites by simply checking a box, ignoring the text, and clicking “next.” But older users want to read the small print. A 30-second application quickly becomes 10 minutes when someone reads every single condition.
Lots of designers have had similar “aha!” moments after talking to their older users. Take Nick Baum, who created StoryWorth, a subscription app and website that allows family members to prompt each other to tell stories about themselves. Launched in 2013, the site has collected well over one million stories, Baum says, the vast majority of them from people over 60. During the early years, Baum handled a lot of the customer support himself and often fielded phone calls from older users. Once, an unanticipated problem popped up.
“We quickly ran into this case where couples were sharing an email address,” he says. “At first I thought, ‘Well, that’s crazy. Who would share an email address?’ Then I realized that 50 years ago people didn’t have cell phones, and they had a shared phone number, right? And so of course you get email—why not have shared email?” Rather than force people to change their behavior, he adjusted to allow more than one account under the same email address, so that people sharing a single email could get individual communications from the company in the same in-box.
Designing for older users doesn’t only benefit older users, says Caricia Catalani, a design director at IDEO. The company recently worked with Los Angeles County to revamp its voting machines, with an eye toward older people who were robust voters in their youth but had stopped showing up at the polls. It turned out that designing for them led to “good design decisions for everyone,” says Catalani.
Those with weak or no vision liked having audio prompts, for instance. But so did people with low literacy and young people who had never voted before, because the audio program acted as a host and guide. They also found that larger, more legible text was “desirable from everyone’s point of view,” not just for older voters with poor vision. The new machines are currently being manufactured and will be rolled out soon.
I asked Catalani if she sees companies showing more interest in incorporating the viewpoints of older adults in their design process.
“I wish that was true,” she says. While some are starting to see older people as a demographic defined by more than age, many just see “the financial opportunity,” she adds. It’s a revenue stream they may never tap if businesses continue to see their elder customers as a monolithic pocketbook instead of as individuals.
Lynn Davis—who had debunked the $300 hearing aids at the Longevity Explorers meeting I attended—first joined the group about four years ago. She’s an Apple devotee who recently learned how to use Google Docs and describes her tech aptitude as “low to middle.” But those who have worked with the Longevity Explorers know that is not exactly true of the group as a whole.
“When I’m in a room with 85-years-olds on average who all have an iPhone in their pocket, the question remains as to how representative that actually is,” says Mourani.
Caro acknowledges this. Most members are white and middle class, and many are former professionals. He describes the consulting groups as just one tool—suited to understanding early adopters, for instance, rather than all consumers. “When we have more circles in other places, we’ll be able to do even more sorts of projects,” he says.
When Davis meets me to talk about the group, she’s wearing chic purple-framed eyeglasses and guitar-pick earrings. She says she dreams of exoskeletons that will improve mobility, and cars that come on their own when you call, but for her, Longevity Explorers isn’t just about better products—it’s about better relationships. Receiving advice from, and commiserating with, her peers is a major draw.
“It’s just nice to know there’s a room full of people who also get stuck,” she says. Often, tech talk segues naturally into what she calls the “hard work” of discussing things like hospitalization and loneliness.
It’s no secret that older adults like Davis can be a boon for companies—but people I spoke to for this story told me that although businesses are eager to sell them things, they’re slow to include them in the design process.
Caro is betting this will change. He is in talks to start about 10 more circles nationwide—the beginning of what he calls a “movement”: groups all over the world where older consumers are telling developers what they want, and not the other way around. But ultimately, like the Explorer meetings, it’s not really about physical things.
“It’s about being in control of your own destiny,” he says.
Andy Wright is a writer and editor based in San Francisco.
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