Sep 20, 2022 - Technology

Smartphones and older users remain an uneasy match

Illustration of a door on a smartphone opening.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Smartphones have moved from being a luxury or a convenience to becoming a necessity or a lifeline, yet people over 50 are both less likely to own the devices and more likely to feel excluded by them.

Why it matters: More than ever, services and businesses from banks to doctors' offices and restaurants to airlines expect users to have access to smartphones — but many older people still lack digital skills, and products don't always take their needs into account.

By the numbers: A December 2021 survey conducted by AARP found that three in four people over the age of 50 say they rely on technology to stay connected, but 42% of them say that technology is not designed for all ages.

  • “That's a big number and a big problem,” Michael Phillips, AARP’s director for technology strategy and partnerships, tells Axios.

The big picture: Many new features introduced in Apple and Google products, such as iOS’ Crash Detection and Android’s Live Translate, aim to save lives or actively improve real-time in-person interactions.

  • But older users still show hesitancy to jump on the smartphone bandwagon. A Pew Research Center study earlier this year found that 96% of U.S. adults aged 18-29 own a smartphone, compared with 61% of those 65 and older.

Advocates worry particularly that these older non-users might miss out on ways that health apps paired with phones could improve their lives.

  • “If people don't trust the technology, they're not going to use the technology, even if it will help them live a little bit healthier life,” Phillips says.
  • A University of Michigan survey from February found that 28% of adults aged 50 to 80 said they use at least one mobile health app, while 56% said they’ve never used one.
  • The survey found that older adults who reported excellent, very good or good health were more likely to use health apps compared with those in fair or poor health.

Yes, but: Crafting devices and operating systems that are easier for more people to use has become a focus for the tech industry, and there's been progress.

  • Along with now standard visual and audio accessibility customizations like text size, zoom and audio assists, phone makers have further extended phones' capabilities with additional speech interfaces and add-on devices.
  • Apple's new iOS 16 has also added accessibility options for older users with features like Door Detection and Live Captions.
  • “While we do have a lot to accomplish in this space, we are committed to making accessibility a core consideration of Android product design,” Google’s Angana Ghosh, director of product management with Android, told Axios. “We partner with communities to learn firsthand what their challenges are and how we can be the most helpful to them."

What they're saying: “Tech issues exist in smartphones for older individuals …[but] the benefits are still a huge plus,” Debra Berlyn, executive director of the Project to Get Older Adults onLine, told Axios. “The smartphone is an invaluable tool for aging.”

Between the lines: A new feature is only useful to older users if they know it exists and can find it easily.

  • Accessibility tools and modes are often tucked away under sub-menus or hidden by confusing names.
  • “Ease of discoverability can be especially important for individuals who may not identify as having a disability, but who would benefit from using accessibility tools," Google's Ghosh says.

Reality check: Advocates are concerned that user interface and experience designers acquire their biases in school.

  • “Inclusive design really has to happen within the universities and teaching people how to design more inclusively,” Phillips said.

The bottom line: For older users to fully embrace the smartphone, they'll have to get more comfortable with the technology and confident that they can find uses for it that will improve their lives.

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