What the elderly can teach the smartphone industry

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After all, China is not the only Asian nation with an ageing population. In fact, a Pew Research Center report suggests that Japan and South Korea even larger problems with ageing than China. Indonesia, too, is likely to have above-average elderly population growth over the next few decades.

And since many countries in Asia are still developing, many Asian societies have an age gap as broad as China’s when it comes to the elderly understanding technology. Huang’s struggle to bring his mother into the smartphone age is one that’s likely to be shared by many across the continent over the next decade or two. But as Huang himself points out, many of these problems could be resolved if phone companies took a more serious and comprehensive approach to designing a smartphone for the elderly.

Since Huang’s original essay is in Chinese, I have translated his article in full below. Please note that everything that follows is his opinion rather that my own.


I’ve long felt that teaching an illiterate person how to use a smartphone is an endless project. So although I had thought about teaching my mother to use a smartphone, I never really went and did it.

There is a reason for my mother’s illiteracy. She had six siblings, of which she was the oldest sister, so she started helping her mother look after her brothers and sisters when she was still pretty young. Later, she joined the people’s militia and became a soldier, so her extensive training in bayonet fighting, shooting, and throwing grenades kept her away from the classroom. Although my mother is illiterate, I’ve always really admired her for her military experience.

Early on after she came to Shanghai, one night after dinner [with me] we used QQ on my iPad to video chat with my brother. This was an extremely new experience for my mother, who had never touched a smartphone. It was after that video chat that I decided I wanted to teach her how to use a smartphone.

We started with using the iPad, since after all her first experience had been video chatting with an iPad. More importantly, the iPad screen is big, there’s a lot of space between the icons, and it’s relatively easy to operate without pressing the wrong thing.

The iPad screen: large enough that there's plenty of space between icons.

Most often, my mother uses WeChat to chat, but getting into WeChat and going through several menus to find my brother’s account can be inconvenient. For starters, she’s illiterate and has to navigate the menus based on placement and images, so when she first started she made a lot of mistakes. Moreover, after her years of farming, my mother’s hands are rough and her fingers can be a bit clumsy. Eventually, I put a few of her frequent contacts right on the desktop, so she can just tap on them directly to get in, which makes things much easier.

As she became proficient with WeChat, I started teaching my mother how to use QQ to chat, and to use music software to play nursery rhymes to soothe fussy babies. Now, she can even use the iPad to take photos and videos of the kids. She still makes frequent mistakes, but she’s gotten a lot better at using it.

But there are still a lot of inconveniences. The iPad works through home wifi, so when she goes out there’s no service, and [because of its size] carrying it around is inconvenient. So I got my mother a 5-inch-screen smartphone, but when she went out she still rarely used it, complaining it was too hard to use. For example, previously when making phone calls she had been able to press keys, and the physical feedback was good; she could just type the number in and make the call. Now, she needed to open up a menu and enter the dialer screen. The touchscreen gave her no physical feedback and the numbers were too small, so it was easy for her to make mistakes. Her contacts list did have photos to make the names easy for my mother to recognize, but tapping that thin bar to call the correct person was still a bit inconvenient.

Tiles in Windows Phone OS: big and easy to tap.

Although I felt a 5-inch screen was already quite big, and there was enough space between the icons, my mother still thought it was too small, and she made a lot of mistakes with it. So I found some third-party software that could switch the phone into “old-person mode”

In old-person mode, the icons were like the tiles in Windows Phone; big enough that it wasn’t easy to tap the wrong one. I put a few frequently-contacted family members onto her desktop, so that she could tap right on them to call them. And the best part was that it could use text-to-voice to read her text messages aloud. As far as my mother was concerned, that feature couldn’t be better. But in old-person mode although you could add WeChat and QQ icons to the desktop, you couldn’t directly add contacts [from those apps], which led to many mistakes operating the menus. It wasn’t like the iPad where she could easily start a video or voice chat at the touch of a button. And besides, there were a lot of ways in which old-person mode wasn’t really optimized for the needs of old people.

These days, my mother uses her iPad at home to chat with my brother via WeChat and QQ. But when she goes out, she still carries an old-fashioned phone with a physical keypad.

At the same time I was teaching my mother to use a smartphone, I also searched online for any products today’s mobile phone makers offered for the elderly. Without exception, they all had big keyboards, speakers, an SOS button, and external flashlight (how often do old people need flashlights anyway, are these designers brain-dead?). Even the company with the reputation as the best brand for the elderly still couldn’t break away from that mold.

Phones marketed for the elderly on Dangdang.com

I really don’t understand why, in the smartphone age, phone designers are still using such a brainless approach to making phones for old people. It’s really a mistake. Old people need large font sizes, big icons, loud speakers, and SOS buttons, but even more than that they need features that suit their usage needs, like simplified operations, fewer levels of menus, simplified and optimized “elderly” versions of the most frequently-used apps, etc.

I also think that in terms of specs, older people should definitely not be using low-end phones. They should be using phones with the best hardware, so that the picture on the screen is clear and the processor’s operation is stable. Old people’s phones should not be separated from smartphones; the ‘smart-ification’ of old people’s phones should be a major focal point for mobile phone companies to consider.

That said, I think that phones for the elderly should not be researched and developed in the same way as conventional smartphones. They should not be seen as a hardware product, and rather should be approached from the perspective of meeting the elderly’s needs when using a smartphone. Companies will need a comprehensive approach that can offer this demographic daily contact, social interaction, entertainment, emergency services, and health and safety features.

Of course, that’s just my personal opinion, and I hope that the people who’ve read this far will pay attention to and discuss this problem. We are moving towards having an ageing population, so I hope that more companies that take this seriously will enter the market.

Article from our media partners: techinasia.com Click here to go to website
Article from our media partners: techinasia.com
Click here to go to website

(Source: Sina Tech)


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