Today, I had the dubious pleasure of discovering that one of the research associates working at the MIT AgeLab has 1392 unread messages in his primary email inbox. 1392! As in, 100 more and Columbus could sail the ocean blue of his Gmail. I'd say this number was egregious – it's easy enough to set the counter back to zero, after all – but I suspect he's far from alone in having stacks of unread mail that will never see the light of day – my own inbox is not an icon of efficiency. An inbox like this, in addition to boggling the mind in a Borgesian sort of way, is fascinating because it has huge implications for the design of future products, services and technology in an aging society.
Take, for instance, the AgeLab's e-home project, a system we've built that allows caregivers to monitor their elderly loved ones remotely. Among the functions we included is a small light bulb that glows red in the caregiver's house when the elderly person being monitored forgets to take a pill, for instance. It's a great idea, but the light bulb alone requires constant vigilance on the caregiver's part to follow up on every occurrence that triggers it, or else, the bulb will just end up glowing red constantly, seen, but unseen. So while being a profoundly rational approach to providing remote care, the system effectively gives the caregiver another ‘job’. Put another way, the caregiver's e-home "inbox" would have to be kept at zero at all times. Unfortunately, for some busy people like Mr. 1392 emails, that's just not going to happen. Even professional caregivers trained to be vigilant have been found to eventually ignore or dial down incessant alarms pushed by patients sometimes with tragic results.
The engineering KISS principle, ‘keep-it-simple-stupid,’ applies to more than technology design it is powerful guidance to all innovators who want their products or services to fully engage their target users. So consumer products, no matter how cutting edge, need to be designed with busy, preoccupied people in mind, or else it's not going to be used effectively or overtime not used at all. Something similar happens in public policy as well. In the case famously described in Thaler and Sunsteins's Nudge, organ donation is more prevalent in countries where you have to "opt-out" of organ donation – that is, you're presumed to be an organ donor until you say otherwise – than in the United States, where you have to take proactive steps to be a donor. Financial services companies and employers managing retirement plans provide another example. Give employees a choice to save and plan for retirement, participation rates are mediocre at best. Make savings deductions automatic, very few opt out and savings climb sharply – financial advisors know that an easy ‘auto-everything’ is a far more successful engagement strategy than simply giving employees more information and endless choices.
For some of us, at least, the better angels of our nature are hamstrung by the darker demons of life, laziness, ennui – whatever it is that keeps us from checking that organ donor box, choosing a savings plan, and cleaning out that inbox. That's why part of designing any technology, product or policy for a broad group of users must include steps to beat back those demons. In fact, systems and services that help cut through the daily clutter to make life easier will become a sought after category of tools for consumers of any age. Take, for instance, the email management tool launched in beta this week by Contur, an LA-based startup, which organizes emails into subject folders based on keywords in the subject and body text of the email. It won't read your email for you, but if you're the kind of person who receives 100 messages a day, it may be the difference that allows you to both answer your mail and, you know, do work. A meta-technology that makes technology itself easier to use is simply a great idea.
The new value in product and service design for an aging society is ‘simple’—making life easier makes living longer, better. Aging is complex and hard work. Imagine the health intermediary role of many adult child caregivers – managing the health of one or two parents, maybe even an in-law or two, each taking 5-8 medications, maintaining different diets, juggling multiple and conflicting medical appointments, and ensuring that both public and private insurers are in sync and bills are paid. And, that is just the caregiver’s ‘health management job’. Older consumers and those who care for older people are looking for solutions that fit within the daily demands of their lives not more work delegated by well meaning technologies or more information provided by service providers to process. Put another way, to return to the previous example, it's not very helpful to give a busy caregiver an e-home system and tell her "you have to be vigilant" to get the most out of it. But it is helpful to make her vigilance easier, say, by having e-home text her when that red light bulb's been illuminated for a predetermined amount of time and automatically linking her to response options. Information alone is not a value, providing the informed capacity to act is. Ditto for other technologies and products, from something as high-tech as AgeLab’s AwareCar to something as seemingly unrelated as a retirement planning and investment. You can design the most advanced system in the world, the most predictable investment plan, but if you want people to use it, it should be fit within with the daily demands of life, be compatible with other devices, intuitive, and above all, easy. Now, excuse me, I have to clear a layer of email….
MIT AgeLab’s Luke Yoquinto contributed to this article.
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