This past week, I presented on seniors and technology. Hopefully you found my topic interesting enough to want to hear more of the story, because this blog post is going to delve into the rest of my research on the senior technology market.
As I mentioned in my presentation, I decided I wanted to explore this topic after a conversation with my mom, who is a social worker at our local senior center. My mom’s stories of tech-savvy seniors seemed to strange to me at first — when I thought of seniors and technology, I was more accustomed to stories of seniors’ endless questions and confusion, to the frustration of the younger people who are enlisted to help them. But this different view made me think that there must be some misunderstanding, either amongst business people, younger people, or both, about seniors interest and ability to use new technology.
I hypothesized that seniors are an underserved market that technology companies should target for a positive return on investment. As soon as I started doing research on this topic, I found that I was not alone in suspecting that seniors could be a major untapped market within the technology industry. There are, of course, some challenges that come with building tech products for seniors, but if technology companies can overcome them, it will be worth the effort, as they will be tapping into a sub-market that is expected to exceed a value of $42 billion by 2020. Not to mention the fact that seniors are also typically some of the most brand loyal customers.
Why are seniors such a promising potential market for tech companies? In 2016, the Pew Research Center conducted a major study on senior tech use, which proved that “Despite the common misconception, today’s senior citizens have a greater familiarity with technology and own more devices than ever before.” Some highlights from the study:
For seniors that are already online, the data is even more surprising and exciting — most make the internet a standard part of their daily routine. About 75% of senior internet users go online at least daily. For seniors who own smartphones, 76% use the internet several times a day or more. Of the 34% of seniors who use social media, they tend to be highly active and engaged. 70% of seniors who use Facebook log in on a daily basis.
So with all of this exciting data, why is the creation of technology for seniors, and inclusion of seniors in widespread innovations, still so slow? That’s where those challenges I mentioned come in…
Tech developers considering targeting seniors will certainly run up against the reality that many seniors are simply not confident in their own ability to learn about and properly use new technology. “Just 26% of internet users ages 65 and over say they feel very confident when using computers, smartphones or other electronic devices to do the things they need to do online.” I believe this lack of confidence is not created in a vacuum; it comes, in part, from the fact that seniors are largely excluded from new technologies (in terms of design, marketing, and more), so they have begun to believe the inherent message of tech developers that tech is not for them. Tech developers have to be willing to take risks regarding some other senior-tech challenges in order to alleviate this one.
The first of challenges is that one size does not fit all for seniors. The ‘design-for-all’ school of thought won’t work if you want to cross-target seniors. Seniors do have some fundamentally different needs that must be accounted for, which can be as basic as simple design features — seniors often require include larger fonts, increased color contrast, and louder audio or subtitles. Additionally, if tech developers don’t work to truly understand seniors’ needs, new technology will not catch on with seniors and it will be even harder to get critical market feedback.
Another challenge is monetization. Since seniors have traditionally been late adopters to new technologies, companies tend to focus on products with a clear return on investment, like fall detectors or personal emergency response systems, as opposed to tech that relies on a network of effects for ROI, like apps and social media. Unfortunately, these are usually not the kinds of tech products seniors actually want.
Finally, tech developers must be willing to take a risk to design tech for seniors that goes beyond functionality. Companies feel more comfortable investing in senior tech that’s strictly functional, because of the clear ROI, but this is unwise in the long run. Seniors have a higher bar for adoption of new technology and tend to reject products that are “built for seniors.” To have the have the best chance to succeed, tech companies to need to try to bring “more companionship, connection, and stimulation into their lives.”
Some companies are attempting to tackle these challenges head on, and are carving out two areas of opportunity for tech developers within the senior market. On one end, there’s tech that addresses that last challenge, what I like to call “life enhancing tech.” On the other hand, there are the more traditional, functional tech developments designed to help seniors and their caregivers manage daily life.
The best way to learn about some of the coolest new “life enhancing tech” is through their promotional videos…
On the traditional, functional end, the biggest emerging market is “aging in place technology” — technology that enables senior citizens to stay in their homes as long as possible, rather than move into an assisted living facility or nursing home.
There has actually been a lot investment in this area; in 2016, many of the most prominent VC firms collectively invested more than $200 million in companies within this category. However, all of that money resulted in very little disruption in the home-care industry. Now, startups focused on tech-enabled home-care are receiving a little less funding, but are being more strategic, using learnings from recent flops. AARP is making huge investments in aging in place tech by teaming up with J.P. Morgan to start a $40 million Innovation Fund, which includes a startup incubator, called The Hatchery. Additionally, a recent major change to the Medicare Advantage program created incentives for home-care innovation.
Innovations in this area are mostly about digital health, with some safety and communication tech services and products. Artificial intelligence has been really useful for things like fall detection, while virtual reality has been used to combat isolation, and “smart” clothing has been created to assist the incapacitated. There is essentially an opportunity to innovate for basically everything seniors need to do to take care of themselves as they get older. A few examples are Aiva, Beyond Verbal, CarePassport, Pillo, Reminder Rosie, Walabot, and Addison Virtual Caregiver.
My conclusion from all of this research is that it’s definitely true that seniors are increasingly technologically savvy, and that the senior technology market is an area of opportunity for developers, but developers need to be very strategic. The best senior tech is that which is integrated into and/or built off of general consumer products (for example, services that utilize Amazon Echo), precisely because it makes seniors feel like they are part of the rest of the tech-savvy world, rather than making them feel like seniors. Therefore,when established technology companies find their target market becoming saturated, they should consider what level of investment and development it would take to move to target seniors. For example, if Uber needs an additional edge over Lyft and other new ride-sharing services, they could look into how they could make Uber the easier option for seniors. Or take Apple’s extra large iPad that is not performing as well as they had hoped — with a few adaptations, it would be perfect to market to seniors. So watch out tech world, the old dogs are learning some new tricks!