New Technologies Require New Learning

Transition to digital TV revealed weaknesses in communications with older consumers.

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As the nation continues to struggle with the switch from analog to digital TV signals, it's a good time to give older consumers their due. By now, we've all seen stories about elderly people struggling to obtain and then connect digital converter boxes to their older televisions. But the truth is that older consumers were better prepared -- by far -- to handle the conversion than other groups.

According to the Nielsen TV monitoring company, only 1.3 percent of consumers aged 55 and up were unprepared for digital TV (DTV) on the eve of the June 12 conversion. This was much better than the overall unpreparedness rate of 2.5 percent, Nielsen reported. And, in a nod to geezer gadgetry, our record just obliterated the performance of the 35 and under crowd, 4.6 per cent of whom were unprepared for the conversion. This is not to say that older consumers don't need help understanding and using today's bewildering array of high-tech communications products. I sure do. My son just stares at me with a bemused expression when my cluelessness reaches harmful levels -- which it does regularly. My dad, who passed away some time ago, was born in 1912. He was current with technology until the 1980s, and video recorders were his technological Waterloo. He could play movies on them but never could figure out how to record TV programs -- even while they were being broadcast. And the notion of programming the VCR to record something at a later date? Forget it.

[ See if You May Be a Victim of Ageism.]

Bill Felkey is a health care information professor at Auburn University and frequently runs technology workshops and boot camps. He says one reason young people were not so well prepared for digital TV is that they don't care. Television is not something they use very much, and more and more of their viewing is done on a computer monitor or hand-held device. As for the government's communications effort to prepare people for the digital transition, he says, "I did not feel they they could reach a broad audience and help them understand what to do and how to do it."

Wendy Zenker, a vice president with the National Council on Aging, dealt extensively with communications issues for older consumers after the Medicare Part D prescription drug program was created in 2006. "The biggest lesson learned," she says, "is to 'Keep It Simple Stupid.' " That means finding a key point or sentence and building communications off that single point, using clear and simple language. "One of the things we did learn about seniors is that they want to learn sequentially," she says. "And many of the things that the Internet offers are not presented in a step-by-step way." As an example, she says many Web pages include numerous hyperlinks that take users to related information. That might be great for some users, she says, but not for older people. "The idea of having a lot of hyperlinks in a document is not effective [for seniors] because many of them will follow some of the links off the site, get lost and never come back."

In addition, Zenker and Felkey said in separate interviews, older consumers rely on trusted intermediaries to help them understand and implement changes such as the transition to digital TV. They need someone "on the ground" to provide hands-on demonstrations of how things work, and personal contact. Communications thus needs to be directed not only to the seniors themselves "but to a broader audience that includes family and friends, senior centers, and churches and other houses of worship," Zenker says. "Look for trusted intermediaries." Felkey says the hands-on component of high-tech education is critical, and the DTV process did not offer it.

Jitterbug, a mobile phone designed and marketed to older consumers, emphasizes in its marketing efforts that it's a mistake to "leave customers alone to figure it out" -- which was largely the case with the DTV transition. Using old and comfortable ways to communicate is recommended, as is the involvement of family and friends.