Periods of lockdown during the pandemic have meant considerable changes for many, including finding alternative ways to communicate with loved ones. Being unable to physically see friends, hug family and talk face-to-face with neighbours has resulted in finding new and inventive ways to maintain connection. These include using the internet and applications such as Zoom, Skype and WhatsApp to videocall family and friends, continue with hobbies, social groups and even exercise. However, for some, technology use is not always that easy or possible, resulting in potential isolation and loneliness.
There are a number of barriers that can prevent people from using digital technology. The primary one being a lack of internet access due to its expense, or perceptions of it being unnecessary. Recent statistics reveal that 18% of people aged over 65 do not have internet access. So, although during the Covid-19 pandemic, people were increasingly turning to technology in lockdown, not all were able to connect or communicate with friends and family by using technology and the Internet.
We conducted research on people over the age of 65 using everyday technologies such as laptops, smart phones, e-readers and tablets. The research revealed the complexity associated with technology use as well as the mixed emotions that people experience when trying to master various applications. For example, inefficiencies in product design can lead to feelings of being out of control, trapped, alone or even incompetent. Yet for those who persevere, the rewards can be plentiful. These include the ability to complete tasks more easily, communicate more effectively, leading to increased independence as well as a sense of achievement.
The main story of the research was how people overcame the mixed emotions and complexity associated with technology use by demonstrating resilience and mastering their device.
How to master technology
While people typically identify digital technology as a challenge to be conquered, there are different ways of overcoming or confronting digital obstacles. Some view the challenge as a personal goal, using instruction manuals or simply trial and error to prevail over software updates, unwanted viruses or junk mail. Others view digital technology as a collective endeavour, asking friends and family for their help. Asking for help is not only the most successful strategy but it also encourages important interaction with others.
Understandably frustrations emerge when learning a new skill, but people have shown how they overcome their exasperation by developing a relationship with their device through partnering. Naming the technology or humanising the device bonds the consumer to their digital product. Many devices were referred to as having a personality, gender, or even a mind of their own! This strategy creates humour for individuals in a situation that could otherwise be stressful, allowing frustrations to be directed towards a meaningful entity.
The more people use digital technology, the more they identify ways in which their devices can offer familiarity to support continued use. If a new digital product is purchased, recognisable and useful software and applications are downloaded so that a new device feels less alien. Similarly, if a touchscreen is problematic, recognisable alternatives are sought such as a keyboard and mouse.
Using technology at any age can have its pros and its cons for the user, but research discovered that the over 65s are better at offering a unique perspective. Using considerable wisdom, they take a step back to realise that technology has its faults. If things go wrong, their judgement and experience is useful in helping to realise that the key to technology use is persistence. One participant, Christopher, 83, said:
There’s one sure thing: life will come to an end, and technology will always go wrong. My son’s partner sends me texts from their holiday in Tunis. When I try to reply I keep getting ‘no service’ and my message is refused … [but] I know they will be worried if they don’t get a reply. When I was a kid, Tunis was a distant desert war zone, with cinema newsreels a week later … and here’s me now, whingeing about lack of instant contact.
These findings are significant for technology development, marketing, and customer services. Firstly, technology used by over 65s should be designed based on actual experiences. Digital devices should include familiar commands, buttons, screens, and add-ons to previous models. This will enhance the ability to develop social connections as well as improve independence and confidence. Secondly, customer service teams should be easily accessible and well versed to provide the necessary support. Finally, marketing messaging should underscore the potential benefits of mastering technology, emphasising the importance of being worldly-wise and using real life success stories. This may encourage those who are apprehensive and unsure about technology to give it a go and get online!
Carolyn Wilson-Nash and Julie Tinson
Marketing & Retail Division, University of Stirling Management School