The aging of the population as a whole, both in the United States and globally, is real: More people are now older than 65 than are younger than 5, and the numbers of older people are expected to increase from now until mid-century. Healthcare advances and large cohorts of people born in the mid-twentieth century and later are the primary driving causes.
But what does this growing demographic mean for consumer businesses and product development efforts?
A Product Gap?
It turns out, a significant product gap exists.
A recent MIT Technology Review issue addresses one of the not-often-discussed corollaries of an aging population: “the profound mismatch between products built for older people and the products they actually want.” Disabling hearing loss, for example, increases with age. More than eight percent of those 55 to 64 have disabling hearing loss, over four times the percentage in the younger population, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. The figures rise exponentially from there; almost 25 percent of people 65 to 74 have disabling hearing loss, and 50 percent of people over 75 do.
And yet, only some 20 percent of people who need hearing aids actively seek them.
Related story: Study — Aging Demographics May Hurt Businesses, Innovation
Many potential reasons exist for this gap — and it offers just one example of how businesses are treating this growing demographic with growing interest.
The historical product design problem is simple: Hearing aids reportedly don’t work well. They are also associated with old age – and, as MIT Technology Review points out, senior citizens avoid an association with old age as much as anyone. Further, hearing aid designs are often bulky and unattractive.
Older people tend not to like products that look like they’re for old people.
Developing Products That Fit the Bill
But the market reaction offers a mini-case study in market dynamics.
First, the market abhors a vacuum. The rise of a large number of older consumers who not only need products suited to their needs but have the money to pay for them – 83 percent of household wealth in the U.S. is held by those 50 and over — is inspiring new business strategy and business leadership to increasingly focus on these markets.
Second, research think tanks are studying the issues behind lack of products, and lack of product adoption. Both the MIT AgeLab and Stanford University’s Stanford Center on Longevity theorize products and product adaptation among the elderly, often with prototypes and focus groups.
Their findings? First, design that shrieks “oldness” or pairs “oldness” and “disability” is a turnoff to everyone, including old people. There’s no reason that things like grab bars, canes, and walkers can’t be attractive as well as functional.
Second, design that makes life easier for old people often makes life easier for everyone and vice versa. In fact, MIT Technology Review addressed the issue in a piece starkly titled “Why are products for older people so ugly?” It notes: “As the market for products aimed at older users explodes, some entrepreneurs are turning to a radical idea: actually get the customers involved.”
Indeed, examples exist in other product areas. A revamp of voting machines in California relied on larger type for those who didn’t see as well as they used to and on auditory cues for the overtly hard of hearing. These changes actually made the machines easier to use for everyone. Younger generations liked auditory cues because it felt more like a guide.
Text messages and garage door openers make life much easier for older people but weren’t designed with that age group in mind.
Product developers, take note.