Smartphones and older users remain a tricky match

Smartphones are no longer a luxury or convenience, becoming a necessity or a lifeline, but people over 50 are less likely to own these devices and more often feel excluded by them.

Why it matters: More than ever, services and businesses, from banks to doctor’s offices and restaurants to airlines, expect users to access smartphones – but many older people still lack digital skills and products do not always address their needs.

By numbers: A December 2021 study by AARP found that three out of four people over the age of 50 say they rely on technology to stay connected, but 42% say the technology is not intended for all ages.

  • “That’s a big number and a big problem,” says Axios Michael Phillips, AARP’s director of technology strategy and partnerships.

Big picture: Many new features introduced to Apple and Google products, such as iOS crash detection and Android live translation, are designed to save lives or actively improve real-time personal interactions.

  • But older users are still hesitant to switch to the smartphone fashion. A Pew Research Center study conducted earlier this year found that 96% of American adults aged 18-29 own a smartphone, compared with 61% of those 65 and older.

Lawyers worry especially since these elderly non-users may be missing out on ways in which health apps linked to phones can improve their lives.

  • “If people don’t trust technology, they won’t use it, even if it helps them live a slightly healthier life,” says Phillips.
  • A February study by the University of Michigan found that 28% of adults aged 50 to 80 say they use at least one mobile health app, and 56% said they never used it.
  • The study found that older adults who reported excellent, very good, or good health were more likely to use health apps compared to those with good or bad health.

Yes but: Creating devices and operating systems that are easier to use for more people has become a major goal in the tech industry, and there has been progress.

  • Along with standard visual and audio accessibility adjustments such as text size, zoom, and audio assistance, phone manufacturers have further enhanced phone capabilities with additional voice interfaces and additional devices.
  • Apple’s new iOS 16 also adds accessibility options for older users such as door detection and live captions.

  • “While we have a lot to do in this area, we are committed to making accessibility a key component of Android product design,” said Axios Angana Ghosh of Google, director of Android Product Management. “We work with communities to find out first-hand what their challenges are and how we can be most helpful to them.”

What they say: “Technical problems occur in smartphones for the elderly …[but] the benefits are still a huge plus, ”said Axios Debra Berlyn, executive director of Project to Get Older Adults onLine. “The smartphone is an invaluable aging tool.”

Between the lines: The new feature is only useful for older users if they know it exists and can easily find it.

  • Accessibility tools and modes are often hidden in submenus or hidden under confusing names.
  • “Discoverability can be especially important for people who may not identify as disabled but who would benefit from using accessibility tools,” says Ghosh of Google.

Authenticity check: Proponents fear that UI and experience designers are gaining bias in school.

  • “Inclusive design really has to take place in universities and teach people to design more inclusive,” said Phillips.

The most important: For older users to take full advantage of their smartphone, they will need to feel more comfortable with the technology and be confident that they will find applications for it that will improve their lives.

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