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Jeremy Myerson

Professor,
Royal College of Art

London, United Kingdom

My dream for the future is a working world that is more inclusive of all people irrespective of age and ability.

My dream for the future is a working world that is more inclusive of all people irrespective of age and ability.

We’re slowly fixing office environments to become more tolerant of the different needs of a multi-generational workforce, but what about digital technology?

More than 14 million people in the UK alone can be termed “digitally excluded” and the majority of these are older people. Many have never had access to a computer or a smartphone during their working lives and cannot justify the costs of buying a piece of digital technology or the complications of learning to use one in later life.

This means that many older people are missing out – losing out on the benefits of being online in terms of information and services, and dropping out of the workplace.

How to access and use digital services is not made sufficiently clear; there are too many options and features, and both sensory and cognitive abilities already affected by ageing are placed under further strain. Cognitive understanding of digital technology, which is typically designed by young engineers with little understanding of later life needs, is a particular issue for concern.

Older people raised in an era of light switches and wireless sets have a different mental model from today’s digitally connected consumers who have grown up with new technology and interact with it in a very different way.

Many older people take an “analogue” approach to devices; they understand the simplicity of single action and single effect – flick a light switch and the light comes on, turn a knob and the radio comes on and the more you turn, the louder the volume. They struggle with a mental model which demands multiple actions before an effect – in other words, which demands that they scroll down a menu, select, double click, scroll down a second menu, select again, double click and then something happens.

Many digital ways of thinking just don’t feel right for older people. It is not that they are Luddite – they have been adapting to technological change in various forms throughout their long working lives – it is simply that they find the mental models of the digital era hard to grasp for perfectly understandable reasons.

At the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, we’ve been looking closely at this issue and working with a number leading digital players in the field to find ways forward. Two important things need to be considered.

First, designers should look for more intuitive and age-friendly ways to communicate how digital technology works, perhaps using analogue metaphors and devices.

Second, they should actively involve older people as partners and collaborators in a co-design process, and stop treating them as passive consumers or research subjects.

For example, during an international design challenge we organized with the Norwegian Design Council, one team worked closely with an older Oslo resident to address her problems with sending and receiving texts. As a result, the designers experimented with creating an electronic “chalkboard” to transfer data on a mobile phone to a much larger, more intuitive visual interface that is more easily understood and more easily used by older people with memories of the traditional classroom setting. You just place the mobile phone on the digital device and the “chalkboard” automatically lights up.

In a similar vein, our research team worked on a project with Samsung to understand the problems that older people have in setting up a smartphone – the troublesome “out of the box” experience fumbling with SIM card, battery and charger. Creative workshops were set up in three European locations to involve seniors in creating solutions by decorating bananas with stickers. The design solution that eventually emerged from the research involved the use of a hardback “storybook” that contains the SIM card and battery within its pages and leads the older user through an understandable narrative to set up the phone.

In both cases I have described, pre-digital archetypes of communication were aimed at achieving digital inclusion – and older people were directly engaged in a co-design process to find creative new ways to overcome the digital divide.

We need more of this type of thinking- and I am optimistic that given the demographic curve we face, it’s going to happen.

Jeremy Myerson Bio:

Professor Jeremy Myerson

Jeremy Myerson is an author, academic and activist in design and innovation. He is Director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art, London, and chairs the management board of the InnovationRCA network for business. Key themes of his research, writing and advocacy include innovative workplace design and design for an ageing society, and he has consulted widely with industry and government on these subjects.

A former journalist and editor on such titles as Design, Creative Review and World Architecture, he founded Design Week magazine in 1986. His many books on workplace design include: The 21st Century Office, The Creative Office and New Demographics New Workspace, which deals with office design for an ageing workforce and was published in 2010 by Gower.

He sits on the advisory boards of design schools in Korea and Hong Kong and holds arts degrees from the Royal College of Art and the University of Hull.