In the not too distant future, you’ll be old too. Just like my dad of 80, you’ll realise that you’ve become invisible to the likes of your bank, telco and utilities service providers. For my dad, his low tech fluency, lack of mobile-savviness, let alone his discomfort interacting with a chatbot, has relegated him to a growing group of folk who are marginalised.
He wants to know, who will serve me?
I glanced at my mobile -15 missed calls from dad! It rang again, his voice boomed down the line, ‘They’re cutting me off!’ He was furious, and impatient for help to get his bills paid. What a mess! His mail had been stolen, he’d spent days on the phone trying to get bills reissued, and unlike most of us, he has very limited knowledge of, or access to, anything tech. With his telco bill moving to ‘pay now’ status, he was understandably distressed.
What many don’t realise is that life for older folk has become increasingly difficult. The services they most need and use are now digitised for safety, convenience and efficiency. For example, they’re unable to ‘easily’ perform a Covid check-in, shop online for groceries, click and collect, pay their bills, or find important information, and the list goes on. The digital barriers are now too high – the tech advantage that we take for granted is making their lives difficult.
As CX leaders, service designers, product developers and customer service providers are we designing discrimination into our customer services?
This question brings to mind Patti Moore’s achievements. Affectionately known as the ‘Mother of Empathy’ Patti is an internationally recognised industrial designer, gerontologist, professor and leading authority on consumer lifespan behaviours. When Patti was just twenty-six she undertook an extraordinary and courageous experiment.
At the time, she was working for leading design firm Raymond Loewy, the company responsible for Coke bottle and Shell logo design. During a planning meeting, she asked, “Couldn’t we add a feature to the refrigerator door so that someone with arthritis would find it easy to open?”
The response from her peers was, “We don’t design for those people!” and Moore was incensed! Having being raised in the family home with her grandparents, she knew all too well the daily difficulties they experienced living in a world that didn’t design for their needs.
This event set in motion her ‘elder empathy’ exercise in which she altered her face and body using prosthetics, to disguise herself as an eighty-year-old woman with reduced mobility, eyesight, and hearing; giving her the capacity to respond to people, products and environments as an elder person.
After 3 years, 14 states and 116 cities, her experiential empathy research propelled her in a radical new direction in socially conscious design that aimed to solve society’s problems, address people’s everyday challenges and help organisations innovate to create value universally.
Empathy in innovation, who are we designing for?
For government agencies, their CX efforts are already focused on designing experiences for the greatest good. CX leaders with a growth remit however, focus their efforts on serving high-value customer segments that deliver the greatest return on investment with the aim of making experiences more profitable for the business. And herein lies the challenge, designing for the customer majority means a departure from being customer-centric – or does it?
In a research paper, Older People as a Focus for Inclusive Design, Alan Newell from the University of Dundee, reviews the universal design method that considers the needs of the disabled within product development but acknowledges its low success. “In its full sense, however, except for a very limited range of products, ‘design for all’ is a very difficult, if not often impossible task, and the use of the term has some inherent dangers.”
In contrast, Newell also discusses the merits of design that’s focused on the needs and functionalities of the elderly and disabled to prompt designers to explore wider user capabilities than assuming all users are ‘able-bodied’. For example, “… ‘ordinary’ people operating in an ‘extraordinary’ environment (e.g. high workload, adverse noise or lighting conditions), and an ‘extra-ordinary’ (older or disabled) person operating in an ordinary environment …” the approach providing the potential for a greatly improved experience for everyone, “… including those who would never be considered to have any disabilities at all.”
However, Newell makes the point that inclusive design practices are reliant on re-educating designers to understand the needs of the marginalised. He says, “Many designers, particularly software designers, tend to design for young, middle-aged people and rarely consider the challenges which their systems will present to older people. This could be because of the stereotypical view that older people are not interested in new technology, but this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Perspective-taking to see the world differently
Empathy is the gift in innovation that opens up possibilities, delivering surprising insights. This is the gift of understanding other people’s point of view, seeing their world differently, and feeling their experiences from their perspective. Empathy can be switched on using tools such as personas, customer journey stories and employing methods such as first-hand customer conversations, co-creation, prototyping or role-playing and has the potential to benefit not just a few customers, but customer experiences ‘for all’.
So maybe a shift in our CX practice is needed. A change to be inclusive in our day-to-day thinking and problem-solving for our customers. My dad, and your dad; our elderly folk need our help, just like us, they want to access product and service experiences that make their lives better too.
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