Ideas by Mohsin Bin Latheef and team

5 principles to support digital adoption among older adults

At Bridgeable, we have worked with several organizations that are seeking to develop new digital experiences for older adults - persons 65 years and older - a customer segment that continues to grow, yet is disproportionately affected by new technology. Our research with older adults debunked commonly held stereotypes and resulted in design principles that make new technology adoption easier for any user.

By Mohsin Bin Latheef, Yaakov Spivak

We are going through a period of unprecedented disruption in the way humans understand, use, and adopt technology. Organizations have been abruptly thrust into technological transformation, having to move their employees and customers onto new digital platforms and unfamiliar ways of doing business. 

When setting out on any technology transformation, organizations must frame the challenge as a human challenge rather than as a technical or operational one. This reframe becomes especially critical if there is a significant behaviour change needed from the customer (e.g., moving customers from a phone booking system to an online-only booking system) or if the service involved is intimate or personal in nature (e.g., healthcare consultations that have been shifted from in-person to virtual telehealth systems). This human-centred reframe enables organizations to prioritize the needs and constraints of their customers, bringing them into the design process and co-creating new ways of interacting with technology. 

New technology invariably affects some customer segments more disproportionately than others. Consider technology access and exposure; internet access and computer / mobile device use can differ significantly between metropolitan and rural areas. Also consider the age of customers; some age groups may adopt web-based platforms, applications and devices earlier or later than other age groups. These critical differences mean that organizations migrating their customers to new technology applications or digital platforms must strive to understand the needs of their diverse customer segments and co-create technology experiences alongside them. With a recent survey showing that 75 percent of customers who are using digital channels for the first time indicating that they will continue to use them post-pandemic[1], now is a great opportunity for organizations to build delightful digital experiences that are inclusive to all kinds of customers.

At Bridgeable, we have worked with several organizations that are seeking to develop new digital experiences for older adults, or upgrading them from older legacy systems to modern, robust systems. As part of this work, we’ve undertaken our own ethnographic research with customers in this age group. We know that older adults perceive and react to digital technology very differently than younger customers. Even though a much bigger proportion of this age group is online than a decade ago (in the US, nearly 70% of older adults are now online), they have a general “sense of discomfort” with new technology – especially new online experiences.[2]  Our research also confirmed what other researchers have found, that the long-held cultural narrative that older adults resist all new digital technologies is false.[2] For these customers, there are important considerations that are linked to new technology adoption:

  • Added responsibility and lack of confidence: “why am I being asked to do something that other trained professionals should be doing for me?”
  • Perceived erosion of value from something they see as valuable: “will this new technology replace my in-person interactions with X?” 
  • Cultural expectation to not use new technology: “I don’t see my friends using this.”

We built on these insights and initially set out to develop a set of design principles that could help organizations make new technology adoption easier for older adults. However, in the process, we realized that these principles could be used to design new technology or digital experiences for any user, not just for older adults.

  1. Simplify the technical language
    Don’t assume that customers understand “common” technical jargon. For example, in our research, we’ve found that even seemingly ubiquitous words like “browser” or “servers” can cause confusion and anxiety among some older adults. As part of your research, explicitly ask older customers what words they prefer and find ways to use those words in communications about the change. Follow a strict no-jargon policy wherever possible and validate with customers that the language used is simple for any user.

  2. Be transparent about why the change is necessary in the first place
    We’ve found that contrary to widely held beliefs, older customers can be very forgiving and understanding when an organization that they do business with is changing the way customers interact with their products and services. However, a prerequisite for this understanding is transparent communication about why the change has to happen in the first place. Is it because the new experience provides better security? Is it due to a requirement to replace aging IT infrastructure? Is it because customers gave feedback that the existing experiences were inadequate? Be candid and tell your customers! Transparency and honesty can actually strengthen the trust that older customers have with your organization and adopt the behaviour change you’re seeking from them.

  3. Develop new digital self-serve experiences that help build confidence
    It’s not just enough to inform your customers of the change and provide resources like FAQs. Treat the change as its own customer journey – find ways to minimize the number of steps customers need to take and create “self-serve” touchpoints along each journey that will help customers navigate the change and learn the new way of doing things. Leverage tools like Stonly and Storytap to build tutorials and instructional media, where possible.

  4. Framing and language matters
    When it comes to requiring customers to actually change a certain technology-related behaviour (e.g., 2-step verification for logging into email) or completing an action by a certain deadline, older customers actually prefer clear, firm language. Using words like “mandatory”, “cannot be avoided” and “if you don’t take action by…” go a long way into moving them from the status quo and into a state of action. A general rule of thumb to designing communications with a clear and time-bound call to action is to ask yourself, “how can we frame the language to be absolutely clear on what we want customers to do, when we need them to do this by, and are we clear about the consequences of not doing so?”

  5. Provide reassurance that help is always on hand
    Older adults are more open to seeking help when troubleshooting new technology than younger customers. Despite your best efforts to design a seamless self-serve experience (with the new technology), there may still be some customers who prefer to just talk to a real person for help. We’ve learned that many might not take the first step in these self-serve experiences if they aren’t sure that someone will help them should they get stuck. Develop designated customer assistance flows (e.g., webchat, request a call back, etc.) for such customers, and clearly indicate in your communications that human help will be available for those in need.

Inclusively designed digital experiences can help all of your customer segments navigate change confidently. Your customers will reward you with deeper trust, regardless of the age group they fall into.


References

1 —McKinsey COVID-19 US Digital Sentiment Survey, April 2020

2 — Knowles, Bran. Hanson, Vicki L. Communications of the ACM, March 2018, Vol. 61 No. 3, Pages 72-77

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