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It’s the Services Stupid! Transforming Old Age & New Technology Into Business Innovation

Many people looking to bring new ideas to old age are still warm from the glow of LED and plasma displays at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas earlier this month. Yes, there were screens, laptops and tablets a plenty…even a few robots and wearable devices to monitor, manage and motivate healthy and safe behaviors in later life. See David Pogue’s summary in the New York Times or Laurie Orlov’s always insightful remarks in

There is not a shortage of technology being developed for old age so why haven’t these gadgets flooded retail shelves or become a routine government procurement tantalizing contractors in the Fed’s Commerce Business Daily? President Bill Clinton’s advisor James Carville coined the phrase ‘it’s the economy stupid’ to capture what the 1992 American public was most concerned about – the economy. Today’s investors, technology researchers and the aging community need to see the promise of technology but understand what older people, families and payers really care about – complete service solutions that lead to improved outcomes in living.

Well meaning and well researched, technologies at prototype stage, or already on the market, typically address some sort of health or safety problem faced by an older adult or their family caregiver. They provide a useful function – remind the user to take a pill, connect a nervous caregiver, or collect and present data in a novel way, e.g., changes in glucose, weight. Far from incorrect, but woefully incomplete these devices represent potentially useful inventions, but not necessarily innovations in aging. Real innovation brings complete solutions to consumers. What is missing is systems thinking that responds to the entire ‘job’ of the older consumer or caregiver providing:

  • Awareness & availability – few devices have made it onto the retail shelf. Technology for aging is not mainstream. The promise of individual products is powered by compelling demographics, but they do not share consumer mindshare or retail floor space with air filters, chair massagers or countless ‘wellness’ products found in stores such as Brookstone or Radio Shack thereby visible to everyone and ageless in appeal.
  • Smart buyer advice – prescriptions and over-the-counter medications have white coated pharmacists to advise and dispense; even automobiles have sport-jacketed sales associates to discuss vehicle options, but no profession has emerged to be the advisor on what older adults or their families need or should buy. Physicians, discharge nurses and aging services providers are uneven in tech-expertise, tight on the time they can devote to consumer education and are primarily engaged with those solutions that are reimbursed by public or private insurers leaving the vast discretionary income market untouched.
  • Home integration – systems to support old age are increasingly complex well beyond the iconic MTWThFSaSu pillbox. Sensors, RFID-enabled tags, smart appliances and soon robots will require professional support. No matter how promising the gadget or system “some assembly required” will ring fear into ears of the stressed, short-on-time adult daughter who is caught between children, work and family caregiving. Think Best Buy…what would the retail giant be without Blue Shirt advisors, free delivery, and a Geek Squad to integrate, install and instruct both the buyer and user?
  • Connected solutions – collecting data is no longer a challenge. Devices, appliances, food packages, pill bottles, cabinets, walls, floors and even toilets can sense and send data about nearly everything done or not done in an older adult’s home…but where does the data go, who manages it, what is the value-added service that can support or replace the caregiver’s role as well as improve the quality of life of the older user? ‘Okay, mom did not take her medication – now what?’ ‘One of dad’s appliances is about to fail’ – whom do you call for the repair? Knowledge without an immediate actionable solution is not always a value.
  • Maintenance – how do you ensure that the system you are using to support critical functions, such as safety, or more routine activities such as the condition of a home’s HVAC system is working well or is not in need of repair, etc.? Remote maintenance is certainly possible for many systems similar to software updates on a computer, but some systems may require parts replacement or some ‘hands on’ help. Satellite television provider Direct TV, for example, regularly send out security cards to thwart signal piracy – explaining to some users how and where to place the card and what ‘reboot the system’ means over the phone is…‘suboptimal’ at best.
  • Remove & replace – Eventually every new device becomes tomorrow’s pile of clutter. Is it simply ‘thrown’ out or is there a lifecycle approach to removing, recycling and replacing the device, e.g., cable set top boxes? How many phones do you have in your drawers?
  • Easy & affordable financing – many devices may be one time payments, others will become part of a service plan that may be sent to an insurer, part of a standard home utility bill, or a credit card monthly charge to a distant adult child.
  • Older adults and their families are perhaps older, perhaps with critical needs, and perhaps using multiple methods of payment – but still consumers. Products of any type for any market become commodities over night. Their success begins with the creative application of technology and design but must include an acute understanding to the consumer’s total experience as shopper, purchaser, and user.

    Since Steve Jobs’ passing there has been considerable discussion of the Apple ecosystem he helped create and how it, not any single device, made Apple a market phenomena. The Apple iPod is far from the first digital music player. But the job of the music consumer is more than simply listening. iTunes makes it easy to shop, buy and organize music the other jobs of the music consumer. The Apple retail store experience makes the purchase of the device easy, fun, and instruction from a ‘Genius’ at a ‘Genius Bar’ does not leave you feeling stupid. The integrated design of technology, experience and services makes the iPod a market success.

    Novel technologies alone cannot deliver the promise of better living to older adults and their families. High-tech must include high-touch to make a compelling business case for investment in an aging marketplace. A product that provides a hub of comprehensive consumer-centered services has a markedly better chance of translating inventions in a showroom into innovations in the living room.

    Photo from Shutterstock


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