Editor Steve Hards muses on matters of ageism in equipment and service design.
In another forum I recently gave some feedback to an internet-based service company that what they were producing, aimed at older people – both the images they were using and the words they were using – gave the impression to me that they were somewhat ageist. It got me thinking about the difficulty for companies of designing and marketing to people of an age that you, or your team members, are not.
We are all familiar with the concept that ‘old’ is a movable feast and that old age starts at about 15 years older than you are, so it’s 50 for 35 year olds, 75 for 50 year olds and 100 for 85 year olds. However, the differences between people at 50 and 100 may or may not be significant. There is an expectation that… people will become less physically able and less mentally sharp the older they become. We all know exceptions to that expectation. Whichever way you cut it, older people are not an homogeneous group. To take another example, some older people have grandchildren, some do not. Why, then, refer to older people as grandpas and grandmas? (The youngest grandmothers are in their mid-late 20s, by the way.)
The problem for companies is that one cannot design a product or a service without having a ‘target market’ in sight. Without a defined target market you never make any decisions or make any progress.
To resolve the problem it is tempting, but in my view disastrous, to turn perfectly respectable adjectives, e.g. elderly, vulnerable, frail, senior, into mass nouns: ‘the elderly’, ‘the vulnerable’, ‘the frail’ ‘seniors’. At that point two things happen. One, the discriminatory function of the adjective is lost and two, stereotypes – usually prejudicial ones – start to accumulate around them.
It worries me deeply that in the UK both national and local government organisations constantly and thoughtlessly refer to ‘the elderly’, ‘the frail’ etc. as if these terms had meaning. (When I hear ‘the vulnerable’ my reaction is to ask “Vulnerable to what? Cream cakes? Hiccups?”)
So what is a company to do to design for older people?
The staff involved in creating the product or service may be way below the target users’ age. The venerated chairman of the company, who may be of that age, won’t be ‘typical’, and therefore is an unreliable source of advice. Bringing in a focus group of potential users will be an enormous help providing it is big enough, diverse enough, and its members interact directly with the product-creation staff and are not mediated through a research company report, because only then might the staff’s preconceptions be confronted.
Dr Simon Roberts, Intel’s anthropologist and lead for technology research for independent living, has suggested a way forward. He contends that instead of using our parents as the model of older people to be designed for, we should be thinking about designing for ‘us’ not ‘them’. Absolutely! But that’s hard to do when it’s a product that we may not want to use for many years yet. (The Fictions, Facts and Future of Older People and Technology)
My suggestion is to apply what I call the Tina and Mick Test, which is simply: Can you imagine Mick Jagger (66 at the time of writing) or Tina Turner (70) using your product or service? If not, you have some rethinking to do. That’s even more needed if you would feel embarrassed even to suggest to these rich, feisty people that they might use it.
To put it another way, if it’s not good enough for Tina and Mick, it’s not good enough!
And if your product designer doesn’t understand the implications of the test I’d suggest that she or he is much too young.
“But! But!” I hear you say “Mick Jagger and Tina Turner are not typical either!”
That’s true. But how many millions of older people identify with what they represent? Why else do octogenarians regularly pop up in talent contests?
If your language isn’t acceptable to that independent, bloody minded, rock ‘n’ roll, teenager within the older person the chances are you have fallen into the ageist trap.
“Good morning… I’m a social worker… So you’re living alone, these days, Sir Mick? Why don’t you wear this red button pendant alarm?”