Older generation demand smarter mobile phones

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter

Media caption,
Jane Wakefield meets the couple who have designed mobile phone software for people with poor vision

Most of the handsets being shown off at this week's Mobile World Congress were smartphones with the latest features.

However, for many older people, a smart phone means one that understands what they want to do with it rather than one packed with functionality.

Their needs are not currently being met, according to Emporia - a mobile firm which specialises in designing phones for the older population.

A recent survey conducted by the firm found that, among the over-60s across Europe, only 50% own a mobile phone.

With half of children born today predicted to live to 100, the elderly market is one that manufacturers ignore at their peril, thinks Ian Hosking, an engineering professor at Cambridge University.

Basic iPhone

He is working on a Europe-wide project to encourage manufacturers to think about more inclusive design.

"Technology keeps racing on and often the functionality is hidden," he said.

"When we look at our phones, we forget how difficult they are to use. For older people, it is often a challenge just to turn them on.

"On the iPhone, for example, it could be one of many buttons and when you do find it you have to press and hold it which isn't intuitive," he said.

It will be a while before a basic iPhone or equivalent hits the market though.

"The problem is the volumes are so high but the market is becoming saturated. Manufacturers have to start looking at the senior market," he said.

Many people will have older relatives who can never been reached by mobile because they insist on turning their phone off every time they have used it.

Mr Hosking explains why this happens.

"It allows them to feel that they are in control of the device. If they can turn it off it isn't going to go off on the bus and embarrass them," he said.

Often older people inherit phones handed down to them by younger members of the family and many are simply not interested in upgrading, he said.

Image caption,
The Emporia phones have big buttons and stripped-down functionality

Talking mobile

For the time being it is down to smaller players such as Emporia to offer handsets with stripped-down functionality.

Set up five years ago, the firm has sold two million handsets across Europe and currently has seven different models on the market.

Their latest model is designed for those with impaired vision

The Emporia Elegance Plus is basically a 'talking' phone which speaks all the basic functions of the phone.

A lot of the design is subtle, such as the function which allows contacts to go directly into the phone once a text is sent, so that people do not have to programme in new numbers themselves.

There is also a hidden emergency button.

"It is black to blend into the phone and avoid stigmatising people. The aim is to design something that doesn't look too Fisher Price," said Emporia spokesman Chris Bignell.

Despite the growing number of specialist firms designing simpler phones, some solutions are more home-bred.

Dina Marks became frustrated that she could no longer read the display on her phone, following cataract surgery.

She turned to her husband, Simon, who searched the internet looking for a solution.

"I couldn't find anything," he said.

So he set about designing his own app, creating simple graphics to represent his wife's contacts so she could at least see who was calling her.

"I felt like I was the missing link between the world of technology and the visually impaired," he said.

The idea has grown into a business - Ccaller - which allows other users to incorporate the technology on their handsets via a Java app that can be downloaded via the website.

Mobile health

The Marks' story illustrates how some older people are determined to find their own solutions in an industry which they often find baffling.

"Older users are in this world of confusion. They blame themselves for not being able to use devices," said Mr Hosking.

But without more attention to their needs, new services which target exactly their market will never take off, thinks Mr Bignell.

"There has been a lot of talk about using the mobile to monitor health but if people aren't using the phones in the first place it is not going to work," he said.

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