Voice AI for seniors
Sep 17, 2020
7 MIN READ

Voice AI Design – No Older Adult Left Behind

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This quote from A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, describes some of what we’re experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent months have revealed many of the best aspects of local communities and highlighted small acts of kindness such as checking on neighbors to finding new avenues for social interaction.

However, recent events have also exposed a pre-existing bias towards older adults. The perspective that people 50 years’ old and older are all just one monolithic group is a mistake for business, for product design, and for successful voice experiences. If we continue to lump older adults into one group, defined only by a chronological number along with the assumption all are in deteriorating health, we will inadvertently design a world where our later years are valued less.

The perspective that people 50 years’ old and older are all just one monolithic group is a mistake for business, for product design, and for successful voice experiences.

I believe it is incredibly important for all of us to take responsibility for designing a future where everyone counts and every individual matters. Together, let’s design a better narrative. Voice AI is the right technology, at the right time, to meet the upcoming massive demographic shift as we live longer, healthier, and more active lives.

I recently presented “No Older Adult Left Behind” at Voice Global 2020. See the presentation in its entirety here. The following is a recap of that presentation and an invitation for the voice community to better understand the potential for voice and the need for contextual design in an inclusive and diverse world.

Social good and smart business powered by voice AI

Emerging tech offers user insights not readily available with mature technologies. Since the early adopters of voice technology and smart speakers have been children and older adults, it’s logical to design voice experiences that first consider the needs of those already using the products and devices. Developers and designers have already directed a lot of attention to creating voice experiences for kids, but voice experiences for older adults remain largely untapped.

Early adopters of voice technology and smart speakers have been children and older adults.

Let’s look at a few statistics from the U.S. and consider how voice AI offers an opportunity to impact daily life and build business value at the same time. Opportunity is knocking!

Approximately 10,000 people turn 65 every day in the US. The over-50 cohort is 113 million strong, controls over 70% of the wealth, and currently accounts for $7.6 trillion in direct consumer spending. Importantly, this is not just healthcare spend. Did I mention opportunity?

The over-50 cohort is 113 million strong, controls over 70% of the wealth, and currently accounts for $7.6 trillion in direct consumer spending.

When we build for voice, we create interactions that combine knowledge of who our users are with relevant, high-quality content, delivering an experience that satisfies the user and meets business goals. Every design process begins with understanding the user audience.

Who are these older adults?

The over-50 cohort comprises four generations, all influenced by the generations and cultural influences that came before them. Understanding their context helps identify the right use cases, the right user stories, and importantly, the right context to begin designing voice experiences with familiarity, contextual user flows, and successful voice interactions.

These four diverse generations each have their music, their favorite celebrities, their innovations, and their world moments. They are defined by distinct experiences and unique user context. Understanding generational context offers insight into how they approach life, how they listen and speak with the world around them and offers an important perspective for how they may want to communicate via voice technology.

  1. The Greatest Generation: 1901-1927

Today’s “oldest old” lived through WWII, the Spanish Flu, and the Great Depression. They listened to the radio, big band music, and enjoyed radio dramas.

  1. The Silent Generation: 1928 – 1945

The silent generation are post-depression children who became family-focused, value-driven, and thrifty adults. They experienced the space program, Woodstock, and JFK’s assassination as defining moments.

  1. The Boomer Generation: 1946-1964

The boomer generation has a wide range of experiences and behaviors. Boomers were the radicals of the seventies, the yuppies of the eighties, and a generation of innovators who today control the majority of wealth and consumer spending.

  1. Generation X: 1965-1980

The oldest generation Xers are now over age 50. They were often known as latchkey kids due to both parents working outside the home and single parenting becoming a norm.

A persistent myth about aging

The reality is we all age from birth. As we get older, some will experience hearing loss or diminishing vision, and most will likely lose a step or two. Common joint injuries include hips and knees, and physical changes often impact socialization, inviting isolation to rear its ugly head. There are many opportunities for voice experiences to assist with health concerns and the loneliness that many encounter with age. However, let’s bust the myth!

There is a huge myth that everyone over a “certain age” has white hair, uses a walker, and is in dire need of healthcare.  This is a myth. I say again, this is a myth!

Regardless of age, activity level, or stage of life, all older adults do have similar top priorities: physical health, cognitive health, and staying socially engaged. 

In reality, it is more common to see active, healthy 90 year-olds these days. More and more, we hear about events like the Centennial Olympics where Julia “Hurricane” Hawkins, 104, holds the world record for her age group in sprinting.

Regardless of age, activity level, or stage of life, all older adults do have similar top priorities: physical health, cognitive health, and staying socially engaged. If voice can keep people moving, thinking and connected, it’s a wonderful thing! We’ll see improved quality of life and increased engagement—and resulting upticks in the business around us.

An important part of successful voice design involves understanding where potential users currently like to play and what they like to do. Research shows older adults like to travel and explore, enjoy learning new things, and focus on people and things that give them a sense of purpose.

Design by stage of life

Everyone falls across a spectrum from athletic, to active, to independent, to assisted. Many live with a variety of chronic conditions, some temporary, some situational and some permanent. However, most of the 50+ cohort falls within the athletic to independent range and a majority thrive while aging as healthy adults.

My hope is that we begin to design voice experiences for older adults using a different lens. If we toss away the assumptions and misconception, and instead consider a users’ stage of life, activity level, and condition variants, will we design better experiences for older adults? My answer is “Yes, most certainly!”

Most of the 50+ cohort falls within the athletic to independent range and a majority thrive while aging as healthy adults.

This new perspective will enable voice teams to identify those micro-moments along a user journey where a voice conversation can make an experience easier, faster, and lessen the mental load—that’s a golden ticket. 

I’ve been fortunate to spend the past five years creating voice experiences with and for older adults and I’ve been amazed by their stories. My number one take-away has been their desire for voice just to help them keep on doing what they do. It is not about perceived problems to be solved, but their goals are truly about daily-do’s, dreams and aspirations!

Here are a few quotes from real users:

“As a couple in our 80’s who travel abroad several times a year, we’d like to know whether popular spots have elevators versus stairs so we can plan our itinerary.”

“As a 90-year-old with macular degeneration, I want to hear about local activities so I don’t miss the fun!”

“As a 74-year-old woman who loves adventures, I want to continue to be strong enough to lift my own carry-on bag up into the overhead bin so that I’ll still be traveling at age 90!”

As a voice community, let’s create experiences that help fulfill aspirations—because goal setting, dreaming, and connecting doesn’t stop at 50, 65, 85, or even 100 years of age.

Designing better conversations

Conversational design often begins with writing out sample scripts. It is important to spend time with users, understand who they are, and match high-quality content to their voice desires. Taking into account generational nuances, stages of life, activity, conditions, and interests, we begin to write for their ears. Writing dialogue and testing scripts with real users is important. It provides valuable information for nailing design elements such as word choice, tonality, and familiar vocabulary to create positive and successful experiences.

For example, designers often write several alternate system responses so return users don’t hear the same messaging and become bored with the experience. In reality, there are times the system should respond with the exact same content. This decision should come from the use cases and should always tie back to the user goal and context. Be sure to think about user cognitive load.

When we consider designing with implicit versus explicit confirmation, the priority is ensuring the user feels heard. When in doubt, and as a general rule, I recommend using explicit confirmation with most older adults, especially with first-time users. Simply stated, be brief, be concise, be friendly.

Data-driven intergenerational design

Data helps identify patterns and areas for improvement. It’s important to capture session data and make data-driven design decisions. You may not know details about your users at first, but your data will bring the insight you need to expand user flows, modify and manage content, add personalization, and be inclusive to meet users wherever they are.

There are methodologies for testing to ensure feedback and data is valid, but don’t shy away from being creative. Look for edge cases to minimize the possibility of accidentally excluding a portion of your audience. If you’re unable to test with a live, diverse group of older adults, there are ways to simulate their experiences—like using sunglasses to mimic reduced vision.

All in all, before building a voice experience, understand the user audience, determine a real problem to solve or a dream to help fulfill, and set expectations. There is a massive older adult audience wanting you to design for them. It’s a fantastic opportunity. Go create something great. And please, leave no older adult behind.

Heidi Culbertson

Heidi Culbertson, CEO, of Marvee, a voice strategy and design studio bringing voice experiences and older adults together.

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