Volume 33 Number 12
[Don't Get Me Started]
By David S. Platt | December 2018
It’s hard being a senior citizen these days. Modern technology should greatly assist the elderly in their daily activities. But instead it is complex to the point of being counterproductive, increasing burdens rather than decreasing them. Let me explain.
My parents, both aged 84, live in a retirement community near me. They are some of the first digital immigrants. They will always speak geek with a heavy accent and a limited vocabulary. And they depend on their digital-native grandchildren to navigate anything complicated that they can’t avoid. (See my June 2015 column at msdn.com/magazine/mt147245.)
They are a preview of the baby boomer bulge now peristalsing its way through the demographic snake. Approximately 15 percent of the U.S. population (46 million people) is over age 65 today. That’s expected to rise to 24 percent (98 million) by 2060. This isn’t an obscure edge case.
My father has trouble hearing, as do most people his age. Sometimes (with drama shows) he likes his TV to display closed captions, other times (football games) he doesn’t. So he has to turn the captions on and off and on again. He has to find and follow the complex instructions every time, using the remote control with tiny buttons he can’t manipulate, labeled with small text he can’t read, working his way down through several on-screen menus—all without making a slip that would break something else, like resetting the TV’s color temperature. He finds it very frustrating that this helpful feature exists, but is so difficult to access.
My parents have the same problem with smartphones. They bought iPhones because they like Apple’s computers, but they can’t read a regular iPhone screen. They can tap an icon, if they can recognize what it is without the tiny, illegible caption, but you can forget about typing any text in. Samsung’s Galaxy line has an Easy Mode with larger icons and simplified choices. They describe it as a “simplified and easy experience for first-time Smartphone users,” implying that it’s something users should outgrow. Is that any way to treat a quarter of the U.S. population?
Voice control was supposed to solve all these problems, but, as always, it introduces others, no matter which vendor’s wizard you’re using. It’s opaque, providing no cues to its capabilities, the way visual apps provide with controls. It times out quickly, which is especially frustrating for seniors who are puzzling about what to say. And it’s brittle, requiring rigid speech patterns and timing, all difficult for seniors to deduce and repeat. Saying “Weather” often works. Saying “Text Bob to meet at 12 instead of 1, and nyah, nyah, nyah, your team lost,” no chance. After the first few failures, they throw up their hands and say, to hell with it. And of course, anything audible is inherently difficult for hearing impaired people to use.
I’m convinced that only products designed specifically for seniors can solve their problems. I can only find one company that caters today’s tech to seniors. Great Call (greatcall.com) makes a smartphone called the Jitterbug—the name comes from a 1934 song, signaling their target market. It offers the larger text and icons and touch zones that seniors need, simplifying access to camera, phone and mail.
There’s a lot of money here if tech companies would just get on it. The Jitterbug is a fabulous marketing channel for value-added services tailored to seniors. For example, Great Call customers can get Urgent Care, which connects to a live nurse 24/7, for only five bucks more per month. I can imagine an add-on tech support service entitled Grandchild On Call.
The only thing preventing these seniors from rising up and hanging the perpetrators of bad technology is that they remember how things were before. “We didn’t have TV when I was growing up, we had to fight over the family radio. And when we finally got a TV, it only received three channels, all black-and-white. And the family phone had a cord and a dial. Things could be a whole lot worse.”
Best Buy recently purchased Great Call, suggesting a push into this underserved market. Combine that with tech support from its Geek Squad, and the company might be onto something. What other companies will be joining them?
David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.