The promises and issues of existing technology
Today’s communication is mobile. Computer and mobile technology offer great potential to connect people and to disseminate tailored information. A lot of everyday interaction between people is via cell phone or smart phone applications. Keeping up with the technological changes and new developments becomes the key challenge, in particular for the older generation.
Take the smartphone: It is a versatile tool that can give users location info, remind them to do things like take medication, connect with family and friends, find local deals—and of course make calls. The health and wellness sector is developing applications to capitalize on this domain. The market size for mobile health (mHealth) applications is estimated to double in 2012 to $1.3 billion from $713 million in 2011(i).
For an aging population—in the United States alone, individuals 65 and older numbered 40.3 million in 2010 and will grow to 72 million by 2030(ii) —these developments promise to help people stay active and connected to friends, family, and support networks, as well as make health care more cost-effective. The deployment of mHealth technology, both by lowering health care costs and by reducing the economic burden on caregivers, is estimated to save between $1.96 billion and $5.83 billion in health care costs worldwide by 2014(iii).
Hence, the potential benefits of mobile technology are clear. But very few real and viable solutions have arisen that are economically feasible while truly addressing the needs of the aging population. There are a number of reasons. Much of the technology is complicated to learn and use, and a simple interface is especially important in the case of older people who may be somewhat resistant to new products. Many people don’t want the stigma of being seen using a product designed to assist “old people.”
Major areas have yet to be addressed by technology specifically designed for the older user. A recent study by Blindsight found four areas of need: information access; involvement and contribution to society; cost-effectiveness; and intergenerational connectivity. Manufacturers need to make the relevant features and functions available and accessible to all users. Working closely with end users has become an essential requirement in developing new solutions. After all, who understands their needs and wishes better than the users themselves?
Revealing the unmet needs for an independent life
Don’t try to understand what older consumers may think and want, but enable them to co-design exactly what they want(iv).
The challenge of the demographic shift also constitutes an enormous opportunity. Older people are a significant and growing reserve of knowledge and resources, and they want to actively shape products and services. Yet their ideas and inputs are rarely used in product design and development today.
However, the success of future solutions will depend on how well the ideas, inputs, and experiences of older adults are integrated into the entire development and maintenance process of the product or service.
One solution is a process called co-creation, which integrates users into the development process and continuously engages them in generating ideas, addressing problems, and meeting needs. The most popular form of co-creation is the online idea contest. In these competitions, end users are asked to present their ideas, and members of the online community discuss the solutions or give suggestions. This idea exchange creates a community in which companies can reach out and interact with future costumers and determine their needs and specific solutions.
Several of these innovation contests have already been conducted in Europe. For example, one competition asked users to design the next generation mobile phone, with tremendous success. Almost 10,000 users submitted more than 200 ideas, many of which went beyond just the handset or its features. People got very creative in developing services around the handsets, and some of their ideas were transformed into actual products.
A similar contest was conducted in the United States during the summer of 2012. The contest, “Making Technology Work for Seniors,” sought ways of using the vast opportunities of mobile technology for the actively aging population. The diversity of partners supporting this contest, including Blindsight, a California research company with funds from the National Institutes of Health; emporia; AARP; wireless operators such as Verizon Wireless and Deutsche Telekom AG; as well as venture capital firms, highlights the importance of engaging older Americans in the development of innovative products and services that are relevant to their needs.
An engine for harnessing the innovation potential of older people
Making older people an integral part of the process of creating products and services will be a catalyst to identify new ways of interacting, caring, monitoring health, and communicating using mobile technology.
The foundation is an open and interdisciplinary innovation platform where innovative products and services are offered, evaluated, and developed, with older individuals as the primary customer group.
There are benefits of this approach for the service provider as well. Co-creation provides customer integration, and thus creates high value for the producers and service providers and reduces the risk of failure in the development of new products and services.
Furthermore, co-creation can go well beyond the creation of new products. It activates the underused resources of the “young old” and integrates them into a richer social life by engaging them in a community. This enables a broader service perspective, where they become an integral part in the service offering and provision as a way to stay engaged, active, and independent within their community and beyond.
Thus we see benefits in the high quality of products and services developed, to the producer or service provider, and most of all, to older people who are engaged in the process and in a community built around that engagement.
A successful platform for engaging older Americans in the creation of services and products that will be useful to them will serve to foster a sense of purpose, enhance intergenerational interaction, increase independence, and extend the ability to stay active in life—all by enabling them to build solutions for their needs themselves, stay involved, interact, and innovate in order to turn the promise of mHealth into reality.
About the authors
At Blindsight Corporation—a research and development company creating solutions using smart devices and applications to support the independence of older people, as well as those with low vision and blindness—Frank Wippich
is spearheading hardware and software development activities for mobile devices and assistive services for independent living of individuals with access needs.
Throughout his career as project and product manager in high tech and automotive, he has fostered innovation, collaboration, cultural diversity, and creative performance with customers and industry partners, leveraging his extensive global professional work and academic experience in Asia, the United States, and Europe.
His academic achievements include an MBA from Henley Business School (UK) and a bachelor’s degree in engineering and technology management from the University of Huddersfield (UK) and Jena University of Applied Sciences (Germany).
studied business and economics education at the Johannes Kepler University in Linz. At emporia Telecom, the world leader of easy-to-use phones, she has been responsible for communication and customer research since 2004. Her years of experience with emporia have made her an expert in the field of integrated communication for the older customer, and taught her to take the user’s need as law.
[i] Research2Guidance 2011 report.
[ii] Administration on Aging, “Aging Statistics” (2011), http://www.aoa.gov/aoaroot/aging_statistics/index.aspx
[iii] Mobile Healthcare Opportunities, Monitoring Applications & mHealth Strategies 2010–2014 Juniper Research, April 13, 2010)
[iv] Prof. Frank Piller, head of research at RWTH Aachen, Germany, Department of Technology and Innovation Management