In 2007, Steve Jobs delivered his landmark keynote introducing the revolutionary iPhone. As the audience roared with enthusiasm and marvel, he promised that the iPhone would be smarter and easier to use than anything else on the market.
He presented a 2x2 mapping of the iPhone, comparing it against other feature phones and PDAs that existed at the time. Steve Jobs literally placed the iPhone off the chart, not only for technological smarts but also for ease of use.
Since that historical moment, we have all borne witness over the last 15 years to the dizzying wave of change that has followed in the wake of that event. In fact, few of us even realised the impact that such a device would have— how it has now become so deeply integrated into our lives, where often it may even be impossible to communicate, make a purchase, or even authenticate our identity without one.
Ironically and almost insidiously, the amount of technological development has been met with an equal level of complexity in its layering of features and functions. More screen real estate has tempted digital designers to cram more graphics on a screen. What started as an elegant nod to the real world, with gestures like pinch to zoom, has now been augmented with countless swipes and gestures, many of which are not obvious or easy to remember.
And here comes the biggest paradox. All this development is happening at a moment when we see the most significant increase in a group rapidly becoming one of the largest and yet most neglected audiences in this digital revolution — the elderly.
In an article by The Times, Dame Esther Rantzen shared the story of writer Pete Paphides' father trying to pay for parking to attend a friend's memorial service. In many developed countries, app services have replaced parking coupons or meters.
A seemingly simple payment experience that a digitally savvy person may praise for convenience and ingenuity. But for someone who requires assistance to navigate these digital platforms, for whom googling solutions isn't second nature, it becomes a traumatic experience that negatively reinforces their aversion to technology. It's a blow to their self-esteem.
In research we carried out with this target group, it was evident that a majority of the elderly have a strong desire to fully participate in the digital world, whether making a video call to see a baby granddaughter or browsing through family photos. However, even a simple observation will reveal how quickly many people get lost or stuck trying to accomplish these tasks that the rest of us breeze through daily. This inevitably leads to feelings of distress, uncertainty and anxiety over their digital illiteracy and a sense of loss of autonomy in going about daily life.
This led us to develop our understanding of what their basic needs are and more importantly how this then needs to be applied to achieve higher-level needs. For example, we all seek to maintain our autonomy. However, what we ultimately desire is to remain capable of achieving tangible goals.
For instance, being able to buy groceries online maintains a sense of autonomy, and that’s already a big step. But being able to design an e-birthday card for a loved one would create a sense of achievement. This is where the opportunity lies for our devices to play a proactive role in enabling that.
As Rantzen so eloquently points out: the older people need a champion to take on the digital world. But who will be their champion? Who truly cares for their dignity and the quality of their later years? Many businesses tack on words like "inclusive" and "diverse" to their company manifestos. But are they truly living up to the values they've set themselves, or is it just clever copywriting for a marketing strategy?
So how might we adapt the existing digital experience for the elderly? How can it help to retain as much of their autonomy? Could we postulate that our now ever smarter devices can start to become the true aide-mémoire or a helpful assistant that can be the crutch we need to give our daily needs that little booster? Could we even dare imagine it can become a truly sensitive and anticipatory companion? One that adjusts and nuances the engagement depending on our changing needs?
Although general accessibility concerns for the elderly have been addressed by most operating system standards with options for font size, colour, and the simplification of gestures, this is just the tip of the iceberg of what can be done for them in an AI-pumped digital world.
With this ubiquity, one could argue that the major operating systems driving these devices now carry a social responsibility. Not only that, but it also makes for good business sense. Looking back at the demographics, this massive and relatively wealthy customer base is where the value lies.
A fundamental mindset change needs to happen. After 15 years of layered development and incremental changes, we need to rethink how we interact with our devices at an operating system level. To set foundational ground rules that will enable the world of app developers to build apps that deliver not only the right features and functionality but to do it with a level of empathy that bends to meet the needs of the user and not the other way round.
In the next part of this article, I’ll explore some of the conceptual ideas around what makes an Empathic UI. I want to start a dialogue that will hopefully trigger an urgently needed change in our digitally augmented lifestyles for a group that needs it most.
Managing Director at Chemistry
Creating meaningful customer centric solutions for complex organisations
Chemistry was founded in 2000 with the belief that great ideas come from the synergy of minds.
Today we are an Experience Design consultancy, based in Singapore & Amsterdam, driven by an international team of multidisciplinary creatives.