Editor’s note: Barry Beith, PhD, is president of HumanCentric Technologies in Cary and is a regular contributor to Local Tech Wire.A critical aspect of designing technology for the human being is our tendency – particularly in the high technology domains – to focus on the younger generation.

Perhaps its our desire as designers to identify and cling to our own youth, perhaps it is the recognition that in order to meet the future we need to identify and address the marketplace of tomorrow rather than today. No matter the underlying reason, in focusing on the younger market, we are laying the groundwork for future issues that will impact all of us at the later stages of our lives.

An obvious example of this impact can already be seen in the trend toward smaller and smaller devices such as cell phones. The small keypads are trouble enough for someone who is young and unfortunate enough to possess large hands or fingers, but for one who is crippled with arthritis, the effort can be near impossible. Add to that the small screen sizes requiring smaller fonts and the problems associated with input, output, and coordination between the two can make the mere physical challenge insurmountable.

The growing aged population

The importance of this issue lies in the rapidly growing population of aged people in the US population. And indeed, in the population of the most advanced countries in the world. Predictions are that by 2030, fully 22% of the US population will be 65 years of age or older, i.e., 66 million people. If you are one who thinks that the year 2030 is a long way off, 27 years to be exact, think back to 1976 because that is the same time difference backwards. Doesn’t seem so long from the perspective of hindsight, does it?

To give you another perspective, the over 65 crowd was just 12 percent of the population in 1988 and predicted to be 17 percent in 2020. Notice any acceleration here due to the baby boomers?

Another important observation relative to such issues is that the most rapidly growing subgroup within the U.S. population is the over 85 year olds.

The implications for the design of technology and our ability to integrate it successfully in the population are immense.

Implications of an aging user group

The changes in capabilities, limitations, needs, requirements, preferences due to aging can be quite large on a population level. The variability of the group is greater even that for younger cohorts, whether one is talking about physical, perceptual, or cognitive characteristics. Research has shown that while there is large difference in the capabilities and limitations of aged individuals in using technology relative to younger groups, there is an even larger disparity in acceptance of new technology. This is in large part because the training needs are different and the learning retention capabilities reduced as age increases. The design of technology for an older user group must take into account not only diminished capabilities but these different learning issues. In many cases a change in training materials from primarily written to primarily visual can improve the ability of the aged to use and therefore accept many new technologies, e.g. ATM machines and home medical devices.

Clearly, it is a challenge to design devices for a range of users that include both young and old. As a result, technology more often focuses on the younger population at the expense of the old. Introducing controllable ranges of such features as font size, audio levels, and display contrast are vital to meeting the needs and desires of both groups, but too often the limitations of devices with respect to memory capacity or the cost of providing this range of variability inhibits the developer from doing so. The ability of developers to overcome the fear factor in a seemingly technophobic aged population often proves too challenging. While we can take some comfort in the eventuality that children now teething on technology will not be technophobic, there is always that nagging reality that every generation lags behind the next in technological sophistication. Further driving this reality home is the fact that technological change is speeding up, thus making keeping up harder and harder.

Universal design and other approaches

The concept of universal design has its proponents and its detractors. The concept argues that by designing for the lowest common denominator in capabilities and limitations, one ensures that everyone can use a device. The fundamental concept addresses the issue of aging users in the same way it addresses the issues of those users who are physically or mentally challenged. A clear distinction must be made in that while the aged demonstrate diminished capability, aging is, in and of itself, not a disease. Still, universal design makes the aged population’s capabilities and limitations one criteria set for designing and evaluating devices. Current issues addressing “accessibility” are part of the same overall theme. Other approaches to the issue include allowing for customizable interfaces allowing a person to “create” their own product interface design within limits, and then, as mentioned previously, design for adjustability. Unfortunately, designing for adjustability works far better for chairs, desks, and other physical interfaces than for menus, keypads, terminology, and other aspects of control-display or informational interfaces.

The future is now

If we think that such devices as ATMs, VCRs, DVDs, cell phones, PDAs, and computers are challenges for an aging population, we haven’t looked the future squarely in the eye.

The real threats that comes from not designing technology to account for and include the aging group within our Society is in the area of medical device design and transportation systems. These devices and systems result in death for those who cannot use them properly and that demands an even greater focus on “the human side of technology.”

HumanCentric: www.humancentrictech.com