Simple Genius: Intuitive Tech Devices For The Elderly

French designer Eva Rielland proposes making digital devices look more like what they do to help old folks better understand the technology they’re using.

The stereotype that old people are hapless Luddites who can’t distinguish an iPad from their cat’s litter box is, like a lot of stereotypes, rooted in some reality. The elderly are less likely than younger adults to own a cell phone. They’re also less likely to wax enthusiastic about technological innovation. A recent Pew report found that just 33% of adults 65 and older believe the advent of BlackBerries and iPhones represents change for the better, compared with 72% of adults 18 to 29. In part, that’s a design problem.


Making a device look like what it does makes it less intimidating.

So suggests young French designer Eva Rielland, who has created a series of analog-digital devices aimed squarely at mending the fraught relationship between old folks and technology. The project derives from a basic premise: The whole notion of a digital device, of some random, unattached thing that magically beams information around the world, is pretty tough to grasp for people who didn’t grow up stabbing at iPhones before they could walk. But if you can make a device tangible — that is, if you can make it look like what it does — then it becomes more concrete, less intimidating, and easier to understand.

Rielland’s “Objects from another age” do precisely that. A tablet for sending and receiving email comes in a mailbox. A tablet for video chatting comes with a mirror on the other side. (The idea is that you’re either looking at yourself, or someone else.) And a tablet for looking at e-pictures rests on a simple picture stand. When you want to print a picture, you simply slide the whole thing into a printer. By matching each object’s shape to its function — and by making each object do only thing — Rielland hopes to whittle away users? techno-confusion. Spartan styling reinforces that effort.

Whether a concept like this could actually take off is hard to say. (What you see here are prototypes.) One drawback to devoting each device to a single task is that people have to snap up multiple devices if they want a fully functioning digital suite. That’s good for business, bad for consumers. And it stands to reason that the same instinct that drives the elderly away from confusing technology would also deter them from any system which requires they buy four separate devices; one device, no matter how simple, is confusing enough. Nevertheless, Rielland’s idea is a provocative one and something that manufacturers desperate to appeal to aging Baby Boomers might consider next time they design a cell phone that looks like it could be used for anything but talking on the phone.

[Images courtesy of Eva Rielland]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.