Why Tech Firms Can’t Ignore Seniors

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I recently published this post for Fortune Insiders. 

When it comes to technology, the mass market for the most part ignores senior citizens. This is a mistake. Despite the common misconception, today’s senior citizens have a greater familiarity with technology and own more devices than ever before.

With over 46 million people aged 65 or older in the U.S. as of 2014, seniors comprise nearly 15% of the total population. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, as of 2013, 59% of seniors reported using the Internet, while 47% had broadband access in their homes. And the senior technology market is expected to exceed $42 billion by 2020.

Despite this rapidly growing and untapped market opportunity, building technology products for older adults isn’t easy. Companies face design and monetization challenges. But if they can overcome these obstacles and start targeting tech products and services to seniors, it will be worth the effort.

One size doesn’t fit all

A significant challenge is the “design-for-all” school of thought, which suggests that technologies and environments should avoid any specialized modifications. This can make devices more difficult to use for older adults, who have fundamentally different needs than their younger counterparts. Some of the basic design features seniors often require include larger fonts, increased color contrast, and louder audio or subtitles.

However, younger designers often have their own expectations of how seniors should think or act, and don’t truly understand their needs. As a result, new tech products often fail to catch on with seniors. While it’s relatively easy to build a new dating or social messaging app and test it with younger users, the feedback process is a lot longer with older adults. As an AARP study points out, seniors are willing to try new technologies; however, there remains a threshold to get the hardware into their hands. Without a large user base, it’s extremely difficult to get necessary feedback on products and improve technology for the elderly.

In addition to the increased time needed to test the market, companies also face the challenge of monetizing their products. It’s understandable that since seniors have traditionally been late adopters to new technologies, companies have largely focused on products with a clear return on investment, such as fall detectors and medication adherence tools. Another hurdle is that family members or caregivers make many purchasing decisions for their elderly relatives. Despite seniors reporting a high willingness to try new technology, the AARP study found that more than 80% of caregivers believe they would have difficulty convincing their loved ones to adopt new products.

Going beyond functionality

Given the perceived risk of introducing new technologies to seniors, companies have historically designed only strictly functional products for the older generation. They should alter their approach. Seniors just have a higher bar for adoption and tend to reject products that are “built for seniors.” This is a new era for senior technology, and companies building products that perform more than just basic tasks will have the best chance to succeed.

Companies like Stitch, basically a Tinder for seniors; Breezie, a provider of tablets with a uniquely designed operating system; and our own company, Rendever, which designs virtual reality experiences for the elderly, are already tapping into the older adult market. Together, we’re bringing more companionship, connection, and stimulation into their lives.

The market for such products is larger than you’d think: The Pew Research Center says 10,000 Americans a day are turning 65. It’s only a matter of time before the market demands creative ways to monetize tech products for seniors. And as more seniors continue to adopt new technology, there will be opportunities to collect data that helps generate new revenue.

If startups can get past the hurdles of monetization and design challenges, seniors represent an enormous potential market.

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