Cambridge University Engineering Design Centre

Ian Hosking, Engineering Design Centre, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge presented on the research work they are conducting with Emporia into the senior mobile user experience by setting out how imperative the senior mobile opportunity is for mHealth, outlining the need for “coherent usuability” and for industry participants to appreciate that “every time you make a decision you’re either including people or excluding people, making it easier or making it harder”.

He went on to outline the high “failure rates” of seniors when using mobile technologies by sharing some examples of cognitive barriers that highlighted how even basic functionality was being routinely overlooked. Key to this were some criticisms of the efforts of Nokia, Apple and Samsung.

In my opinion I felt it was all very biased and rather unfair as it looked at such a small and limited part of the user experience and completely ignored the importance of setting customer expectation, the sales process, the unboxing process and the persistent user experience.

How do you turn this mobile on?

Ian proposed that the most basic function of a mobile phone was to turn it on. As such this seemed to be for Ian the key pass/fail test for a mobile device. I was very surprised by this as it would take a stretch of the imagination to consider the Emporia device to have one over on the competition in this area.

It’s also something that in my opinion shouldn’t really be the focus of a senior device – more often than not when I meet a senior who regularly turns off their mobile (eg. when they’re “not using it”) I go on to learn that the value proposition has been poorly communicated to them or that for some (often completely avoidable) reason they don’t enjoy or appreciate the advantages of being reachable.

Rather than encouraging turning off I would have hoped in 2012 that senior mobile brands would have at least begun to appreciate the opportunity in automatically adjustable profiles to control a customers presence and reachability eg. “afternoon nap”/”Sleeping hours” = “divert to voicemail that plays a hold number 9 if it is urgent + let emergency calls/alerts automatically get through (eg. daughter who knows my sleeping hours, SMS Smoke Detector)”.


All the same Nokia got slated because they “overlooked basic functionality”. This was explained by pointing to the way they had rather illogically used a red button to “start” the device and that this button had “multiple functions… …so it’s also the exit key and call hang up key and we then have to press and hold to get to that secondary function which is a problem for 2 reasons firstly because users don’t neccessarily know they have to do that and secondly they can accidentally do it, more than one function needs more than one label which gives us clutter, and finally we have symbols not words”.

Emporia are far from perfect when it comes to “turning it on”

Here’s the “how to” turn on their popular Life device: “To turn on the Emporia Life you hold down the red button on the top of the phone next to the flash light for a few seconds”

Notice they’ve stuck with the counterintuitive nokia color coding scheme? Notice they’ve gone for a “few seconds”? Anyone know how many is that?

But the reality of a senior getting set up on one of these devices is nothing like this. Because there’s actually an unboxing process and it involves installing a SIM and a battery. We see further complexities introduced becuase of this eg.

“If the phone doesnt turn on, check the battery is correctly inserted into the back of the phone”

Notice that they still sell it with interchangeable batteries? 4 years on from the launch of the iPhone and the senior mobile market still hasn’t taken onboard this lesson.

Okay so we’ll have to wait until the iPhone 5 (with embedded SIM) until the SIM card installation issues disappear but I think it’s obvious that this is going to happen with Apple before it happens with any senior mobile manufacturer.

“Ensure the battery is charged, connect the power adaptor to the phone and press the red “phone” button for a few seconds.”

Oh of course…. no phone charging indicator light, screen notification, beeping sound, etc

Even though Ian criticised the Nokia button for identifying it’s dual functionality role, I think it’s fair to say that Emporia have done worse eg. they hope that users will read all about it in the printed instruction book.

“If the phone still fails to turn on, ensure power is being supplied to the power adaptor, ie the plug is live and switched on. Assuming it is then leave it connected for a couple of hours and then try to turn on again”

Hang on a minute is this supposed to be a shining example of intuitive inclusive mobile design?

As I’ve mentioned before the innovation comes from a variety of places in mobile and smartphones continue to present the bleeding edge opportunities eg. the new simless and inbuilt battery on the iPhone 5 will allow a phone to be unboxed by a senior such that it just needs to be turned on. No senior mobile is available properly “ready to go” in the box through a major chain retail store in the UK or Ireland eg. the SIM card and batteries come separately. This is in many ways an even more fundamental issue than turning the thing on (because you need to put a SIM card and battery in the device before you can actually turn it on)

Now for one second I’m not suggesting “red button, press = exit key, press and hold = turn on/off” is some hallmark of good design and Ian had identified and articulated the key problem very well, but as I looked at the audience pointing fun at those Nokia I felt an urgency to interrupt and state that we’re looking at a mass market 2005 device (that was designed some time before that and would have been under design pressures to deliver a consistent Nokia feel for existing/upgrade customers), yet Emporia have used the exact same color and multifunction button design for a device specifically designed for a senior digital migrant audience.

Let’s look at Emporia for Usuability issues

I could talk for an hour on the issues with data portability between devices, the fact that you’d lose all your pictures if you formerly had a camera phone, the issues with copying and pasting contacts and saved messages, the confusing/deceptive advertising messages (eg. the “real” device doesn’t have a color screen or camera functionality – but the display models do?) which is setting up high user expectations and increasing the chance of the experience ultimately disappointing.

Ian has a great way with words: “probably everyone in this room looks at the world through technically literate eyes and we forget just how hard it is for some users to even turn these phones on”. But in my book there’s only one thing worse than bad design and that’s copying it!

Seniors don’t really use iPads/iPhones

Ian tried to dispel “myths of seniors using the iphone/ipad” who “we all hear success stories where they get iPads and then go on to climb Everest and become brain surgeons late in life ha ha” by showing a video of a lady in her late seventies frustratingly trying to use it.

“Remind you to think how this would make you feel in terms of your self esteem and your relationship with technology… …people often tell me they get used to it but often they don’t because they never want to go back to trying to use this device again”

The analysis of the iPhone functionalities were interesting eg. the action/function analysis:

or the analysis of the multifunction UI that Apple have created:

But I found the absence of any credit made it all a little misleading. First up Apple don’t rely on seniors to learn to use turned off devices. Go into the Apple store and guess what they’re already turned on so you can get an idea of why you’d want to turn it on before you even consider buying it. You get a play and an expert on hand to show you the functionality. There’s no need to build up a mental model of how it works because you’re not just given a plastic dummy ipad – but a real charged up connected device.

Give a turned off iPad to a 20 year old five years ago and you’d of had a similar experience. It’s not age related its familiarity based. People who buy ipads have used them before OR they have seen them used before (on an advert, the news, by a friend, etc) and they want to use the device – the importance of these influences should not be underestimated.

I really would like to see Ian attend a golf training day for seniors. Watching a first time player begin to learn to use a club and the rewards they get. Golf clubs and golf balls aren’t designed to be usuable or easy to use – they are designed to be mastered – but you’ll only bother if you have an interest.

I bet I could have taught that 70 year old to play table tennis with that iPad before Ian had her turn it on because I felt we weren’t watching someone learning how to use an iPad, we were watching someone try to understand and comprehend something they’d never seen/used before.

“she’s worked out you’ve got to use the slider, but because she’s using both her hands it’s not registering her slider… …see the level of force and the way she cleans the screen – this is a generational issue”

I disagree. Cleaning the screen is probably because she has good manners, realises it’s not her expensive device and she’s being recorded by CCTV smudging it all up.

“so even at this very basic level we haven’t even got to the stage where we can launch the very many potential mhealth applications that are available for the iPhone”

Samsung Android Agony

To highlight the complexities of the Android OS running on a Samsung, Ian chose to look at the “Managing battery life” application which obviously carried a whole range of complex terms eg. “ram manager, CPU usage, close apps, overrunning applications, use back key not home key, press and hold the power key for 7.5 seconds”.

As this content is ultimately in the control of the distributing network operator who sells the devices I think this just highlights the need for device manufacturers to own their own OS which is something that will likely change as the Motorola acquisition by Google moves ahead and Samsung and Apple continue to post results with their own OS’s (BADA and iOS).

Typical user testing

Ian outlined the typical user that they test mobile device experiences on:

lady in her 70’s who carried her phone around in a drawstring bag, inside the bag was the manual, in which she had highlighted all the things she needed to do as well as the complete sequence from turning it on to turning it off so that she could make a phone call yet she used the internet on a regular basis

I’m surprised when I read about this type of research that there is rarely ever a mention or explanation of why she wanted or used a mobile phone? Was it to spare her having to use smelly/broken/expensive payphones? Was it to call in an emergency if she fell?

All too often I meet with seniors for whom the benefits of mobility have all too often been poorly explained. In this case it’s quite obvious that the individual has never begun to appreciate the benefits of reachability or being always on. The repercussions of this are enormous eg. a lack of appreciation by the user, a lack of familiarity with the device, a dislike/distrust of the device (it’s used to keep track of me), etc.

A lady in a similar situation (but much older) that I do some work with has got rid of her landline and would never go back. Her mobile phone is NEVER switched off and every time I meet her I’m told of more benefits she’s “found”. These highlight for me the poor reading of the senior mobile market even by some of its biggest advocates in the mobile device market. We haven’t got someone who is inherently different here, it’s just that the value proposition isn’t being properly articulated to the senior with the device switched off and carried in a drawstring bag.

You can find out how engaged a senior is with their mobile by asking them why they like their mobile. Engaged seniors will list things like “I don’t get anymore annoying sales calls”, “I can vote on X factor”, “I know who’s calling when I’m in the bath”, etc

You can help a senior engage with their mobile by telling stories about using it eg. “you know when you go for a walk outside on your own. Tuck this in your pocket and you’ll never miss us when we call round”, “you know the appointment reminder services the hairdressers, library and Doctor use? Here’s how you can view your own number so you can register for it and here’s how you read the sms reminders they’ll send you”, “let me show you how to set an alarm so you don’t ever miss your favorite soap opera again”, “You know when they ask for your mobile number – here’s how you view your own number so you can register for it and here’s how you read the sms reminders they’ll send you”…

Seniors want their mobiles personalised

As an aside I really don’t think you can overestimate the importance of developing user affinity and I’ve noticed the importance of personalisation from seeing the smiles on the faces of seniors when I change even simple things like their screen saver from the factory default.

One fascinating development I noticed inadvertantly after I labelled a phone for a particular patient was the potential for personalisation of the exterior. She remarked how much more personal it felt compared to her old phone and everyone elses so the next time I supplied a device I made the label really professional looking so it looked like it was manufactured specifically for it’s new owner with her name on it. The impact was even greater because we also personalised the functionality of the device considerably eg. via the address book, ringtone, emergency SMS button, etc.

The jury is still out on who will be the leading senior mobile manufacturer but I have a sneaking feeling that we’ll know it as it’ll be the first company that starts wrapping devices as part of the ordering process. Imagine being able to buy your mum a phone with a picture of her grand children on the case? Imagine your grandfather being able any to order a new phone emblazoned with a picture of his British War Medal?

“If we cannot perform basic tasks there is little chance of using mHealth”

Ian’s conclusion was something I agree with but I think it’s more fundamental than being able to perform a task. I think the industry should apply its efforts to making senior citizens want to use the mobiles and mobile services we produce. Fortunately in clinical trials I’ve seen patients do incredible things to please their Doctors. But if we don’t understand “why” we’re using a phone, we’re not keeping it switched on, we’re not enjoying it, all these efforts won’t add up to a hill of beans.

My take away lesson on how to be a disruptive senior mobile brand

Here’s my thoughts on what it takes: stop focusing on the device and start thinking about the services and how you communicate them. Stop providing dummy sales devices to your retail channels (even if they want them), insist on working connected devices being available in stores that retail your devices and focus your design efforts on the senior female audience.

More of this from Apple:

Less of this from Mobile Retailers:

This blog post is part of a series of mHealth reviews from the 3rd Mobile Healthcare Industry Summit 2011. Click here to get the full review.

About David Doherty
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