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The Evolution of an Elder Gadget: Developing a Senior-Friendly MP3 Player

We often feature products that are convenient and conducive to a senior’s way of living. From popular digital cameras that simply require a point and shoot to therapeutic gloves that provide extra grip for those suffering from arthritis, ElderGadget has covered a range of products that, consciously or not, boast many elder-friendly features.

What we haven’t featured, however, is an inside look into how a company actually designs a gadget with the 60-plus demographic in mind. All this changed when we came across Linked Senior. Created in 2007, the Linked Senior wanted to find a way to provide residents of senior living communities with more access to entertainment, news, books and pop culture.

The result was the first-and-only MP3 player for seniors. While it doesn’t work exactly like a traditional MP3 player, Linked Senior Players allow residents to listen to music, audio books, news, talk shows, cooking lessons and much more with the push of a button. Instead of downloading these items from the internet – which can be daunting for many seniors – residents simply plug their players into the Linked Senior Kiosk and choose what content they would like to upload.

Linked Senior was a huge success in the four Washington, D.C.-area retirement communities where it underwent testing and refinement. Fortunately, we have Charles de Vilmorin, who co-invented this ingenious system along with Herve Roussel, to not only take us through the senior design process, but let us in on why these young entrepreneurs and inventors decided to create an elder-friendly MP3 player in the first place.

“When we started looking at the designs of MP3 players with seniors in mind, we realized that the device isn’t easy for them to use,”said de Vilmorin, who serves as Linked Senior’s CEO. “It also isn’t easy for them to download content to the players if they don’t use computers [or the internet] regularly or if they have a lot of impairments.”

Instead of making seniors assimilate to the tricky and oft-perceived threatening worlds of the internet and compact electronic devices that are not designed for them, the pair found a way to adapt these technological worlds to the elderly. They partnered with the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) to develop their MP3 prototype, and invited the inventor of the first digital hearing aid to join the company’s board. These outside guides, de Vilmorin said, was crucial to Linked Senior’s early success because he and Roussel had never designed a product specifically for seniors before.

“I think one reason we were successful is that we’re always very open to criticism and taking advice from a lot of different people,” he said. “We wanted to grab knowledge from different places in order to fully understand what it is to develop something for seniors.”

The design process didn’t just include audiology and gerontology experts. Once the Linked Senior Player, Kiosk and 63,000-piece audio collection were developed, de Vilmorin and Roussel took the system to select retirement communities for testing. “We really wanted to understand what these people wanted and how the different components needed to be arranged, so we used feedback loops,” he said. “We came into [the communities] and did different surveys, tests and focus groups. We let the seniors use the device, asked them how it worked and then we constantly went back to improve [the system].” The final Linked Senior Player and Kiosk were created with a mix of feedback from experts and retirement community residents. The principals of universal design also played a large role.

The Linked Seniors Player contains one speaker, an outlet for earphones or speakers, another for charging the player or uploading songs, and five easy-to-use buttons, including Play/Pause, Volume Up, Volume Down, Next Track and Previous Track.

The Play/Pause button is large, black and strategically placed in the center of the player. The other four buttons provide visual cues, such as a plus sign for Volume Up or a left-pointing arrow for Previous Track, to help the user remember what each one does. The outlets on the player are a bit small, which may make it difficult for those with vision problems to use their players unassisted. However, the beauty of living in a retirement community is that there’s always someone around to be of assistance.

Residents upload content to the player by plugging it into the Linked Senior Kiosk, which is usually located in a common area. Once the player and kiosk are linked via the USB cord, a menu containing the user’s name, the player’s remaining capacity, and options including Browse, Search, My Player and Help appear. “The kiosk is easy to use because it has a 23-inch touch screen, although it looks more like a television than a computer or touch screen,” de Vilmorin said.

The screen is yellow, the text is black, and the four menu options are contained in black boxes that feature white writing. De Vilmorin noted that these color combinations were chosen for their usefulness among seniors with deteriorating eyesight. “Contrast was so important,” he said. “By talking to people we learned that the biggest contrast is black on yellow. That was really surprising. We also learned a lot about fonts, and ended up using a special font developed by the University of Pennsylvania for visually impaired people.”

De Vilmorin was also quick to point out that the menu option’s wording was altered slightly to make some terms more familiar and relatable to the elderly. For instance, instead of asking if a user wants to “download” a recipe, the menu asks if a user wants to “take” a recipe.

This simplistic design also extends to the Linked Senior manual, which, unlike other MP3 players, is only two pages long and emphasizes pictures over words. “We designed our manual after the emergency leaflets that are in airplanes, meaning that it’s very simplified, has a lot of pictures and as little text as possible – every picture can stand by itself,” de Vilmorin said. “We really wanted to reduce the number of messages to include in the manual, so we put a lot of work into making every instruction really simple.”

Sample of the Linked Senior manualSample of the Linked Senior manual

With these design strategies in place, the Linked Senior system is now ready for national distribution. Although de Vilmorin’s and Roussel’s initial goal was “creating a world in which the life in senior communities is enhanced through better access to entertainment,” the inventive duo had no idea how dramatically their MP3 player would transform the retirement community’s social landscape.

Soon after the Linked Senior Players and Kiosks were provided to the test communities, seniors started discussing recipes, current events and even the characters of their latest uploaded novels. The players also armed seniors with an artillery of topics they could discuss with visiting family members.

“This was such a big surprise,” de Vilmorin said. “We didn’t realize how large the community-building aspect of this project was until we saw residents using the device. One resident would upload a book, read it and then talk about it and recommend it to other seniors, who would then upload the same book to their players.”

Once activities directors realized how Linked Senior fostered interaction throughout their retirement communities, they began using the tool as well. Directors formed book clubs, music circles and hot topic discussions by plugging the speakers into a Linked Senior Player and letting residents gather ‘round.

For more information on these systems or to place your community’s order, visit LinkedSeniors.com.

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