Seniors Are Where The Tech Money Is

“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” Twenty years ago, those seven words (the infamous tagline of the Life Alert emergency device) launched senior citizens into the world of gadgets and mobile devices, a world for which neither side was well prepared. For the benefit of our younger readers, Life Alert is a bracelet or necklace that features a panic button of sorts. If you’re in trouble (a heart attack, a broken hip, or otherwise can’t reach a telephone), Life Alert dials the company’s emergency hotline to connect you with someone directly through the device. Life Alert can then dispatch an ambulance, fire department, or police as needed. Think of it as OnStar without the car. Life Alert isn’t just the butt of innumerable pop culture jokes—it’s big business and still going strong. The company now has more than 80,000 customers and claims to have saved over 13,000 lives in 2007 alone. Try that with your iPhone! Finally the broader mobile gadget industry is starting to realize there might be more to this trend than just offering devices for those at risk of critical injury: Why shouldn’t all retirees have their own gadgets? Bigger buttons. Brighter screens. Not too complicated. It’s amazing, really, that it’s taken this long for the industry to take notice of the market. Seniors make up one of the fastest growing demographic segments of the U.S.: More than 21.9 million people are aged 65 and up, reflecting a 6.2 percent growth since 2000. Another 9.4 million people will hit retirement age in the next five years. And so gadgets are becoming more “senior friendly.” Perhaps the most notable is the recently released Jitterbug series of cell phones, which feature big, bright screens, loud speakers, and enormous backlit buttons (and virtually no “extra” ones beyond the number keys). More important, all the monkey business of extra applications and features, such as cameras, music, and GPS, are ejected. Jitterbug makes phone calls, and that’s it. The even-simpler Jitterbug OneTouch doesn’t even have number keys: You get three presets you can dial, one of which is a Life Alert–like emergency line. Other gadgets are also dabbling in this kind of simplicity. The Samsung Knack is a cell phone with big buttons, TTY capabilities, and integrated support for hearing aids. The Peek is a stripped-down BlackBerry for users too put-off by the complexity of most smart phones; it sends and receives e-mail, and that’s it. The Celery system takes simplicity to an extreme. It lets the computer-phobic hand-write e-mail on a piece of paper, then place it into any fax machine for shipping off to friends and loved ones. Celery does the conversion from fax to e-missive: Granny just has to write your name at the top of the page, and off it goes. Of course, those entering retirement age in the coming years may not be so technophobic as those from earlier eras. But older users almost always seem to veer toward simplicity in devices even if they aren’t in their 80s. Case in point: Two years ago, research group MetaFacts found that 46 percent of Macintosh owners were aged 55 years or older. That average for the industry as a whole: 25.2 percent. The lesson is pretty clear: Older users desire ease of use over dense instruction manuals and extraneous features they’ll never use. Going forward, buttons could stand to be larger and more responsive, setup easier, and menus more intuitive. Every device doesn’t need hearing-aid compatibility, but louder audio in a more middle range of frequencies would be appreciated on all manner of gadgets. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I’m looking from most of my gear—as is most of the market! Now, will you please get out of my yard? Christopher Null is a veteran technology journalist. He writes about tech daily at tech.yahoo.com/blogs/null.

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  1. Bryan Says:

    Great post – there is no question that seniors and their families have embraced technology. The trick is to make it simple and intuitive. Jitterbug is a great example of where less is more. Medical home alerts which operate with a single button are inherently intuitive and easy to use.

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