A recent report from the International Data Corporation (IDC) projected that spending on digital transformation will reach US $1.7 trillion worldwide by the end of 2019 (In terms of digital transformation in banking, banks globally plan to invest US $9.7 billion to enhance their digital banking capabilities in the front office alone). This represents a 42% increase from 2017 and a new focus for corporates transforming their business models across many sectors. This new digital era is also drastically changing the way we work and live our lives – from how we consume content, how we bank, how we shop, and how we communicate with each other. With such a significant impact, how do we ensure that our actions and intentions are inclusive as technology further transforms our world?

Changing Demographic

One group that will be impacted the most is the aging population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 10,000 people turn 65 on a daily basis. This year, for the first time ever, Americans aged over 60 will outnumber those under 18. Around the world, we are facing an unprecedented demographic shift that will have ramifications for every future generation, every culture, and every community. These changes will cut across every economic sector –  from finance and healthcare to housing to transportation and beyond. How we adapt to this new digital environment as a society will serve as a blueprint not only for today’s seniors, but also those in the future impacted by our actions today.

Although aging is universal, how we age is not homogeneous. By the same token, there isn’t any “one-size-fits-all” solution aimed for older adults. Designing for this demographic goes beyond big fonts and icons. We need to dig deeper and put ourselves in their shoes. How much do we know about their needs and habits – and what motivates their chosen activities?  Do we know what influences their actions and behaviors? Consider normal day-to-day financial services activities. From a pragmatic point of view, money transfer is no more than a transaction that involves moving digits and cents from one account to another. But beyond the 1’s and 0’s, do we know what life events the customers could be going through – why they are saving and moving money? What experience do we want to design for? And more importantly – how can we act as their trusted advocate to help them make the best decisions for the lives they want to live? After all, that should be something we must strive for, regardless of the age and demographics of our customers.

Through science and technology advances, we have gained an additional thirty healthy living years since the early 1900s. Biological age matters less when we have more time on our hands. We can now afford to break social norms and experiment when we are not confined to the traditional way of schooling, working, and retiring.  With longevity, our financial needs are less tied to our age and more so to the life stage that we are in. As an industry, we must move from focusing on technology for younger demographics, to focusing on solutions to meet the needs of everyone as we age. We need to go from designing products for people as they age, to designing products with people as they age.

With this in mind, how do we ensure emerging technologies are designed for use by a wider demographic: the young and the old concurrently? How do we build tools and solutions that can support and engage such a diverse population? Innovation is often missing a key ingredient.

Design With Empathy

Take the case of Philadelphia and New Jersey and their move to ban cashless stores. Or the recent news that the cashierless Amazon Go stores will start accepting and giving change in physical currency. Technology by itself is neither good nor bad and going cashless helps to improve efficiency while eliminating the additional complexity of handling physical money. Societal prevalence in the predominant use of cash is age agnostic. Digital transformation in financial services has done much good in various parts of the world, including enabling microloans for women in rural Africa to start their own businesses. Around 5.4 percent of people aged 15 and above in Sub-Saharan Africa use a mobile money account, compared with the global average of 1 percent, according to the World Bank’s Global Findex database. Going back to our original example, what about those in major cities across the U.S. or U.K. who are not in the formal financial services system? The FDIC estimates there are 8.4 million unbanked American households (14.1 million adults). What options do they have to get food and groceries if they don’t have access to credit, or a means to pay via an app or card? Do we end up being exclusionary in the spirit of technology transformation?

Accessibility cannot be an afterthought of any solution, especially when it comes to one’s financial or physical well-being. With inclusive design, emerging technologies such as voice can break down the barrier of adoption, giving it tremendous potential to reach generations young and old. Unlike interacting with a traditional graphical user interface where you have to learn how to navigate through often complex menu options, you can control smart home appliances, shop, bank, or connect to your friends and loved ones, all through your voice. Designing the user experience for different demographics will still have its nuisances (for example, the accent and the way the user speaks need to be accounted for), but the intuitiveness of voice technology can prove to be transformative in how we conduct our day-to-day lives.

According to AARP, 91 percent of those aged 50-plus report using a computer, and more than 60 percent of Americans aged 50 to 64 have smartphones. The assumption that older adults are not tech savvy is not only outdated, but serves to perpetuate the age bias attitudes and behaviors of our society, especially in the innovation space. Perhaps instead of dismissing the entire 33 percent of the population who account for 70% of bank deposits, financial institutions can invest in ways to increase adoption of digital banking and payment products by older adults and provide relevant education to help them gain confidence around usage and security. In all honesty, when was the last time anyone saw an advertising campaign for tech products that did not exclusively show the stereotypical “tech-savvy young people”? Whether consciously or subconsciously, these products are saying: “You don’t belong unless you look like this.”

But why are we so obsessed with youth and ignore those who have the biggest needs with arguably the most spending power? The world is a melting pot of people from all walks of life with different experiences, hopes, and aspirations. To be inclusive will require us to immerse ourselves in our customer’s environments, to gain insights in their daily activities and the challenges they face, and to develop an appreciation for what they value. It is through empathetic design and a sense of compassion that we can meet the needs of many instead of the few. It is only by casting aside our own biases and preconceptions that we can truly understand, and finally hear other people’s voices. We all have a story to tell, and this should impact our design thinking as well. We just have to truly listen.  

The path to inclusivity is intentional and thoughtful, one through which will serve as our guidebook to address the needs of not just our own community but far beyond. As the society progresses with digital transformation, we must seek to include the invisibles of the society – the immigrants, the aged, the women, and the poor. It is by designing through their eyes and through their voices that we can meet the imperative of being truly inclusive. If we care to look deeper, we might have more in common than we realize.

Posted by Theodora Lau

Named one of 44 "2017 Innovators to Watch" by Bank Innovation, ranked No. 2 Top FinTech Influencers by Onalytica, and named LinkedIn Top Voices for Economy and Finance, Theo is a speaker, writer, and advisor, who work seeks to spark innovation in the public and private sectors for the benefits of 50-plus cohort. She is the founder of Unconventional Ventures, which focuses on developing and growing an ecosystem of financial institutions, corporations, startups, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and accelerators to better address the unmet needs of consumers (e.g. older adults), with keen interests in women and minority founders.