One size does not fit all: customising the technology needs and wants of an aging society

23rd September 2020

Author: Johanna L. H. Birkland, Assistant Professor of Communication, Bridgewater College.

For a truly technologically ‘inclusive’ society, technology and its advertisement need to consider the diverse usage needs and preferences of older adults, suggests Johanna Birkland, author of the 2019 book.

Older adults have a complicated relationship with technology; as the world and its resources increasingly move to digital platforms, the adaptability of older adults to these changes needs to be studied to ensure that they get the best out of this new digital world. The ‘ICT user typology’ described by Johanna L. H. Birkland in her book Gerontechnology: Understanding Older Adult Information and Communication Technology Use, explores the different types of technology users, and how each can be helped.

Technology has pervaded our lives to such an extent that it seems impossible to imagine a ‘normal’ life without all devices and gadgets. Nonetheless, unless you belong to the youngest generation born after the late 1990s, it is very likely that you remember a time without the advanced technology of today. The progress of technology has not been a slow and organic one; this development happened at a breakneck pace over a few short decades, meaning that some communities in the society couldn’t afford enough time to adapt to these changes.

The older someone is, the longer they have lived without technology. Naturally, the older adult population finds it the hardest to cope with the constantly changing information and communication technologies (ICTs), as the ‘grey digital divide’ between generations stops older adults from accessing the benefits of ICTs. The grey digital divide is best described by the dichotomy of two contrasting facts: the resources of services, organizations, and governments are increasingly moving to digital platforms, but data show that older adults use advanced ICTs like computers and smartphones much less frequently than the younger generations.

To improve the lives of older adults, ‘bridging’ or breaking this grey digital divide is essential. In her book Gerontechnology: Understanding Older Adult Information and Communication Technology Use, published by Emerald Insights, Johanna L. H. Birkland explores how to do this effectively. In chapter 10, called ‘Breaking the Digital Divide’, she proposes that older adults can be classified into five types based on their interaction with ICTs. ‘This classification, termed “ICT user typology”, makes clear the reasons for the diverse ICT use practices of older adults, and makes suggestions on how to design customized services and products to meet the needs of our aging societies’, says Birkland.

The Enthusiasts are easily the most ‘technology-friendly’ type. They love the fun aspects of technology, and genuinely want to use the best products. The Practicalists appreciate functionality and usefulness and are averse to exploring new products; the usefulness of a device must be proven before they warm up to it. The Socializers function in intergenerational networks, and value connection, community, and engagement. The Traditionalists are nostalgics who enjoy the media of yesteryears of their youth. They often rely on others to access online information and services. Finally, the Guardians are interested in secure, discreet, and controllable ICTs. They display concern over the all-consuming and unsafe nature of technology.

Of course, the older adult population is not as simple as to be limited to a 5-type classification. Considering the physical, mental, financial, and motivational states, three groups of people are being captured in the digital divide: those using ICTs, those that want to but cannot (Figure 1), and those that do not want to use ICTs. The first two groups, the technology ‘wants’, overlap with four user types: Enthusiasts, Practicalists, Socializers, and Guardians. The Traditionalists broadly fall under the third group of the ‘want-nots’.

So, what is the point of these divisions? ‘Understanding user typology and requirements will help product developers, marketing experts, and policymakers help each type’, suggests Birkland. Improving technological literacy, accessibility, and affordability, by presenting ICTs variably as playful, practical, bridging, and safe, will appeal to the ‘wants’, while appealing to the desire for comforting and traditional needs of the ‘want-nots’ will help bring them into the fold of users. Moving beyond the five types, knowledge about user preferences can also guide primary and secondary education; fostering an interest in digital literacy can influence children to develop more positive attitudes about ICT and overall technology in later life.

The ICT user typology thus presents a revolutionary strategy to improve the use of technology by different groups of the society. Birkland is hopeful about the typology, stating, ‘programs designed to meet the needs of an ever-increasingly digital workforce, while recognizing the value these diverse user types bring to our societal tapestry, will improve ICT use and gently guide users to change with the times’.

It is important to remember that each of these user types has a valuable role to play in the society. Thus, developers, manufacturers, advertisers, marketers, and even policymakers should work towards customizing technologies for older adults based on ICT user typology, so that the needs and wants of all user types are met and we don’t ‘extinguish’ any one user type.


Author: Johanna L. H. Birkland
Name of book chapter: Breaking the Digital Divide

Published in (book): Gerontechnology: Understanding Older Adult Information and Communication Technology Use
ISBN: 9781787432925
DOI: 10.1108/9781787432918

About the author

Johanna L. H. Birkland is an Assistant Professor of Communication, at Bridgewater College. After completing her doctoral studies from the Syracuse University School of Information Studies, she now pursues research in interdisciplinary Gerontechnology. She has received numerous awards, including the 2010 SU Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award and the Faculty Award for Excellence at Ithaca College. She is the author of several publications focusing on how technology use changes with age.

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