Seniors & Communication: Plethora of Opportunity

Written by: Sylvia Stein. Posted: December 12, 2013. 


On Tuesday, November 19, 2013 Tech-enhanced Life held a Design-the-Future Session with 12 residents who live in a retirement community for active, independent seniors in downtown San Francisco. The group included artists, fashion designers, market researchers, a former judge and other highly engaged and active seniors. The topic we discussed was communication: How to stay in intimate contact with people you love who live far away.


Key Learning:

Seniors seek contact that is multi-dimensional/multi -sensory.

Face-to-face contact is the ‘gold standard’ for this target. They cherish personal contact with casual, spontaneous conversation. The participants also value the many different dimensions of communication currently best experienced through face-to-face interactions: eye contact, reading body language, gestures, cadence, intonation, touch and even smell.

Opportunity Area: Product and services that engage the multi-sensory dimensions of human contact; communication that is genuine, meaningful and compete (as opposed to superficial).

Physical sharing (photographs / newspaper clippings/gifts) is an important way to stay connected:  

While many of the seniors we spoke with use email, they still prefer, and value, the physical photograph, or clipping an article of interest, or sending gifts. Receiving a photograph allows them to display it, share it, and view it many times. As such, it becomes an accessory as opposed to a fleeting experience.  Sending newspaper clipping is also popular and preferred to sending link via email.  These seniors get most of their news via physical paper, and pride themselves on being up on-to-date relative to current events. Clipping an article (“I thought you’d be interested in this”) is an important way for these seniors to connect with loved ones in the context of current events (global / local / human interest). 

Opportunity Areas: Other ways for seniors to connect to loved ones through their interests, professional, passions or current events. Reinventing gift-giving / photo-sharing for seniors.

Staying connected means being part of each other’s daily lives:

Some of the seniors spoke about staying in touch with friends from way back: friends from their childhoods or friends from previous part of their lives. With these relationships there is an equal balance between experiencing nostalgia and trying to recreate the close, daily contact of the initial incarnation of that relationship. “We used to talk every day.” “When we talk it’s like no time has passed. We slip right back into the relationship we used to have.”

Opportunity Area: More engaging ways for this target to connect over the past (creating a shared memory book / album, for example) and easy ways to be part of each others daily rhythm / life – to share life’s little moments as well as the big ones.  Products and Services for BFF/F (Best Friends Forever but living Far away)

Forming new connections (vs. maintaining existing relationships)

A few seniors talks about how important it still is to form new relationships. Some relayed stories about forming new, rich relationships with someone they barely new in the past.  Others formed completely new relationships.  Forming new relationships allows seniors to feel vibrant.

Opportunity Area: How to support new relationships?

Work-arounds for dimensionalizing contact:

One senior described how she regularly arranges to have her friend / relatives watch the same TV program so they can talk about it afterwards. 

Opportunity Area: Creating better ways for two (or more) friends / relatives) to connect virtually through a shared experience (movie / TV show / sports event / theater/ shopping / current events).

Phone = easy communication / spontaneous. Email = measured / thoughtful / more work)

Email is more of a requirement to stay in touch with people who live far away or a way to access certain types of information, but it is not the preferred method of communication.  On the one hand, for these seniors, email communication is careful and thoughtful, but on the other hand it lacks emotion, is “monotone” and can be misinterpreted. Email is not a natural / free-wheeling way for this cohort to communicate.  The phone is much more natural and allows for spontaneity and casual conversation.  In addition, many of the problems usually associated with phone calls (voice mail / interruptions) do not come up as significant issues or problems.

Opportunity Area: A new interface that blends the best of email with the best of phone conversations.

Importance of connecting to people through times of transition:

When someone is ill or going through a transition – showing concern and offering support is a challenge.  The seniors are aware that there are ebbs and flows to their relationships / connections to friends / family, but when a loved one or an old friend is going through a transition or difficult time, it is more important and also more difficult to connect.

Opportunity Area: How to facilitate /support staying close to friends / loved ones going though a transition.  What is the Carebridge for everyday transitions?

Connecting with Grandchildren is a highlight but feels limited. Either they are too young for email or not communicative on the phone.

Opportunity Area: How to enhance regular communication between grandparent and grandchild (for example virtually build a model together, sending photo or artworks with embedded recorded chip…)

Phone - Pros:

  • Convenient / universal/global: Opportunity Area:  Everyone has a phone, but not every phone is right for this target. How to create a phone that is streamlined / customized for this target?
  • Hearing a voice is reassuring. Hearing is believing. Opportunity Area: How to expand on this benefit area, providing other forms of emotional support?
  • Instant reactions / Instant Gratification: Opportunity Area: How to build instant gratification into other modes of communication i.e. email
  • More information/ Get the complete story: Opportunity Area: New tools for storytelling that includes all the senses
  • Can hear the mood behind the words. More expressive: Opportunity Area: Ways to dimentionalize mood; an auditory mood ring?
  • Emotional stimulation; gets human contact/empathy endorphins activated:
  • The feeling after a good conversation is pure satisfaction and gratification “I feel pleased.”


Phone Cons:

  • Phone tag: Opportunity Area: Phone tag solution for family members or close friends who talk on the phone often
  • Different time zones: Opportunity Area: Intuitive platform for asynchronous voice conversations
  • Unwanted phone calls / solicitations / no call list does not work: Opportunity Area: Fool proof way to get off lists and screen unwanted calls / solicitations. An easy way to check the credibility of the caller while on the phone.
  • Expense: Opportunity Area: a more senior friendly way to Skype etc
  • NSA / Phone taps: Opportunity Area: safety, security and privacy vis a vis communication
  • No visuals: Opportunity Area: a more senior friendly way to Skype etc
  • No touch / closeness / body language: Opportunity Area: multi-sensory communication
  • No context for the conversation: Opportunity Area: A way to maintain different levels of contact so that the phone conversation is part of a continuum.
  • Can be intrusive (both sides): Opportunity Area: Easy ways to set availability for phone calls; time outs where the phone does not even ring; times when only certain calls get through etc
  • Not certain of the other person’s commitment / attention – are they doing something else while talking to you; multi-tasking vs. focusing on conversation. Opportunity Area: other ways (beyond voice) for each person on the phone to engage to insure focus and attention.
  • Starting the conversation is hard. Opportunity Area: ice breakers for phone conversations


Family connections:

The connections / communication that was most important for most of the seniors was contact with family.  Between regular phone calls, email contact and face-to-face visits, the desire is to feel connected and in each others’ lives. However the feeling conveyed was that these communications were more sporadic in nature.

Opportunity Area: A new platform that allows for a steady, continuous, non-intrusive contact.

Semi-engaged vs semi-retired

Many of the seniors we spoke with are still ‘working’ or consider themselves ‘working’ even if they are not paid.  This is an important part of who they are and they hold dearly to their ‘place in the world’ and staying relevant. Participating in community / keeping active is extremely important to these seniors’ health and well-being.

Opportunity Area: Products and services that support seniors who defined themselves as semi-engaged as opposed to semi-retired.


Many of the seniors are passionate about travel. They travel with friends and family, but also enjoy meeting other travelers.

Opportunity Areas: Between planning the trip, the trip itself, sharing memories of the trip and staying in touch with fellow travelers, there are a myriad of opportunities to custom-tailor products and services for this cohort. Certain level of worry is constant.

Sending Funds

Sending $ is difficult:

Opportunity Area: An easy, fool-proof, safe, secure way to send money targeted to seniors

Routine vs. Spontaneity

The seniors we spoke with value both routine and spontaneity. They find comfort in routine, but being spontaneous gives them a feeling of vibrancy and excitement. 

Opportunity Area: Planned spontaneity

The best communication by far, and the focus of much of their enjoyment and practice is in person – visits / family gathering / traveling together – with old friends / close family

Culture Connection

Many of the participants enjoy connecting through the arts / theater / music / opera:

Opportunity Area: Multi-dimensional ways to share and connect through cultural activities and experiences.





Discuss, Comment, Ask Questions


Key words: 
co-creation, design thinking

Last Updated: May 13, 2020.

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