Clara Gaggero and Adrian Westaway
Out of the box: access to mobile communications for older people

RCA Innovation Design Engineering

Research partner

For many people, the joy of a new mobile phone can be quickly lost as they take the device out of the box, try to learn to use it and struggle with the manual. Although 85 per cent of people report difficulties in setting up their phone, older people can have a particularly frustrating experience as they apply analogue modes of learning to the digital experience, looking in the box for help that simply is not there.

This design study aimed to investigate and find solutions to the increasing divide between European elders and digital technology. As the number of people over the age of 60 now exceeds the number of teenagers in the UK, this age group is becoming a powerful market segment. A central premise of the project was that the problem did not lie with the user and was not necessarily the fault of the device – learning to operate and use the technology was the main barrier.

‘Older people can have a particularly frustrating experience’

An initial workshop in a bingo club in London defined the primary focus group as 60-80 year olds who are mobile, travel outside their local area and are curious about technology. Single older people and couples in the UK were then visited in their homes and asked about current problems with technology. Workshops to capture the diverse aspirations of European elders were held in Oslo in Norway and in rural Italy where different methods of learning were explored. Early concepts and prototypes were then tested with the original user group in London for feedback and iterative improvement.

The research indicated that product design alone does not make a mobile phone easier to use. Phones with big buttons, large screens and easy-to-read fonts all currently exist. The area with real potential for design intervention was redesigning the ‘out-of-box’ experience, rather than modifying the phone itself. This area is currently underexplored by industry but can have the biggest impact for consumers of all ages.

Two main concepts resulted from the study. The first turns the throwaway manual into a hardcover book that is designed to be kept on a shelf and referred to throughout the life of the phone. Many older people often asked friends or family to talk them through the phone set-up, so the pages of the book mimic this process using a conversational tone that is devoid of technological jargon and acronyms.

Turning the pages reveals step-by-step advice with graphical and text-based instructions pointing to the actual device and accessories encased within the book, minimising chances for error. The book then takes the user through other phone functions using the same process.

The second idea is based around a pack of cards that digitally interact with the phone to add and use basic functions. You choose a function you want, and tap the relevant card onto the phone to access that function. The cards act as shortcuts enabling users to tangibly explore the contacts and functions inside the phone without getting lost in complex menus. The reverse of each card clearly explains how to access each function using the menu, so as the user becomes more comfortable with the phone they will be able to use it without the cards.
Together these ideas present a novel way of enhancing mobile phone set up and use, and could have far-reaching implications for the way devices are packaged and presented to the customer in the future.

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