Old Dog, New Tricks! Seniors and Technology

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:

Pew Research Center

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…

Stitch
Breezie
Rendever
GoGoGrandparent
MemoryWell

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!

13 comments

  1. I really enjoyed this post and thought that it was a really great follow up to your presentation in class last week. It’s interesting to see the possibilities that exist when it comes to seniors and technology use, as well as the lack of attention that is dedicated to catering to it. An interesting point that you made was companies reluctance to create senior specific products or content and seniors lack of confidence when it comes to technology. This goes to show that there is hesitation on both sides in regards to the other. That being said, the videos you included for specific products and applications geared towards seniors was a really great part your post. I enjoyed getting to see how some of the products that do exist are being used and the seniors reaction to them, especially in Rendever video. It will be interesting whether or not companies decide to more directly target the senior market moving forward and how they plan to do so.

  2. That Amy Schumer video was hilarious. I shared it both with my mother and my cousins. I could certainly relate. I do think seniors are huge adopters of tech.

  3. This was such an enjoyable read! The data you bring into the discussion – the high percentage of senior smartphone users, the number of seniors that regularly use social media, etc – really hits home the idea that senior tech is an obvious, and yet too-often ignored, market opportunity.

    I think another open avenue for senior tech development and products is assistive technology for seniors in semi-retirement. A number of companies are exploring and implementing “phased retirement,” through which older workers downshift into remote work, part-time working schedules, etc instead of outright retiring. This benefits both workers in this category, who want to remain mentally/physically active and continue to have a constant paycheck coming in, and the companies themselves, who save on training/on-boarding costs while retaining “legacy” knowledge for their teams. I can definitely envision enterprise-targeted tech products, such as adapted phones/laptops, transport or driving-related technologies, senior home office technology, cross-team communication platforms that are more navigable, and so on, entering the market with the phased retiree in mind. Great post!

  4. I loved your presentation last week, in addition to this post. I laughed so hard at the Amy Schumer video, so thank you for that. Seniors are definitely increasingly tech savvy. I have personal experience with this in that all four of my grandparents use smart phones, three out of four of my grandparents are on Facebook, and one is on Instagram. I love it! Before reading this, my honest intuition would lead me to believe that tech and VC companies would try to avoid targeting the elderly at all costs, due to the fact that it is a dying market. Literally. But you’ve definitely changed that, and I will be excited to see where the industry goes.

  5. I loved your presentation last week and this is a great follow up post ! I’m intrigued by the reluctance to create technology for seniors (life enhancing – not functional). I think one of the keys to creating tech that seniors will want and be able to use will be in design. A lot of the services / apps that I use regularly are very intuitive in nature. They are designed with a certain level of technological sophistication in mind, and when I cannot figure something out immediately I’ll play around with the app for a while until I get it. I’m not sure when or how I picked up this level of tech sophistication but having spent several hours attempting to show my parents how to use online apps / services (à la Amy Schumer and her mum!) it’s come to my attention that what’s intuitive for me is definitely not intuitive for them. I believe recognising this will be critical for success, and I’m not sure if any companies have quite cracked it yet. I fear that when most companies think of seniors they just think larger font sizes. I guess we will find out in the coming years ! Thanks for highlighting this, it will be an interesting space to follow for sure.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this post to complement your great presentation last week. It was great to take a deeper dive into the research you did regarding the market opportunity behind seniors in tech. At first, this topic seemed so foreign to me because none of my grandparents use any technology other than responding to family email communications. I recognize this is not the norm now! Its great to see that some companies are starting to focus on this area but it looks like a lot more can be done to address this market!

  7. Love love love this topic! I laughed out loud at the Amy Schumer video. I loved the snide comments like, “I don’t have all day to look at a screen.” I’ve definitely heard that one before. If you haven’t already, definitely check out the SNL skit on the Echo for Seniors (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvT_gqs5ETk)!

    Comedy aside, I think it’s definitely a viable market. In fact, the company I was assigned to cover for TechTrek, called Madison Reed, is essentially Dollar Shave Club for hair care, and its target demographic is women over 40, if I recall correctly. They’re seeing a lot of success and it’s a really cool company. It sounds like your research was focused on an older demographic, but there’s still something to be said about the untapped markets that exist there.

  8. The video was hilarious! I have actually thought about creating a start up with the target audience of people that are older. This thought really came as a result of me seeing my grandparents struggle with technology initially. I saw that when smartphones were first introduced, they weren’t even interested in making the switch from their cell phones. Over time as smart phones advanced, I saw them slowly struggle to make the switch and try to understand how to use these devices. I still find myself repeating instructions on how to use the laptop and their cell phones, but at the end of the day if I can communicate with them through a text and they are finding relevant content for entertainment, then I am happy!

  9. Agreed on all fronts here, sorry to have missed this presentation last week! I think people vastly underestimate how willing older generations might be to adopting tech. I just led a work project that was a purely digital giving campaign and 30% were over the age of 50, and nearly 15% of all online donors were over the age of 60. We need to be working to accommodate digital behavior from all audiences and demographics or risk losing out on a pretty captivated and loyal audience.

  10. A trend that I’m seeing with technology is that companies are moving to simpler designs, but with a huge increase in function at the same time. For example, we all are used to the Comcast remotes with a hundred buttons. However, instead of making things easier, users found them complicated and it took a long time to find a particular function. Today, Comcast has implemented a speech button which allows users to simply say things like “HBO” or “Game of Thrones” without fiddling with buttons and menus. Similarly, instead of having complicated interactions like fast forward, x2, x3 etc. you can simply say “go forward 45 seconds” into the remote. I think that this type of intuitive design is going to be huge for seniors who won’t need to learn the intricacies of their technologies, but will be able to interact with them in a simple way that they are completely familiar with already.

  11. I thought this was a really interesting topic to choose, and one I admittedly don’t think about that often. My grandmother has an iphone and has recently mastered the art of texting and using emojis, which has been really nice because it’s easier to connect with her. I think a big hurdle for tech innovation for seniors is the relative promotion and marketing difficulties to reach that audience, and getting them to become early adopters without having their grandkids figure it out first. Regardless, I think a companies that really commit to this audience has a great opportunity to gain marketshare in a relatively untapped industry. It’s great to see some firms taking these steps and starting to innovate for seniors. It will be interesting to see the innovation as more people are investing in this type of technology.

  12. Great supporting evidence! I haven’t been in/around a nursing home in a few years and I remember the “high tech” wants included screen enlargers to read their newspapers and crossword puzzles. However, watching my parents grow older I can see them having the want to adapt and use social media even more as the years go on and I hope they have the opportunity to buy tolls to help them stay connected.

  13. Senior tech is a market that always baffles me a bit. From hip airbags to gogograndparent, there is certainly a market for seniors and technology and you have done a great job of highlighting some of the advantages above. Part of what makes senior tech so cool is that it technology has finally gotten to a user-friendly and safe location where it is self-explanatory for the elderly to use…and it makes their lives easier. Gone are the days of sitting around playing cards and watching the price is right. My hope is that these technologies continue to grow and that they do not take advantage of the senior citizen market.

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