The Future of UX – An Aging Population and the Curb Effect

Advances in biotech, artificial intelligence, robotics, and big data are about to shape the coming century in unimaginable ways, some of which are predictable, and some which are not. Either way it’s fun to speculate about the different ways industries will be transformed. Another plot developing alongside advancing technology is the baby boomer generation moving into retirement age. Today, the average age of baby boomers is 65. By 2030, around 19% of people in the US will be over 65 (the same percentage of people who own iPhones today).  In Canada, the population growth rate for 65+ age range is four times faster than the population at large! As this enormous swell of people reach their late 60’s and early 70’s, you’d be hard pressed to think of an industry which will remain unaffected by this demographic’s unique wants and needs. How will the tech industry adapt? As UX designers, what sorts of considerations will we need to incorporate into our practice to ensure we are being inclusive to an aging population?

What first comes to mind as a UX designer is the challenge of accessibility, as it will now be a necessity rather than a ‘nice-to-have’ aspect of product design; similar to how responsive design is now integral to the design process. Basic facilities such as vision, color vision, motor skills, memory, and cognitive skills begin to decline around the age of 40. Studies have shown that finger tapping declines later than some other motor skills, hinting towards an increasingly touch based interfaces.  These are the sort of things we’re going to have to face as UX designers, and we should really feel the weight of our responsibility to make the products we’re designing as accessible as possible, and to think of creative ways we can contribute to the industry as a whole.

The senior population we are going to be designing tech for in the next decade will likely be very savvy internet users and will be accustomed to doing many everyday tasks online, such as banking, shopping, booking travel, finding health information, or keeping connected with friends and family. By the time baby boomers reach this age however, we will be in a very different technological landscape. Devices such as smartphones and laptops will look like relics, and most computers will be embedded in the physical objects and spaces interact with in our everyday lives. The internet of things is just around the corner, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the aging population ushers in this era sooner than we expect it.The good news is, this new pressure to create user interfaces which appeal to an aging population, will likely end up benefiting all of us, and pave the way for more user friendly technologies. As we’re moving into this new era of wearable tech, robotics, virtual/augmented reality, and the internet of things, every industry will be allocating more resources towards accessibility and focusing on user experience. There is no doubt that this will lead to a future where new tech blends seamlessly into our world and does was it was intended to do; make our lives easier. This is known as the curb effect; when something designed for people with disabilities ends of benefiting everyone.

A good way to get a glimpse into North America’s future, is to look at what is happening in Japan. Today, one in five people in Japan are over the age of 65, and by 2035 that number is expected to reach one in three! There is already heavy pressure on the government and private industry alike to develop products that can help with this age disparity. Enabling seniors to be more independent and prolong their years of contribution to society is of vital importance to the Japanese economy. In fact, one-third of the Japanese government’s budget is allocated to developing “care-bots”, which are robots designed to assist elderly people with mobility and other daily activities. There are many interesting developments catering to this demographic, such as robot cats to keep seniors company, robot companions to lift seniors from bed or help them move around their homes, smart shirts and  socks which can detect falls and call for help, and the list goes on. There is even a GPS walking stick which helps you navigate around the city, tracks your heart rate, and lets your loved ones know where you are. Wheel chairs have been developed which sense obstacles and can move through crowded areas fairly easily. One thousand seniors were given free iPads in a joint initiative by Japan Post, IBM, and Apple, who are planning on increasing that number to five million by 2020 if it is successful. These trends are already taking shape in North America, and we can only expect these types of initiatives to grow in numbers as the largest demographic wave in history moves into their 70’s. Fun fact for perspective: 90% of elementary schools in the U.S. were build to accommodate the children of the baby boomers.

It will not only be interesting to see how these technologies advance in the coming years, but how they will be shaped by the audience they are being designed for. Researchers at the University of Missouri are using Kinect motion sensors to monitor elderly people in their homes. A wearable device called “Nurse Alert” gives you access to a nurse hotline 24/7 and will call for medical help if you fall or your heart rate becomes abnormal.  A study recently found that elderly people were more inclined to ride bicycles if they had virtual reality images of California or outer space in front of them,  and that the virtual landscapes stimulated their brains in positive ways. Virtual reality has also been successfully shown to decrease fall risk in older adults. The necessity of catering to an aging population as technology rapidly advances into new frontiers make UX design an indispensable part of product development, and give UX designers a unique set of challenges to overcome.