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Wearables and the elderly: developing usable tech for technophobes

Despite still being in its infancy, wearable technology is beginning to grow old – fast.

With many of us feeling uneasy beyond an arm’s reach of our mobiles, and an increasing number spending over eight and a half hours a day on smartphones, it begs the question: what additional benefits does wearable tech really provide?

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The perceived notion of improved health and fitness, provided by wearables like Fitbits, are seemingly eradicating when considering increased usage of smartphones – above the average amount of time spent sleeping – is disrupting night patterns. Surely adding a new device only provides further distraction?

But what if we were to target wearables at a new audience? Group the nation’s increasing life expectancy, with the 15 million people in England living with a chronic illness, plus the rising cost of residential care, and the potential for wearable tech to benefit the vulnerable is massive.

Where we are:
Undoubtedly, smart technology has the potential to be life changing, but for now it seems ‘innovations’ for wearables are veering increasingly into the territory of dumb. Take temporary tattoo sensors and tweeting bras as examples.

Clearly, the fitness market is a front runner when it comes to capitalising on the wearable industry – its value likely to exceed over $16.1 billion in 2015 – but with around a third of purchasers abandoning their wearables within six months, it appears an update is needed to ensure the market doesn’t hit a wall.

Where we could be:
Step and calorie counting alone will soon lose novelty with users and, in order to advance, wearable technology needs to start offering something fresh. How about being told how many floors you’ve climbed, but then being served a plan on ways to improve this count that would fit neatly around your daily routine?

If a complete overhaul is needed, however, developers need to shift attention towards new niches; where the benefits could not only improve a person’s life, but potentially save it.

What if fashion was substituted for function and, instead of aiming devices towards the tech-savvy, young or affluent, we shift our focus to the technophobic, elderly or unwell and really start improving health?

What we need to do:
Existing tech aimed at the vulnerable, like panic buttons and call bracelets, needs to evolve. Not only should it be more advanced, but it needs to cater to an audience that is almost certainly going to be less tech-savvy; potentially even disabled.

So what capabilities are needed to improve the health and wellbeing of this demographic?

We’ve suggested a few below:

Monitoring health:
Beyond the basic measurements of steps taken and calories burnt, if technology could reach a stage when emergency button usage was falling, because healthcare professionals or family members could remotely detect changes in vital signs, then imagine how many lives could be saved?

Storing contacts:
Granted, many within the elderly generation aren’t complete dinosaurs and will know how to operate a mobile, but access to emergency contacts via a wearable device could make life a lot easier.

A feeling of security could be enhanced too, if users know others can quickly access their emergency contacts. Rather than wondering if they own – and then have to search for – a mobile phone, if a wearer was to become disorientated, or injured, a member of the public would quickly be able to help if this information was readily available.

An obvious one, but being able to track a loved one’s location can make all the difference, not only to the family’s peace of mind, but to the independence of, for example, dementia sufferers, who wouldn’t have to worry about taking a stroll and becoming lost.

Reassurance can also be provided by implementing location functionalities, allowing users to plan a walking route to include, let’s say, a café and public toilet.

On another more basic level, alarms prove extremely useful for the elderly and unwell (as well as the young!). Reminders, from daily tasks to medication, presented in a simple format via a wearable, will aid the continuation of their day-to-day lives for as long as possible, without the need for additional care.

However, it’s not only important to include fundamental functionalities. What about aiding usability to a generation that isn’t so familiar with modern technology?

We think the following need to be considered:

Design and comfort:
In stark contrast to what users want now – interchangeable wrist bands, slick, modern designs, access to messages on miniscule screens – anything designed for this alternative market needs to be as simple and comfortable as possible.

Bright pink wristbands are as likely to appeal to the elderly as tiny displays will be favoured by those with poor eyesight. Inoffensive colours – that are still bright enough for the device to be located easily – and comfortable wristbands, to avoid irritation, would be the best bet here.

Ease of operation:
As highlighted, the majority of those using the devices will have limited technology knowledge at best, so keeping the functionality as basic as possible is crucial.

Unlike younger users, who have smartphone knowledge on their side, the elderly are less likely to be incorporating devices into smartphone apps, which means devising new methods for data collection and presentation is a necessity.

In addition to the above, conditions, such as arthritis and poor vision, need to be factored when thinking about usability. A flashing LED notification, or repetitive bleep, isn’t going to be useful to a wearer whose hearing and/or eyesight is deteriorating.

Data collection:
As touched upon above, this is an interesting one as, despite wanting devices to have a broader remit of capabilities, on a top level the presentation of data needs to be succinct.
Ideally, wearables should present basic notifications – whether that be location, contact details or health related – in a large, easy to access format, similar to how fitness devices work now. On the flip side, increased data needs to be available to anyone monitoring that individual’s health and wellbeing at a more granular level.

Not only can this data prove useful to the user and those caring for them, but, should the tech be rolled out extensively, think of the wider benefits, through data trends and patterns in behaviour among those with identical illnesses.

It’s clear wearable tech has the potential to innovate the healthcare sector, should developers decide to move away from, arguably useless, devices like ‘smart’ jeans. Less clear, however, is how soon we’ll start to see these enhancements.

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