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Senior Citizens: Asking Those to Whom it May Concern
Too small keys, too small writing: The design of the new coffeemaker or of the new mobile phone is not always well thought through. The development of many products often disregards the users. Above all senior citizens can tell you a thing or two about it. Now the Senior Research Group from Berlin, Germany wants to change this.
The SRG belongs to the Center for Technology and Society at TU Berlin;
© AWB/TU Berlin
Once a month the heads are spinning. Then, the about fifteen members of the Senior Research Group (SRG) meet to exchange themselves with each other about running research projects, to test products and to co-ordinate appointments. „It is not that easy to get a heap of senior citizens to one table at the same time,“ knows Heinrich Suhr. The 79-year-old belongs to the old hands among the searching senior citizens. The youngest colleagues are in the beginning of 60.
To understand technology as a „friend of the age“ was the basic idea of the research project SENTHA (technology appropriate for senior citizen in the domestic everyday life) when it started in 1997. From the very beginning the target group took part in the research project of the University of Technology (University of Technology) Berlin in form of a senior citizen's advisory board. From the advisory board the the SRG originated in 2001and test persons became asked counsellors. „Instead of only testing a few products, now we are involved in the complete process of development,“ stresses Suhr.
Experts about themselves
However, how exactly does the work of the senior citizens look like? An important aspect of their work is the visit of lectures. So that the generations can better learn of each other, the University of Technology (TU) of Berlin the SRG regularly takes part in the didactic programme. „Only recently we have worked together with students who deal with guidance notes for senior citizens in the public means of transportation,“ says Heinrich Suhr. Together with the students the senior citizens deciphered their problems and needs when being on the move by coach and road in the city. Well readable timetables and lowered sidewalks were only some of the demands of the senior citizens. The single results had some influence in the work of the students and were published even in a flyer of the local transport services.
The committed seniors often work with students and discuss the needs of the older generation together; © AWB/TU Berlin
However, the product tests and research assignments are the main part of the work of the SRG. In the meantime, it more and more happens that the members around Heinrich Suhr get enquiries of the industry to take part in a concrete product development. Then after a preparatory meeting the senior citizens describe on the basis of questionnaires which demands they make to the respective product. Afterwards these have influence on the concrete product development. However, this is only the beginning: From the development up to the end product the senior citizens test the product over and over again in the different phases. „At the moment we are occupied, for example, with the research for a pedestrian's navigation software,“ says Suhr.
User friendliness is the trump card
A special problem Suhr and his colleagues come across over and over again is the reconciliation with the developers: „These are mostly real technology freaks and they often have, unfortunately, wrong or even no conception of how one forms the product really in a user-friendly way,“ Suhr states with regret.
Besides, the senior citizens orientate themselves by actually quite simple criteria: It is important to them that they can well read the manuals. Therefor not only German words should be used in easy sentences, but also an adequate font and type-size is important. Moreover, the senior citizens pay attention to whether the device is well usable. „If the single operating elements are self-explanatory a product is perfect for us,“ explains Suhr. But also possible risks by maloperation and other security aspects as well as a consistent cost-benefit ratio stand on the check list of the senior citizens.
Technology is supposed to help seniors instead of hindering them; © ZTG/TU Berlin
Until this is processed thoroughly with all points, some time passes: From the idea over the development up to the finished product about one year passes as a rule. „This is especially for us senior citizens a quite long time,“ says Suhr. „But all of us are involved with very much pleasure, as long as our health lets us of course.“
Providing insight for the younger generation
The inquiries for product tests and research do not always come only from the industry. The engaged senior citizens often drump up business themselves. Assignments often arise by private contacts or meetings on various fairs which deal with the needs of the older generation. Heinrich Suhr finds this great. „To me social engagement is very important. And I have the time, the independence as well as the necessary motivation to devote myself above all to subjects like mobility, traffic planning and living without barriers,“ says the 79-year-old.
On the question what Heinrich Suhr wishes for the future the active pensioner promptly knows an answer: „My big dream would be an inventor workshop at the University of Technology of Berlin in which all generations take part together.“ As a role model he visualises the generation-covering repair workshop of the American Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In this manner, the younger generation could develop more understanding for the needs of the senior citizens. For the junior staff of product creation and process creation this would be a precious experience. Heinrich Suhr gives them to take along: „Many see us senior citizens only as purchasers. Do not forget, besides, however that we are also users.“