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Personalization: The New Language of Design for Older Consumers

Ironically, the growth of new disruptive technologies is only rivaled by the growth of disruptive demographics in an aging marketplace. These two forces collide and are reconciled by designers on the interface of every new device. Researchers and industry have spent considerable time and resources on improving the usability of new technologies. Despite these efforts, the capability and functionality of most new devices still outstrips their usability. Greater capability is often coupled with greater complexity packaged in an ever-smaller device.

The cell phone provides a good example. Many phones enable users to play music, take photos, film videos, and now many mobile platforms are being designed to monitor chronic disease. However, this high level of functionality is not matched with an equal level of usability.

In an effort to make more fit into smaller packages, designers have had to sub-optimize the usability needs of less dexterous fingers and readability by bi-focal clad eyes. The result has been a consumer who chooses not to purchase the product at first difficult glance or is quickly frustrated with each use. Two approaches to this dilemma are currently in use – limited functionality or personalization.

Limited Functionality: Innovative Design or Shortcut?

LG and Kyocera introduced two handsets that provide a Spartan design with greatly reduced function. LG’s Migo VX1000 (show here) and Kyocera’s TUKA-S provide large easy-to-read buttons with functionality limited to making and receiving calls. US-based Verizon Wireless offers the four button Migo as an easy mobile solution for young children and older adults. The Kyocera phone does not have any user-programmable features and is so simple that it does not need an instruction manual.

Limited functionality provides greater usability – but does it provide full value? Real innovation is about exciting and delighting the consumer — the user of any age. Presuming what the user wants or is capable of managing is a dangerous pursuit — it may provide a highly usable interface; but, it may also send an off-putting message to the buyer about what the designer or service provider thinks of the customer. Is limited functionality a statement by the manufacturer that they believe the user is unable, unwilling, or uninterested; or, does it suggest that the design and engineering team was unable to solve the dilemma of fitting function into usable form? It remains unclear if reduced functionality to make a device easier to use is an innovative strategy or a shortsighted shortcut.

Me Generation Meets Me Design

The boomers of Europe and North America as well as the Dankai of Japan have often been referred to as the ‘me generation.’ Their generational identification may provide product developers with insight into their desire for a product that is about them as individuals, not as a market segment. To address the ‘me’ in all of ‘us,’ some manufacturers have opted for personalization. European Vodafone, in collaboration with Toshiba, has introduced handsets that offer personalization features to enlarge display font size, functionality, etc., to ease the use of otherwise complex devices. Samsung has enlarged displays and enabled the user to personalize preferences. Empowering the end-user successfully appeals to buyers of all ages. Doing so allows manufacturers and service providers to develop one phone with multiple service options while enabling the user to define his or her needs and preferences.

Other examples of personalization abound and are becoming the new expectation of the older consumer. Nike, and other sports apparel manufacturers, have provided limited personalization by transforming a running shoe into your personalized running experience. Customers can assess their needs, e.g., achy boomer knees that may require more stability in the heel, as well as the choice of a favorite color not readily available on the store shelf. Customizing your Google desktop can take many forms that include the little quirky content you like at a size you can read.   The MIT AgeLab has been working with the auto industry conducting research that contributes toward a vision of a ‘glass cockpit’ whereby the dashboard can be modified by the user at their home desktop to show the information they want, the style of the instrument cluster they desire, where it is located, the color at a size that can be easily read.

Personalization is more than just a push toward personal usability – it is a statement of aging in style. Bang & Olufsen Medicom, the medical division of the high-end, high-style home entertainment company, are blending disease with design. Enabling the personalization of devices in color, shape and inscription. 

While design principles, universal or otherwise, are valuable guides to ensure that a device is accessible and usable, designers should invite the user to play and collaborate in the design experience. Increasing use of interactive adaptive displays rather than fixed dials, buttons and other ‘old’ design interfaces provide an ideal method to excite and delight with the promise of functionality, fun and fashion all in a usable form that translates into good design, good experience and good consumer value.

Insights & Innovation

  • Accommodating burgeoning technological capability in a usable form is the designer’s dilemma – the older consumer serves as the designer’s acid test of success or failure in resolving the trade-offs of function, form, fun and usability. The explosion of technological capability makes it difficult to resist more function even if the form it takes makes it unusable. If all functions are designed to fit, they must also be designed for ease of use. Greatly reduced function may result in a more usable device, but at the possible risk of not meeting the aspirations of the older consumer and alienating younger buyers. A product obviously designed for the old becomes an ‘old man’s product.’ An adage from the auto industry suggests that you can not build an old man’s car, because a young man will not buy it, but neither will an old man. 
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  • Boomers have often been referred to as the ‘me generation.’ Product developers may find that the me generation will require a focus on design and technologies that allows ‘me’ to personalize my interface with the world. Such personalized adaptations successfully appeal to users of all ages. During an era in which consumers can customize their personal and virtual spaces, few buyers will be happy with purchases that do not allow them to personally participate in the design process.
  • Users may not be the same as the buyers. For elderly users, third parties, adult children, spouses, and increasingly grandchildren and friends may help users learn, use and adopt a new device. Providing a personalized interface allows the user and their caregiver/technical assistant to choose what will please the user most and what will work best.


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