One morning last week I was struggling with my toddler to brush her teeth so that we could quickly rush out the door to school and work. Instead of fighting a battle of the wills, I decided to enlist Amazon’s Alexa for support. A simple, “Alexa, play songs about brushing your teeth,” turned a daily arduous task into a moment of simple fun and smiles.

As I reflected on the lesson learned, I thought back to an event in Boston that I recently attended – The Aging 2.0 Reverse Pitch. An event where leading local companies from Boston, like Andy Miller from AARP, and others from across the country like Chetan Parekh from Proctor & Gamble and Leigh Anne Cappello from Benchmark Senior Living, spoke to an audience of entrepreneurs, geriatricians, policymakers and influencers in the aging 2.0 space about some specific problems they are facing when it comes to empowering seniors, their caregivers and those with disabilities. A lesson similar to the one that I learned with my toddler shone through the conversation:

The mistake entrepreneurs make when designing or creating technology for seniors and their caregivers is that they focus on features instead of fun, and they don’t hone in on solving for a central, fundamental problem.

While features are important – no one will combat that – they are not the end all be all. The example one speaker gave of where they see tech solely feature-focused and simply not resonating with the senior market is at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). They said, “at CES, these companies are building what they believe to be the best solution with complete transparency, but they have no idea what seniors and caregivers want.”  A prime example of this type of design miss for this market?  A company that created airbag technology for seniors to wear on their hips so that if they fall, they have a cushion. The idea of any human wearing hip air bags feels, well, embarrassing. While likely functional, the panel agreed that a better alternative would be a floor material that would give a bit upon a fall.

A great deal of discussion at the Aging 2.0 event in Boston centered on the need for “invisible” technology for this population of people. The idea being that what seniors want, and likely their caregivers as well, is technology that is simple and easy to use or connect with. Examples of invisible technology include:

  • Emerald – Instead of wearing a pendant that a person needs to then push a button on to alert someone that they have fallen and can’t get up, Emerald monitors people in their home with sensitive, radar-like technology that is based on motion sensing in wireless signals.
  • Jibo – Say what you will about their failed business model, but their technology sets an example of what could work with seniors. This idea of not putting technology as the face of interaction but instead leveraging a user-friendly, simplified robotic interface to help seniors conquer things like setting up and engaging via Facebook to address massive issues like loneliness and isolation. It’s the same idea as Alexa essentially – create an interface that acts as a coach and technology becomes less scary, complex and intrusive.

This concept of invisible technology hit home with me, as did the idea of empathetic design – or the idea of designing with the end-users feelings in mind. So often companies are designing technology for seniors with what they think the problem is versus designing alongside seniors and from their point-of-view. That’s a massive miss for all of us. One last topic that resonated from the panel event was the idea that so many companies – technology, healthcare or services-focused – are designed to help seniors “maintain” a way of life instead of improving it. Just because people are aging doesn’t mean they aren’t looking to improve!

I look forward to the next generation of ideas and companies that are looking to help seniors and their caregivers improve (not maintain) their lives. They would be well served to take this advice to heart – focus less on features, and more on fun.

Looking to better help, understand, engage with or sell to seniors and caregivers? Connect with Katie McGraw at W2O Group.

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