Why IoT for seniors is a lot tougher than it looks

Senior citizens are often touted as a huge potential market for the Internet of Things (IoT), but progress may be slower than a retiree with a bad hip.

IoT, Internet of Things
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We’ve all heard the promises about how the Internet of Things (IoT) is perfectly positioned to provide healthcare, entertainment and a wide variety of other services to the aging populations of many industrialized nations. The need is real because the population of countries like Japan, Italy, Greece, and Germany are getting older fast, resulting in a dearth of youngsters able (and willing, of course) to take care of their parents’ generation.

The idea — bolstered by a European Commission on the topic — is that autonomous devices, robots, built-in sensors, medical and fitness wearables, voice-activated assistants, specially tuned smart homes, and other IoT innovations will fill in the gaps, helping meet the needs of seniors without requiring legions of younger workers. But when I saw a recent CNBC story about Google’s Nest home automation unit exploring the senior citizen market, it made me laugh out loud.

Seniors find software bugs in places you never knew existed

I’m not so young anymore, which means that my parents, along with those of many of my family and friends, are now deep into their golden years. While many of them remain sharp as a tack, others have increasing trouble navigating their daily tasks. And while many of them rely on technology to stay in touch with their far-flung social networks, this is far from a seamless process.

Even seniors who retain all their faculties find themselves continually frustrated by confusing, hard-to-decipher user interfaces, and complex, multi-stage installation and operation procedures. Stiff, ill-placed keys and buttons confound arthritic fingers, super-sensitive touchscreens invite mistakes, while instructions in tiny type make it hard for aging eyes to see what’s going on.

The result is that seniors often end up navigating to obscure corners of the user interface, with no idea how they got there, having made changes that even skilled tech-support technicians may be unable to track down and reverse. (And let’s face it, we’re not usually talking about support professionals, here. In real life, tech support typically means patience-challenged grandkids.) It doesn’t help that the person with the issue may not fully understand the terminology they need to explain the problem.

Even when they are able to use an IoT device, they often rely on few, easily reached features, eschewing anything — no matter how potentially valuable — buried in a menu or that requires a multi-step process to access. And once they do figure out how to operate something they find useful, unless it becomes a regular habit, they may have to relearn everything every time they try it. I’ve seen elderly users write paper notes on how to use note-taking software.

No matter how simple it may seem to speak to an Amazon Echo: “Alexa, play some classical music,” it often turns out to be more complicated than that. What if you can’t remember the name of the song you want to hear? Alexa and her screenless ilk don’t make it easy to thumb through your CD or vinyl collection for inspiration. And if something goes wrong with the connection, troubleshooting a voice-activated device can quickly become a Kafka-esque ordeal.

A new definition of 'easy to use'

So, here’s the thing: If we’re counting on the seniors themselves to figure out how to use this technology, it has to be dramatically easier to learn and use than anything I’ve seen.

On the other hand, if the IoT can function on its own or if healthcare professionals, caregivers, and other service providers can use the technology to extend their reach, this could actually bring real value. Nest is reportedly approaching senior centers to test ideas such as using motion sensors to automatically turn on a light to help people find the bathroom in the middle of the night, for example. And IoT monitors could alert caregivers of special needs in real time.

Otherwise, forget it. No matter how loudly the vendors claim their product is different, and so simple anyone could use it, it probably isn’t. The IoT for seniors could easily end up causing more frustration and alienation than it alleviates, soaking up more caregiver time than it saves. Essential elder care can’t be dependent on users having exceptional skills in order to take advantage of it, but it also can’t condescend to its user base — the goal is to make people feel better, not worse.

It’s not their fault, it’s yours

To be perfectly clear, none of this is the fault of the seniors. This is all about how devilishly difficult it is to design a truly intuitive user interface that doesn’t assume a vast amount of contextual knowledge. That problem doesn’t go away just because your end user demographic has more experience than most.

One possible solution might be to rely on skeuomorphic interfaces that mimic and leverage familiar objects in the real world. If an IoT vendor is building a smart pillbox, it might as well look like the standard day-of-the-week pillboxes many people use to sort their medications. Some new Jetsons-style design might wow the millennial designers, but could cause problems if Aunt May can’t tell whether or not she’s taken Tuesday’s heart medication.

A final suggestion for IoT product developers: Be sure to have actual seniors test these new devices — and not just once for a few minutes in a focus group. Let them take it home and try it for a month, and see if they keep using after the initial excitement wears off. And if they stopped, is it because they didn’t feel it delivered value or because they could no longer make it work they way they wanted it to.

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