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Age and mobile phones

Modern mobile phones have keypads and screens where the print size and key contacts are both too small and too sensitive for the elderly. The problems are both visual and mechanical. Fading eyesight and stiff fingers are just normal consequences of ageing. Tremors from diseases or age exacerbate such problems. Cataracts and macular degeneration are also common and afflict roughly half of those over 70. Electronic communication for this substantial number of people is therefore impaired. Fixed telephones exist with supersize keypads and a few preprogrammed, one-touch numbers for emergencies or special contacts. Unfortunately, there are far fewer examples of even fairly large keypad portable phones available. All those I have seen advertised appear to be very basic phones and have none of the application benefits of the ‘young’ person’s mobile phone.

Mobile phone manufacturers have barely realized there is a major market opportunity for sales to elderly people. When I came to look at samples, I found that often the numbers were quite large (excellent), but typically the lettering needed for texting had not been increased, or in some cases seemed to be even smaller. This may have been clear to a young phone designer, but it totally misses the target user. Clearly, such companies need to employ elderly consultants and address these issues.

Rarely do larger-style phones have many of the facilities of smartphones, on the grounds that too many applications will be confusing. The users therefore lack the option to limit which displays and facilities are routinely available.

One very modest example of the need for a big keyboard plus a big- screen smartphone exists in my city. The parking meters are being replaced by a smartphone app to pay for parking. Hence I now know of a number of people who feel they are unable to drive into the city as they do not have, do not need, or cannot afford or operate the requisite smartphones.

One solution to shaky-hand control is to bypass it with voice recognition, both for commands and for writing. Voice recognition software has improved over the last few decades, but certainly there were many initial problems. Not least was that the software was designed by young men (often with Silicon Valley Californian accents), and it then had a high error rate for women and children with higher-pitched voices, and older people, or those with other accents. The latter problem also hits those speaking local dialects, or immigrants using a foreign language.

The overall message that emerges from the communications industry from many of these examples is that once you are retired, unemployed, or have a difficulty handling small phones, then the rest of the electronic world has forgotten you. In a society with an increasing percentage of elderly people, this is unacceptable. It is also a very poor business strategy, as there is a large market opportunity to sell products tailored to the very considerable number of those in the older generation. The only consolation is that the currently young programmers will also age into this group and may find themselves equally isolated.

To a young person, anyone over 50 is deemed to be old, and by 70 it seems incredible they still exist (I remember thinking much the same when I was 20). The reality is that currently there are some 22 million people in the UK over 50, with 14.5 million of them over 65, falling to 2.5 million over 75. The statistics for those who reach 70 in good health is actually quite encouraging, as roughly half of healthy 70-year-olds will reach 90. Centenarians are still a small minority, but in percentage terms they have increased more than tenfold over the last 50 years.

The point I am making is that young designers of electronics must focus not just on their own age group, but also see the needs of the market of more than 20 million in the retirement category. To put this in perspective, 20 million is four times the population of Scotland, or somewhat more than of all of those in the Greater London area. The phone sales marketing and peer group pressures may well be aimed at the under 15s as they are a sizeable and impressionable group who will buy the latest phone release, but in sheer numbers the over 65s significantly outnumber the young. This may not be image generated by magazines and the other media, but in sales opportunities, the more mature should be a prime area to offer electronic devices that are designed especially for them. Further, they should be at a reasonable price, as many big-button phones come with a bigger price tag than the equivalent small versions.

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