The world has 6.9 billion people, and 11 per cent of that population is older than 60. In 33 years that number will have doubled. With this ageing population, how can the design of products, spaces and services, make growing old more appealing? JCU student Frederick Williams thrashes out this ‘wicked problem’ posed to New Media Arts students in the subject Design Lab 1.
Our end goal of this project was to design an app that would make the prospect of getting old seem a bit less daunting. The first step of the research was to gather data from interviews with the target market. Each person interviewed two people aged 60 or older about where they saw technology going and how they felt about it. Reflecting our oft-conflicted perspectives on technology, findings were quite different and sometimes contradictory. One student interviewed two people, one of whom said that technology was improving fast and they couldn’t wait to see what came next. The other felt technology was moving way too fast and they wished that it would slow down. From these interviews, we gathered some insight into the current engagement over-60s have with technology, as well as the level of simplicity needed to make an app effective and engaging for this demographic.
We also completed a scoping survey of existing apps for the elderly. These apps varied in quality and ranged from programs that simplified the user interface of a device to a scheduling app that kept track of doctor appointments and medication.
All of this research and numbers are well and good, but what does it mean for Australia as a country? Why is it necessary? Because Australia’s population is ageing. In 2002 the population of people over the age of 65 was about 2.5 million, about 13 per cent of the population. By the time 2042 rolls around, the number is predicted to jump to 6.2 million, around a quarter of the population. Designing accessible technology for a growing, ageing demographic who are not digital natives makes both social and business sense.
As far as local action is concerned, there are a myriad of activities to help the elderly get out of the house and socialise. A range of activities is available from lawn bowls, which offers both physical and social engagement, to trips to the cinema set up by retirement homes. The State Government also organises events for seniors all over Queensland, such as knitting clubs. While these activities fulfil important needs, there is little in the way of digital-focused activities. Addressing technological literacy and engagement for seniors is important in that it enables social and cultural connectivity across generations and within their own demographic in a rapidly evolving digital space.
JCU Design Lab research indicated that the main problem facing local seniors and those around the world was loneliness. The Design Lab teams came up with a range of solutions, from an online yoga class to a virtual digital travel agent. One team decided to directly address loneliness and create a smartphone application that was inspired by Tinder, of all things. The user can open up the app and find someone nearby to go to the shops with or someone to be friends with. The app made use of the phone’s GPS system to only find those nearby so that the person wouldn’t be trying to set up a shopping trip with someone on the other side of town.
As technology and the digital space becomes more embedded in our everyday lives, people become more literate and aware of technology. The current problem of designing technologies for an elderly population who did not grow up with computers may not be as difficult in the future. In the meantime, technologies focused on that section of the community need to be based on simplicity and a friendly user interface. Applications for seniors also need to have a practical use, while the younger population will download apps for fun or entertainment, older users will only use them if they are absolutely necessary.
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