Health tech for the older set: How tech companies can overcome design challenges

CLEMSON, South Carolina — Estimates are that by 2020, nearly 40 percent of the country’s population will be over 50, an alarming statistic because the amount of people to care for them isn’t increasing in kind. By 2025, the U.S. is expected to experience a massive shortage of health care professionals.

This increasing need makes creative, technological solutions all the more important to address health issues, but companies meet constant design challenges when they offer up telemedicine technology or medication management apps designed with older adults in mind.

Examining this challenge from a psychological perspective is the aim of a new book, “Aging, Technology and Health,” edited by Richard Pak, associate professor of psychology at Clemson University, and Anne McLaughlin, associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University.

Why should people of all ages care about technology designed with aging in mind?

Pak said everyone should care because no one is immune to aging. We all will be subjected to the inevitable age-related changes in cognition that will affect how we use technology.

“Even those of us who grew up with technology will not be immune,” Pak said. “There is also an added benefit to designing technology for older adults: doing so will inevitably lead to technology that will end up being easier to use for everyone.”

McLaughlin said that companies often don’t adequately communicate the benefit of new technology to older users. She uses email as an example. Older generations have a hard time seeing its worth when they must buy a new device, learn how to navigate to email and deal with spam and phishing attempts.

“The initial email experience doesn’t showcase the benefits of the technology, so why would we ever expect someone to overcome all those costs if they don’t anticipate great benefit?” McLaughlin said.
What are some of the main reasons older people struggle with technology related to health?

According to Pak, a major reason is that most technology is not designed around older adults’ unique capabilities and limitations. Instead, most mass-market technology is designed for young people.

“This is reflected in product design ranging from purpose and usefulness of technology down to how the menus and interface are organized. Older adults are just as capable as other age groups when it comes to using technology, but they may be a bit slower. They also want to be part of the new technology revolution in health but are dissuaded by many of the above reasons,” he said.

What factors should tech companies and health care companies prioritize when developing technology?

Pak said one of the most important usability guidelines for companies is “know thy user,” and many companies do not prioritize older customers. Companies design and test many aspects of products piecemeal and then integrate them later. When a company designs buttons, a user interface or underlying decision algorithms separately, the resulting product can be less than ideal.

“Many products are tested for usability in laboratories or merely to check a regulatory box, so it’s no surprise these products often don’t feel cohesive or intuitive,” Pak said. “A way to remedy this is to test products in real-world settings with users of varying ages and backgrounds. For example, people don’t always test their blood glucose under ‘ideal conditions.’ Someone might be checking it in the presence of screaming children, while they are in the car or chatting on their phone.”

Could these small missteps in design lead to big problems?

McLaughlin points to the human factors issues related to directions on products containing acetaminophen, a medicine found in many over-the-counter pain relievers. There is a narrow margin of safety in using acetaminophen; a relatively small amount over what is recommended can kill, and this information can often be lost in the fine print.

“Designers should observe the ‘hierarchy of safety’ when it comes to giving directions like that,” McLaughlin said. “If companies want to have the biggest safety impact, they should prioritize designing out the hazard over just including a warning.”

Although it’s not related to health, Pak and McLaughlin point to the Hawaii Missile Alert as a great example of how small and seemingly innocuous technology design decisions can have large consequences. A confusing drop-down user interface, a forgotten login and password, and general misinformation led to mass panic for thousands of people.

What are future trends in health technology for older people?

Pak said the future is hard to predict as technology advances rapidly, but he thinks the fields of augmented and virtual reality, wearable technology, robotics and artificial intelligence will lead to dramatic changes in how people of all ages manage everyday health and chronic conditions. McLaughlin sees technology headed in a more targeted direction.

“I think there will come a time when technology won’t necessarily target ‘older people,’ but target individuals,” McLaughlin said. “This can be based on a long history of your data that tailors care to you. As with most advances, it’s exciting and threatening at the same time.”

For more on “Aging, Technology and Health,” click here.

SCBIZtv is part of the SC Biz News family, serving 100,000 high-level business execs throughout South Carolina. Click for more from SCBIZtv.