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These Tech Products Might Make a Difference for Seniors   

Most tech devices aren’t designed with seniors in mind, as those of us who’ve wrestled with our smartphones and computers know. Although we tend to blame our aging brains, the fault really lies with the tech community. The fact is, many tech devices are frustrating for anyone who came of age in a pre-digital world, and most fail to meet the needs of anyone whose vision isn’t perfect. This doesn’t mean we want software and hardware dumbed down for us—but we do want tech pros to understand people over 30 want to use the devices they make, too, and that we want more intuitive, more adaptable design for everyone

The recent Gerontological Society of America Annual Scientific Meeting held in November in New Orleans featured presentations on tech products that might really make a difference in the future.

Here are three.

Glasses to Make Us Smarter

In 2013 Google introduced Google Glass, the first Smart Glasses. These awkward-looking specs had a smartphone screen in one corner that the user could glance at without hauling out his or phone. The glasses did everything a phone did — including make and receive phone calls, take pictures and video, and display email, maps and Google search results, all in the user’s field of view. They were marketed to the young digerati, despite the fact that they seemed like just the thing for seniors.

Google Glass died an ignominious death because they were too clunky and expensive, along with other issues, but Glassistant, a Geriatrics Research Group at the University of Berlin, recently conducted a study of a Google Glass-like wearable as virtual assistant for older adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment. Some of the potential uses include displaying medication reminders or calendar appointments, showing the name of an acquaintance when that person comes into view, and pulling up GPS directions. Despite the popular assumption that seniors resist new technologies, their research found a high acceptance of smart glasses among the participants, even though there were some performance and usability issues. As a result of the study, Glassistant concluded that initial training and long term support were needed for smart glasses to be usable by older people who need virtual assistants, along with the integration of smart technology into people’s normal spectacles. The good news is that smart glasses are far from dead, according to Wearable.com. Hopefully a new generation of these glasses will be adapted for use by older people who could really benefit from this type of wearable device.

Google Maps for Assistive Device Users

When you get in the car and map your route with Google Maps, you find out which roads to take, but not what to expect when you get out of the car and have to navigate to your actual destination. People who use canes, wheelchairs, walkers and other assistive devices have no way of knowing whether there’s a curb cut in front of the restaurant or theater, or a graveled or paved walkway, or stairs to navigate. The ALIGN Project at the Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access at the Georgia Institute of Technology College of Design aims to change this by developing a mobile app to help with outdoor route planning. The team asked participants to list which environmental hazards are priorities. The result was a laundry list of challenging outdoor features, including sidewalk condition (or even absence of sidewalk), landscape overgrowth obstructing the path, lack of acoustic signals at traffic signs, and steps.

The Align app will map the terrain so that users, or those helping them, can plan their routes.

Tech Manuals You Can Actually Understand

We’ve all wanted to tear our hair out because we couldn’t understand (or even see to read) the manual for our shiny new tech product. As part of a study VA researchers were conducting, the VA Palo Alto, Health Care System Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center needed to come up with instructions for a DVD player that participants could actually understand. The result: a user-friendly manual for veterans over 65, and by extension a model for a clear, easy to understand instruction manual for anyone of any age.

What this manual has that most don’t:

  • A larger font size. Most manuals use teeny print. The study’s sample manual used a 14 point font, but found that even 12 point would be helpful.
  • Color photos of the DVD player and of an actual person demonstrating each step needed to operate it. Photos can show switches and jacks on devices that might be hard to locate because of low contrast, such as a white switch on a white surface.
  • Arrows and circles for switches and jacks to draw attention to their locations. In the low-contrast, black-and-white sketches that are often included in manuals, some features are hard to detect.

The researchers tested their instructions with a few adults aged 60 years and older by asking them to follow the instructions while the manual’s developers observed. This type of user testing is one of the best ways to spot usability issues, but most user testing does not involve older people.

This article was written with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellowships, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by the Silver Century Foundation.

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