Will you still text me, will you connect me, when I’m sixty four?

Now that the networks are growing out of their teens, is it time for them to think about a market they’ve largely ignored?  Given the current pain that they are suffering from the youth segment’s bandwidth-obese usage of their “eat all you can consume” data plans, you’d think that they might want attract a target audience that offers the prospect of a more reliable revenue stream. 

There’s an important conference coming up in London on 26th October that promises to address the issues that have limited success so far – Mobile Phones for the Senior Market.  It’s important because there are some fundamental lessons to be learned and things that need to be changed if the networks are to approach the older generation with the same degree of attention that they currently lavishing on their twenty-something users.  The resulting challenges need to be addressed, not just by the networks, but also by product designers and retailers. 

The mobile phone business is now the largest volume segment of the consumer goods industry.  Despite that achievement, it is an industry that is still remarkably young.  It’s debatable whether it is actually mature enough to have addressed real segmentation yet – instead it’s still at the stage of development where it tends to concentrate most on customers of its own age – late teens.   That could be a costly mistake.  By ignoring the specific needs of older users, the mobile industry is missing a major market.

It’s not that the mobile industry has not made some efforts.  Back in 2005, at the launch of Vodafone’s Simply handset the Wall Street Journal waxed lyrical about the opportunity, claiming that more is less.  The premise of the Simply was that it had big buttons and a large display and didn’t do much.  It didn’t seem to sell much either.

That patronising approach is common.  It reminds me of a BBC comedy sketch of weather forecast for pensioners, which ran along the lines of a slow loud delivery of “Hello dears, it’s going to be cold.  Yes,that’s right, COLD – have you got your thermals on…”  However well meaning the intentions may be, that attitude keeps creeping back in.  Even Senior Mobile’s Cellphones for Seniors blog falls into the same trap when it recommends the Samsung 240:

“The Samsung M240 was launched recently but it does not appear to belong in 2009. It looks like a phone that should have been launched 5 years ago. Simply put, it cannot compete with most of the phones in the market when it comes to features. It is a simple phone with basic features and it lacks a camera.” 

Elsewhere on the same blog we hear that: “The elderly are not overly concerned about stylish handsets with their flat keypads and cramped buttons. They prefer a phone with a simple keypad configuration with large and widely-spaced buttons.”

It’s a message that keeps on reappearing, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect reality.  Why shouldn’t the over 65s want camera phones – the travel industry has worked out that this market likes travelling and taking pictures of where they travel.  At home, they’re enthusiastic consumers of photos of their grandchildren.  They would probably love a camera phone that it’s easy to get photos off.

There’s no denying that our physical abilities change as we age; any designer should read the excellent report from Matthew Pattison and Alex Stedmon on Inclusive Design And Human Factors: Designing Mobile Phones For Older Users.  It provides one of the best explanations of what these changes are.  But they are changes that need to be addressed to continue to sell products and services, not a descent into senility as most mobile offerings assume.

What designers and networks need to understand is that these users can still be tempted by a well featured device which differs only in that it has a useable Human Interface, (as eyesight and manual dexterity are not as good as they were).   Plus a service plan that is clear and transparent, so that the cost of using it is predictable.  It’s a device for another stage of life, not a white stick.  And it can still be desirable.  It should be even easier to make them desirable as we start to get healthcare products that can talk directly to our phones using Bluetooth connectivity.

If we’re really going to design for an older generation and do it effectively, then companies need to believe in what they’re doing.  Here we hit the problem that the words and phrases of usability and inclusive design are foreign to most boardrooms.  To address the market properly, they need to be part of the way a company thinks from the top – not just a diktat that is passed down to the engineering department. 

So let me propose a test for any company that thinks it is servicing this market.  I’d suggest that every board member of a company takes one of their products and gives it to their mother or father to see what the response is.  Would they show it off to their friends as an example of how clever their child is?  Or would they hide it in the cupboard except for the days when their son or daughter comes around?  And would they like another one as a Christmas present, or default back to the socks and bubble bath?   I think most of the products that have come out so far would happily be exchanged for the socks and smellies.

Nor is the problem that this audience is technophobic, as is so often assumed.  On the contrary, if the technology is accessible, it’s taken on with enthusiasm.  According to Hitwise, the over 55s were the fastest growing group of Facebook users in 2008.   Where they may differ is in a lack of patience to work out how to use a poorly designed product.  I’d suggest that’s not a crime, unlike the daily one committed by unthinking product designers at mobile phone manufacturers.

Unfortunately it’s a sad fact that most tech companies don’t understand that no-one else outside their company really understands their products.  Even sadder is the fact that many of their board members don’t understand it either, despite the cost of running significant support departments.  Nor does the retail chain, which keeps on making the choice of buying the techie products and then wondering why they’re difficult to sell.

The recent report from OFCOM’s Advisory Committee on Older and Disabled people, covering the barriers and drivers that impact product design to meet the needs of older and disabled people: contains some revealing interviews that expose how manufacturers approach this market.  Typical responses include:  “We don’t actually run any specific research amongst our older or disabled customers” and “To try out a product we will usually send it out to people within the business”.  Guess how many over 65s they employ!  In other words, nanny knows best.

In 2007 there were 9.8 million people aged 65 and over in the U.K. By 2032 that number is predicted to be 16.1 million.  At a time where network operators are giving away more and more of their precious data bandwidth at a fixed price to younger, spectrally obese users, surely it makes sense to take a serious look at how to attract more elderly customers.  They may not be the top users, but they will provide a lower, but steady ARPU without putting a strain on network resources.  And if the applications and handsets are designed to appeal to their needs, they may even surprise us with their level of use.

One day it is going to happen.  Come and learn more in London on October 26th.