Fact: Tech developers ignore older people’s needs

Number: 6
Year: 2024

There is a common belief that older people are more cautious about new technologies and are therefore less likely to use them. According to statistical studies, it is true that on average people over 60 use technology less frequently - but to assume that this is because they are less open to change is a prejudice.

Older person with painted nails holds a mobile phone

This prejudice is underpinned by other stereotypes, such as the notion that older people are generally conservative. These assumptions overgeneralise, they do not differentiate between individuals, and they ignore important factors which can ease or obstruct access to technology: older people's individual abilities, education and interests which play an important role in their use of technology.

A brand-new study from 2023 on technology use in old age has analysed the relationships between acceptance, competence, control, interest and social indicators in people over 60 – and concludes that older people's interest in and attitude towards technology are just as diverse as those of younger people.

Older people are at a disadvantage when it comes to using new technologies. Many basic skills which younger people picked up as children, older generations have only become familiar with in the course of their adult lives. Two scientists commissioned by the German government have found that those who design technology often fail to gear it towards groups of older people. A Dutch research group found that applications often rely too much on stereotypical assumptions about older people. Both studies can be found in the reading list below, along with more sources for this article.

An illustrative example was provided by a researcher working in the field of social work in the digitalised society. In 2016 she worked very intensively on the question of how older people are involved in the development processes of technologies. The example of a communication tool that was developed with older people in mind was particularly impressive. The aim of the communication application was to provide older people a digital alternative for their communication needs. To this end, the application had various functions, such as an address book that listed contacts along with a photo of the person, their email address, phone number and date of birth.

The application was designed in a way so that users could call the person directly by touching the phone button, or to write an email to the person by touching the envelope button. While the design of the app worked well for the test users, moving around the app was the biggest problem as they were not familiar with the gesture of scrolling. In most development processes, older people are only involved to test the developed technologies. In a more recent study from 2019, published in a gerontology journal, two researchers again point out that development processes are often about involving future users to increase their acceptance of the technology, but not about designing the technology to meet users' needs.

In spite of all of this, around a third of people aged 60 and over in Germany use the internet more than once a day, according to a IfD Allensbach survey study from 2023. The same study found that just over half of senior citizens in Germany use a mobile phone or smartphone to access the Internet, and just under 40 per cent use a notebook or laptop.

It is important to consider the diversity of individual interests and not to generalise that all older people are technophobic. Older people's willingness to use and accept new technologies depends very much on the specific benefits and ease of use. If older people do not understand how technology can benefit them, they are less likely to adopt it.

General assumptions should be avoided – instead targeted measures should be taken to support older people in using and adapting to new technologies. To strengthen digital participation in old age, comprehensive technology education programmes for older people are needed, as well as critical and interdisciplinary technology research that consistently challenges stereotypes of older people in research on technology and ageing.

Mona Hille, Scientific consultant, VDI/VDE Innovation + Technik

Further reading related to this Myth Bust

Would you like to read more … ?

… about the factors interest and ability: Cresci MK, Novak JM (2012) Information technologies as health management tools: urban elders’ interest and ability in using the internet. Educ.Gerontol38:491–506.

... about biographical experience of older people with information and communication technology: Czaja, S. J., Charness, N., Fisk, A. D., Hertzog, C., Nair, S. N., Rogers, W. A., & Sharit, J. (2006). Factors predicting the use of technology: Findings from the center for research and education on aging and technology enhancement (create). Psychology and Aging, 21(2), 333–352. https://doi.org/10.1037/0882-7974.21.2.333

… about how ageing changes the use of technology: Czaja, Sara & Lee, Chin. (2007). The impact of aging on access to technology. Universal Access in the Information Society. 5. 341-349. 10.1145/1102187.1102189.

… about the design of technologies and applications, which is often not geared towards groups of older people (in German): Wanka, A. und Gallistl, V. (2020): Ältere Menschen und Digitalisierung aus der Sicht der kritischen Gerontologie. Expertise zum Achten Altersbericht der Bundesregierung. Herausgegeben von C. Hagen, C. Endter und F. Berner. Berlin: Deutsches Zentrum für Altersfragen.

… about applications, wich are often rely too much on stereotypical assumptions about older people: Neven, L. und Peine, A. (2017): From Triple Win to Triple Sin: How a Problematic Future Discourse is Shaping the Way People Age with Technology. In: Societies 7 (3), 26. doi: 10.3390/soc7030026.

… about the example of the communication tool with scrolling function: Endter, C. (2016): Skripting age – the negotiation of age and aging in ambient assisted living. Ageing and technology: perspectives from the social sciences. Bielefeld: transcript.

… about the main reason for involving future users to increase their acceptance of the technology: Merkel, S. und Kucharski, A. (2019): Participatory Design in Gerontechnology: A Systematic Literature Review. In: The Gerontologist 59 (1), e16-e25. doi: 10.1093/geront/gny034

… about Internet use of people over 60 in 2023, IfD Allensbach provides this graph. In Statista. As of 12 December 2023, see: https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/1100774/umfrage/umfrage-unter-senioren-zu-endgeraeten-der-internetnutzung/.

Photo: Anna Shvets/Pexels