Tech Is Ignoring a Huge Untapped Market: Older People

Older folks are poorly represented in tech — and it shows in its designs

horthair businesswoman sitting on the back seat
Photo: MixMedia

IIt’s becoming increasingly popular for tech companies to design for accessibility when it comes to disabled users. There are intro to web accessibility lists all over the internet. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has easy-to-follow tips for getting started with accessible design and accessible development.

Google is just one example of a company giving accessibility more of a platform. The Silicon Valley-based company has an entire accessibility team whose job it is to envision a world made for everyone, “without limits or barriers,” and give guidance, incorporate accessibility, and build products with this vision in mind. They built Lookout in 2018, an A.I.-powered app that helps blind and visually impaired folks learn about and navigate their surroundings. In the same year, they also launched a series of short video lessons on the Google Primer app, geared to help designers, developers, and small business owners build with accessibility in mind.

There are a variety of ways both apps and physical technology can be created with older users in mind, without alienating younger users.

Older folks, however, are rarely mentioned explicitly in conversations around tech accessibility. Age is usually presented as a potential contributor to impairments, as in WAI’s discussion on Diverse Abilities and Barriers, but not an experience that might need intentional design.

But while screen readers, typography, and color contrast are all worthy and necessary accessible issues to consider, designing for older folks needs to start earlier and go far deeper than addressing accessibility questions that are raised too far after much of the development work has already finished.

A lesson from ride-sharing services

To consider an example of a product experience that could have benefited from early consideration of older users, let’s look at the age distributions of two of the most popular ride-sharing services, Uber and Lyft.

In 2017, Global Web Index published the results of a survey of 1,300 U.S. Uber users ages 16 to 64 that indicates a mere 6% of users are ages 55 to 64. In contrast, a full 37% falls between ages 16 to 24.

Meanwhile for Lyft, a 2017 report by Statista, analyzed by Business of Apps, indicates that only 1.6% of users are ages 55 to 64, while nearly 51% of users are 25 to 34 years old. The statistics for both these companies are relatively low, considering the profiles on aging Americans from places like the United States Census Bureau that show those ages 65 and older make up nearly 15% of the total population.

The numbers were up in 2018, with a Pew Research Center survey indicating 24% of users of ride-hailing services were over the age of 50, but this still doesn’t look great when we consider the rapid growth of the population of aging Americans.

Some have offered up solutions, arguing that younger folks with more time and energy — those who grew up in the digital age — should help older folks learn newer technologies. A New York Times article indicates that worries about scams, safety, and privacy are high on the list of reasons why older folks aren’t using ride-hailing services as frequently as their younger counterparts. Some alternatives are currently in use for those who won’t use these services from their own devices. For example, Lyft and Uber are contracting with health care systems to ensure older adults have these services available when they need them for medical reasons. But to a certain extent, this is still leaving older adults out of the equation.

How products can be better designed for older users

Technology should be designed for everyone to use, so why is it that older adults are frequently less well-represented in usage demographics? More importantly, how can tech companies start designing for older adults from the very beginning of a product’s lifespan? Age in and of itself is not a disability. Tech companies should design for older folks in addition to designing for folks who have specific impairments.

Here are two easy ways to start designing for older users:

1. Include older folks in the design and development process.

Older adults are poorly represented across the tech industry. The median ages of major companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Salesforce, and Microsoft are between 29 and 33. IBM and Oracle are outliers at 36 and 37, respectively. This is according to research on ageism by industry from Cascade Insights.

As a reference point, the median age in the U.S. is 38.2.

When designing and building products for the general public, those across the age spectrum should be involved.

It is critical to include older folks in the development of technologies that affect countless aspects of life for people of all ages. Additionally, the perspective that can be gained from listening to those who grew up before the internet’s rapid spread can be unique and extensive. The difference in experience between those who grew up before mobile phones and those who grew up after them, for example, is vast.

When designing and building products for the general public, those across the age spectrum should be involved to increase the perspectives and potential new ideas in the room, in much the same way as involving folks across racial and gender spectrums increases the various ways new products can be created to function well for as many users as possible.

Working with older folks is refreshing, in my experience — and not just the older folks who have decades of experience in the industry, but also those who are just starting out. Some of my favorite experiences have been sitting in a room going through orientation with folks who have kids my age, or even much older. Having older adults as co-workers is much the same as having co-workers the same age from different backgrounds. Whether the difference is due to race, gender, socioeconomic status, or age, there are always important things to be learned from difference. Like many others in the tech industry, they are often both willing to share their unique experiences in the industry and interested in hearing the viewpoints of those younger than themselves.

When exploring how to support older adults in the tech industry, one needs only take a quick search! Articles written by older folks working in tech offer ways that tech companies can make it easier for them to thrive in the industry. Listening to their voices is critical when it comes to figuring out how to attract and retain older talent.

2. Design products specifically for older folks.

What could a phone designed for older folks look like? Perhaps a device with modern capabilities that resembles, for example, a simple Samsung flip phone more closely it resembles than the latest iPhone.

Or what about a news app designed for those used to reading paper newspapers?

Taking another look at the ride-sharing example, what would it look like to design an app for ride-sharing that tackles the concerns of older folks around scams, safety, and privacy mentioned above, as reported by the New York Times? Could a ride-sharing app allow users to opt to pay in person, so the app does not store financial data? Or could it require confirmation via a unique code every time a user makes a ride-sharing charge to their card?

How about putting more time, energy, and money into privacy and security from both an external and an internal perspective, so that data breaches like the 2016 external data breach at Uber or the 2018 accusations of employees improperly accessing customer data at Lyft happen less frequently?

There are a variety of ways both apps and physical technology can be created with older users in mind, without alienating younger users.

Additionally, consider the flaw of averages. There are several notable stories about the problems that arise from designing for averages. One involves the U.S. Air Force, which was contending with a record-high number of crashes. Eventually a junior researcher found that the problem was in the cockpits: they were designed to fit the average pilot, but there was no such thing as the average pilot.

“If you’ve designed a cockpit to fit the average pilot,” the article in The Star reported in 2016, “you’ve actually designed it to fit no one.”

Following this logic, it’s actually a better idea for a product to be designed with the “extremes” in mind. You’ll design for those who are likely to want your product early, and those who might hesitate: for the nerd and the newb, one might say.

Forgetting about accessibility, or simply deprioritizing it in the development process, means we are assuming users are younger and more able to quickly pick up new technology regardless of its idiosyncrasies. Considering older adults in design and development is not difficult to do, and any extra time spent at the beginning of the process could easily translate to a wider user base and thus increased revenue as the product gets off the ground.

As more tech companies build with these points in mind, the sooner it will be true that tech is actually no longer leaving older folks behind.

Speculative fiction and Afrofuturist writer. Software engineer. US-based; globally oriented. I think and write about building new worlds.

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