Technology tackles a grey area

Technology is generally considered to be the preserve of the young; anyone who has children, nephews or nieces has probably been astounded by their computer skills. But it’s at the other end of life’s spectrum that designers face some of their biggest challenges and greatest opportunities.

Older consumers now make up a huge swathe of our population, a trend that’s repeated across the Western world. According to specialist charity Help the Aged, the UK now has more people aged over 60 than under 16, and Government statistics predict that by 2031 more than a quarter of the population will be over pensionable age. Yet, until very recently this sizeable potential audience has, to a large extent, been ignored by the technology industry.

A report out last month highlights that this will need to change. Verdict Consulting’s The Future’s Bright, The Future’s Grey report acknowledges the aging UK population, but perhaps more importantly, it predicts a shift in mindset that will produce an older consumer with a younger outlook: one who will shop for a wider variety of products and be more avaricious in their buying habits than older consumers today.

‘The older shopper of tomorrow is simply not the same person as the older shopper of today,’ says Verdict Consulting director Neil Saunders. ‘The blue-rinse brigade is steadily being replaced by the evergreen shopper, consumers who want to stay young both physically and emotionally, and that’s reflected in the type of products older consumers of tomorrow will buy.’

Manufacturers that want to make the most of this opportunity must begin to create products with this market in mind. Some are already taking the lead – Telecommunications company Doro, for example, launched a series of phones targeting senior citizens last month and BT, which has long been at the forefront of making its technology accessible (its large-number phone was a design winner back in the 1990s) is working with the Helen Hamlyn Institute on a similar project. In both cases design plays a vital role in distinguishing the offer specifically for an older audience.

Cian Plumbe, co-founder of Studiohead, has been working with BT on its Two Tone phone project. The phone, which is currently only a prototype, aims to open up broadband technology for older non-computer users by combining standard phone functionality with Voice Over Internet Protocol technology (such as Skype). A light on the handset enables users to see when friends and family are on-line and it offers video calling using a TV-based webcam.

The phone has no screen; instead it uses buttons, each of which has only one function. It also employs gestural commands – users simply flip the phone over to take it on- or off-line. ‘It doesn’t bow to current design trends,’ Plumbe explains. ‘Older users don’t want to brag about functionality and they aren’t interested in brash design; products must meet a specific need.’

It’s a thought that Maria Bentzen, an industrial designer at Ergonomidesign, echoes. Bentzen has worked with Doro on its latest range of home and mobile phones, which specifically target the over-65s. The products feature volume boosts to help the hearing impaired, high contrast displays and they are all ‘easy to grab and touch’, according to Bentzen, with buttons that are further apart and a lighter handset than usual.

‘Products need to address specific needs, such as reduced dexterity, loss of mobility, impaired cognitive function or poor sight and hearing. Tests have shown that older consumers prefer more traditional handsets and designers need to bear that in mind,’ says Bentzen. ‘But at the same time it’s important to recognise that older consumers are very diverse, they have different needs and different tastes, and aesthetics are just as important when targeting that age group as any other.’

Plumbe agrees. ‘No one wants to buy a product that looks like a disability aid,’ he says. ‘Older users still want something elegant, something that fits in with their life. A product should look obvious and it should also be intuitive to use. The product’s layout and appearance must reflect the function, so that someone who hasn’t seen it before can instinctively understand how to use it.’

It seems that, contrary to popular belief, age does not nullify a taste for good design and that, just as younger consumers have diverse tastes and preferences, so do the over-65s. The technology companies that recognise this look set to profit from what is a rapidly growing market.

‘Historically, it was the younger consumer that drove retail growth,’ says Saunders. ‘That won’t be the case going forward – over the next ten years the over-45s will prove to be the engine of retail activity.’ Designers take note.

Verdict’s findings – In the next ten years:

• Consumers aged between 65 and 74 will increase their retail expenditure by more than 75%

• Technology, in particular electronics, music and video, will see a 73% growth in demand from over-65s

• Average spend per head on technology by over-65s will grow from £226 to £391

Latest articles

First look at London Design Festival 2018

This year’s week-long celebration of design will see installations by Kellenberger-White, Studio Frith and Waugh Thistleton Architects, plus a refined, “playful” visual identity by Pentagram’s Domenic Lippa.