Does Age Predict Technology Adoption?

A common perception is that ‘older people’ (whatever age that is) do not adopt technology as quickly as younger users. It appears some preferences may be ageless. Consider the e-book or e-reader. Whether a Kindle, Nook, Sony or another manufacturer, one might assume that these pieces of high-tech must be in high-demand by nearly everyone but especially among younger users. While Pew has reported e-book reader sales rising, new data from Rasmussen suggests that the printing press may have a few more years to go.

According to Rasmussen three out of four Americans still prefer books over today’s e-books. Approximately 75% enjoy paper, 15% enjoy digital format and another 10% are undecided. The number of paper users does not waiver much based upon book buying habits, 74% of those who bought a book in the last month prefer bound text to screen reading. Here is where it gets interesting. Despite the digital divide in other tech domains, the generations are remarkably aligned in their preference to read “traditional print format” rather than on an “electronic book reading device”. Of survey respondents ages 18-39, 70% prefer hardcopy, as do 79% of middle-aged readers and 78% of consumers 65+. Clearly younger readers are more likely to use an e-reader, 19% compared to only 14% and 10% respectively for consumers 40-64 and those 65 years old and older, but nearly 75% of every age prefers paper.

What accounts for this generational agreement? E-readers are pretty convenient and can lighten the load for those who find it hard to choose which of their summer reading list to take the beach. However, the heft of a book may be an attraction all of its own. Quite possibly readers of all ages enjoy the feel of the book and the act of turning the page. Other fans of paper may still enjoy the taboo act of scribbling on the page. Or, perhaps, sharing a good read feels like more of a gift when handing it off rather than sharing a download.Whatever the reason, these recent data may suggest something I have long suspected. It is not the age of the user but the user’s experience and that predicts acceptance or adoption of a device.

E-readers provide a unique case study. Most younger buyers never used vinyl, 8-tracks, cassettes, or as painful as it may be for anyone over 30 to hear, CDs, to listen to their music. Young music lovers come fresh and ready to embrace new media and devices because they have no mental model – experience and an understanding of how something should look and work – to reconcile or adjust in order to learn something new. Essentially, they have nothing to give up or relearn in order to adopt something new. Unlike many devices such as MP3 players, i-anything or a never-ending list of apps, younger and older users start out from the same place when considering e-book adoption. Whether you are months old chewing on a picture book or a centenarian reading a favorite novel, we all share an idea of how a book should look and ‘work’. While convenient, light and in some cases even a cheaper way to buy books, e-books have not presented a compelling value greater than bound paper, ink and glue to younger or older buyers.

The slow adoption of e-books by all age groups and research being conducted by my colleagues at the MIT AgeLab suggests that adoption is more likely to be influenced by experience and expectations than by birthdays. As technology advances at an unprecedented rate and completely novel devices, applications and interfaces are introduced; the digital divide based upon age alone is likely to narrow as more of us, regardless of age, are overtaken by the velocity of innovation making more of us tech neophytes. Either that or the term ‘older consumer’ may get redefined to be much younger – just think of those future ‘poor old folks’ in their late 20s struggling to keep up. Designers, engineers, manufacturers and retailers will have to rethink who is a lead adopter, what services, experiences and education they will have to provide along with the technology to ensure understanding of new systems, let alone their purchase and adoption. 

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