The idea, Coughlin said, is to get technology out of the laboratory and into the living room.
The way to find out what people want is to talk with them and watch them. Coughlin and his colleagues use surveys and focus groups to find out what people need and what problems they encounter. A 20-something engineer or product manager may never have considered how difficult it can be to open a bottle, reach for a box of cake mix on the top shelf, or try to use a credit card reader in a drugstore checkout line. Stores can be redesigned to have the things older people need on middle shelves, lighting that makes it easier to see, and carpeting that is less likely to cause falls. Walkers can be designed to fold into canes so that older people do not need to station walking devices in all the parts of a house where they are needed.
All these technologies are either on the market or near to being on the market, but many have trouble being accepted. As a familiar example, Coughlin cited the personal emergency response systems designed to alert emergency workers in the case of an accident. Such systems were created in the 1960s and further developed in the two decades after that. Yet the market penetration of the technology among Americans 65 and older is just 2 percent, said Coughlin. Even in the United Kingdom, where the National Health Service will pay for the technology, the penetration rate is just 15 percent. Thus, even a technology that is obvious, easy, relatively affordable, and sensible has not spread widely. Until such technologies are available at such places as Best Buy and Brookstone, Coughlin said, the market will have failed the people who could benefit from those devices.
New Solutions Bring New Challenges
The acquisition and use of new technologies by older adults and individuals with disabilities is often framed as a purely rational act based on facts and fear, but this is not true of the general marketplace. For example, people buy many foods that are not good for them but simply taste good. Also, people may buy products because they enjoy and learn from the shopping experience. For example, when people go to an Apple store, they seek help at the “genius bar” which allows them to ask questions without feeling foolish. In contrast, many assistive technologies are presented as something needed only by older adults and individuals with disabilities, not everyone else. The idea, said Coughlin, is to take advantage of teachable moments, make engaging with technology fun, and let people enjoy themselves. Similarly, he showed a photograph of an insurance company office in which people can have a cup of coffee and sit down beside a fireplace to talk with an agent. Such approaches engage more than the rational desire to make an economic transaction. Coughlin argued that this is not done