There’s An App For That – But Not If You Are 65+

Not long ago, I stumbled across an article titled, “Booya Grandma: How to Design Apps for Seniors,” by Emilie Futterman. Now that title alone would be tantalizing enough to explore further, right?  It was worth it.  Although written in 2014, the premise still holds true: Where are the apps for smartphone users age 65+?

We have all heard the statistics on the number of seniors who do or do not own smart phones, such as a 2015 Pew Research Center Report on cell phone use in the US that said, “Four-in-ten smartphone owners ages 65 and older use their phone at least occasionally to keep up with breaking dreamstime_xs_59436775news, half use it to share information about local happenings, and one-third use it to stay abreast of events and activities in their community.”  Not anything surprising there. Laurie Orlov of Aging in Place Technology Watch noted also in 2015 that, “..41% of people aged 65-69 are smartphone owners..”  But in the same article she points out that, “..more than 70% of the 41 million 65+ still do not have smartphones. This likely isn’t because of the cost of the plans (43% of smartphone owners pay between $50 and $100).”

Interestingly enough, Orlov hits the nail on the head when she cites a Deloitte report that flatly states, “Carriers have been relatively unpersuasive at getting older users to download any of the 2 million or more apps.” Again, not a big surprise, but begs the question, “Why is that?”

While there is much evidence pointing to issues like reduced finger dexterity and vision acuity, difficulty with instructions on how the app is to be used and ongoing trouble shooting questions, I have to wonder if part of the skepticism is that not much has been publicized to this group on WHY they should down load an app for their use in the first place.  This is a generation that consistently asks, “What’s in it for me?”  A valid question with a valid answer.

For seniors, the inherent “problem” with smart phones is that they do too much.  Sounds like a bit of an oxymoron to me.  But the truth is that today’s technology changes so fast (both the hardware and software) that older adults find it difficult to keep up.  Once they become familiar with something, it changes and they have to learn a whole new set of rules and methods to make use of the same phone or app! While there are a myriad of choices for training and information, most do not want to either admit they need help or are convinced they should never have purchased that new phone or downloaded the new app in the first place. So how do we bridge this gap between the technology that could truly improve someone’s life and overcoming the fear or resistance of trying something new?

Older people are the largest users of tablets for a myriad of reasons.  Larger screens which can translate into larger fonts and images, larger keys and many are touch screens, which avoid use of an annoying mouse or moving a cursor. That being said, one cannot automatically assume that because a person has immediate knowledge of hardware or an app, they will be able to automatically translate that into a new version of the same.  In my 11 years in working with adults transitioning to new living spaces, I have come to know that if it takes more than 3 distinct steps to accomplish something, the older adult will shun that activity or task.  And more often than not, those 3 steps will have to be demonstrated several times before the “ah ha” moment when the “dots are connected.”

Now we come to the downsides of technology.  As commonly happens with many products being created for this age group, the inventor or developer does not seek to find a solution to a problem, but rather designs something he/she THINKS the older adult will like or use.  Mistake #1.  In an article published in January, 2015, Ollie Campbell of Smashing Magazine stated some clear issues that hardware and software/app developers need to take into consideration more seriously when designing products for this demographic, which leads to mistake #2. As Campbell points out, the developer/creator does not acknowledge the role that memory, attention and decision-making play in the older adult’s use of the technology or software.  This is huge.  Here he defines some key design features that should be acknowledged:

  • Introduce product features gradually over time to prevent cognitive overload.
  • Avoid splitting tasks across multiple screens if they require memory of previous actions.
  • Provide reminders and alerts as cues for habitual actions.
  • Allow for greater time intervals in interactions (for example, server timeouts, and inactivity warnings).
  • Avoid dividing users’ attention between multiple tasks or parts of the screen.
  • Prioritize shortcuts to previous choices ahead of new alternatives.

Futterman makes a point in saying that while these phones can manage alarms, calendars, phone calls, text messages, appointments, prescription reminders and even patient to doctor communication, the amount of data, screens and actions required to use these apps can be a hurdle many don’t even want to tackle.

For my own personal use, most of the time I love trying new apps.  Once I learn about one, I hop on Google to find reviews people have written about it to see if it worth my time, pros and cons, how long it has been in the marketplace and any other relevant information that would assist me in 2deciding if this app would help or hinder a task.  Then I go to the app itself to see a description of what it does and does not do.  If all else fails, after I down load it and I decide I do not like the app for whatever reason, I can always uninstall it.  I love that option!  But again, many 65+ users do not know that they can do this and think that this useless app will stay on their phone forever, so they don’t download it. A close friend of mine was totally flabbergasted when I showed her that the microphone icon can be used to talk to the phone itself rather than type in text, as when doing a Google or other search. She just looked at me as if a whole different world had been opened to her on this one single device.  And so it is with app use.

App developers need to make a note of this. The 65+ and even 55+ market is ripe for the taking by creators who keep functionality simple, leverage features that are already familiar, eliminate the need to constantly ask for help and choose to develop apps that fit into the senior’s daily lifestyle.  And maybe we need to turn the “build it and they will come” mantra around to “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” and start making our needs known loud and clear as to what the  apps could do that would truly improve the quality of life of the senior age group. Smart phones and other devices are “smart” only when the consumer can make use them as intended and designed.



Smith, Aaron. “U.S.  Smartphone Use In 2015.” Pew Research Center, Internet, Science and Tech. 1 April 2015. Web. 1 July 2016.

Orlov, Laurie. “Smartphone Usage By Older Adults Is Up – Why?” Age In Place Technology Watch. 2 April 2015.  Web. 1 July 2016.

Campbell, Ollie.  “Designing for the Elderly: Ways Older People Use Digital Technology Differently.”  Smashing Magazine.  5 February 2015.  Web.  1 July 2016.



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