Capturing the Baby Boomer market in the digital revolution
Njonjo Githuka explores the Baby Boomers’ spending power and how it relates to the importance of inclusive, accessible web design.
For Generation Y and the Millennials, it’s hard to fathom a world where entire financial systems, healthcare or military applications did not run via a digital interface. Digital dependency is at an all-time high, and it is expected to grow at a blistering rate. However, as we race towards digitisation, who are we leaving behind?
Baby Boomers in the digital divide
For the Baby Boomer, formative years took place before the onset of the current digital revolution. As a result, Baby Boomers have had less exposure to digitised environments compared to their Generation Y and Millennial counterparts. Subsequently, their lack of ‘digital fluency’ has resulted in a ‘digital divide’ and marginalisation of sorts.
The Baby Boomer: A snapshot
The ‘Baby Boomer’ – also referred to as the ‘Post-World War II baby’ – is born between 1946 and 1964. Entering the world at a time of great optimism, hope and ideology, Baby Boomers created influence and the foundation behind the cultural, financial and social environments we live in today.
Technically, the Baby Boomer generation comprises two segments:
- The first Baby Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1955, the first Baby Boomers epitomised cultural changes in the sixties. Characterised by their individualism, social cause orientation, experimentation and free spirit, they were also the group that ‘walked on the moon’, and
- Generation Jones: Generation Jones was the second lot of Baby Boomers born between 1956 and 1965. The term was coined by Jonathan Pontell, derived from the phrase “Keeping up with the Jones’”, used to characterise competitiveness, yearning or craving. Enduring events such as the Vietnam War and the Watergate Scandal, Generation Jones’ were less optimistic, cynical and had a collective distrust for government.
We can assume the second group, Generation Jones, has been more exposed to digital trends due to being born at a slightly later date. However, while Generation Jones may be more receptive to technology, a holistic and inclusive outlook that collectively considers both segments may still be required.
The key consideration here is that the entire group is approaching retirement age and the overarching effects of aging will apply to both segments of Baby Boomers within the next 10 years.
Already, the first set of Baby Boomers is living longer than any other generation in history. Advances in medicine and healthcare have seen lifespans increase significantly. Baby Boomers are expected to live three decades longer than their predecessors.
The Baby Boomers’ spending power in Australia
Despite the ‘care-free hippies from the swinging 60’s’ label, Australian Baby Boomers have lived through some of the most turbulent times in recent global history. From the great credit squeeze of the 70s to the massive global recessions of the 80s and 90s, they not only endured – they flourished.
It is estimated that a significant portion of the Baby Boomer population boasts higher than average annuity and significantly low or no debt. In addition, four out of five own their home outright. Comparatively, you would be hard-pressed to find another age group that is not struggling with its mortgages.
To put the Boomers’ size and buying power into context, consider this. In Australia:
- More than 40% of Baby Boomers are over the age of 50,
- Collectively, Baby Boomers control more than 40% of the nation’s wealth, and
- Baby Boomers’ inherent drive for survival, identity and independence has seen more than 40% delay retirement and become more financially secure since the 2008 global financial crisis.
Baby Boomers have now become one of Australia’s most lucrative consumer groups. Consequently, we need to consider how Baby Boomers are adapting to today’s rapidly evolving digital landscape. This is crucial given that technology and digital trends are driven by a financial component: ecommerce.
Baby Boomer attitudes, behaviours and lifestyle trends
- More than 70% of Baby Boomers view technology positively and see it as an important part of their lives,
- globally, more than 60% of Baby Boomers actively consume socially generated content, and these numbers are growing rapidly,
- due to convenience, the internet is fast becoming the Baby Boomers’ primary means of shopping. In the US, those aged 50+ spend nearly $7 billion per year online,
- the typical US Baby Boomer customer spends $367 online per year – double the average spend of US Generation Y customers in the same timeframe,
- globally, Baby Boomers spend more than any other consumer group,
- in Australia, Baby Boomers are spending more on high-end products that are typically marketed to Millennials,
- the average household net worth of the Australian Baby Boomer is in excess of $1 million,
- more than 63% of Baby Boomers in Australia own financial assets and investments,
- in Australia, 75% of online purchases made by Baby Boomers are processed by Australian merchants, compared to 59% made by 18-to-24-year-olds who opt for cheaper overseas goods. This study by MasterCard suggests Baby Boomers demonstrate support for local industries and loyalty to homegrown brands, and
- in the US, Baby Boomers’ spending power outweighs the GDP of some developed nations. Spending over $3.2 trillion annually, Baby Boomers in the US spend more that the GDP of France, Italy and UK, just to name a few.
Capturing the Baby Boomers market and getting them involved
Given everything we know about the Baby Boomers’ formidable spending power, it does not make sense to ignore the consumer group – especially given the explosion of its social media use in recent years. About 11% (14.8 million) of Facebook users are seniors, representing a 1,448% yearly growth for the older demographic.
With such strong interest in the digital revolution, our conversations need to shift from ‘What can technology do for the Baby Boomers?’ to ‘What can the Baby Boomers do for technology?’ The debate is no longer about the effect digital has on them, but the other way around.
Inclusive design and (aged) accessibility
So what do Baby Boomers have to do with web design and development? Accessibility.
Chatter around accessibility has been getting louder in recent years. The Australian government has become increasingly involved, implementing directives such as a requirement for all Australian government websites to reach a certain level of accessibility compliance. Such rulings not only highlight legal requirements, but also promote ‘accessibility for the masses’ – a compounding problem that requires more creative, all-inclusive and user-centric solutions.
Current accessibility requirements are, for the most part, ‘prescriptive’. While official web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) may cover age related disabilities, they do not go far enough and certainly do not consider age-related issues – such as attitudes, task learning curves, diminishing attention spans, scepticism, new technologies, security and privacy concerns – that impact overall usability.
Inclusive design and web accessibility are intrinsically connected. However, accessibility only focuses on disability requirements and how to remedy them. Inclusive design, on the other hand, ensures all accessibility considerations are incorporated into a design.
Inclusive design case study
Norwegian electric car company, TH!NK, explored how inclusive design could influence the internal digital interfaces for its cars by running a study on various designs applicable to all user groups. Katrina von der Lippe, Director Design and Product Planning at TH!NK explained the outcome:
“We were quite ignorant about inclusive design until this project… We realised it is not specifically aimed at disabled people, but something that is benefiting the whole product and all users. That led to a new mindset in the company.”
Inclusive design is now more important than ever. Bigger segments of the population are entering their twilight years, and it is unreasonable to expect full physical and cognitive ability for the entire duration of our lives. We are all dispositioned to age related disabilities. This concept has seen the term ‘inclusive design’ – also known as ‘universal design’, ‘design for all’ or ‘barrier-free design’ – sometimes referred to as ‘designing for our future selves’.
Identification with a disability
The noble endeavour to include all users in the digital revolution will undoubtedly have its challenges. An ageing population presents a unique set of barriers for older cohorts.
For seniors, physical and cognitive abilities required to perceive digital content diminishes with age.
- Physical ability and motor skills impairments reduce dexterity, motor control and reflexes,
- hearing impairments present difficulty perceiving high- or low-pitched sounds,
- vision impairments reduce visual perception, colour contrast, sensitivity and near-focus, and
- cognitive impairments inhibit concentration and short-term memory, making it difficult for users to complete task-based processes (such as navigating content or completing online forms).
But it is not only the elderly at risk. Hearing and/or visual impairment also affect large segments of young people – and scientists have proven that reduced concentration is a problem more common in younger generations. With this in mind, we really need to question how disability is defined in the context of user experience and how this thinking has been limiting a wider adoption of inclusive design strategies in UX design.
Benefits of inclusive and universal design in UX for e-commerce
When it comes to business, the unequivocal benefits of ‘designing for all’ range from opening new curative potential markets to increased customer satisfaction and loyalty.
Increased market share, reach and bottom line
Accessible digital offerings and products are more usable and appealing to a wider audience. This complements and optimises marketing efforts, widens market scope and boosts profit. For example, Legal and General, a supplier of financial services in the United Kingdom, was aware its online presence was not accessible. After implementing universal design, Legal and General saw an increase of 13,000 viewers each month, along with a 90% increase in online sales, and an annual cost saving of £200,000 in web maintenance. The entire project yielded a 100% return on investment over a 12-month period.
Higher level of user satisfaction and retention
Increased usability via a universal design heightens user satisfaction and promotes user retention. Efforts to ‘include all’ are also perceived positively by consumer groups, promoting a company’s corporate social responsibility.
Market crossover for digital products
Like most innovations, digital designs begin with identifying target user groups. The result usually comprises highly specialised designs for these groups. However, such an approach makes it difficult to ‘cross over’ to other market segments. Universal design opens doors to wider markets, more users and potentially more financial benefit.
Satisfaction of customer needs and expectations
Where technology is concerned, the pressure to provide more usable designs is now commonplace. Consumers and consumer groups now directly engage providers with more accessible systems. Companies are now evolving design processes to accommodate a wider range of users. Universal design enables companies to create digital products that more closely match users’ needs.
Reduced cognitive load at ‘first use’
At first glance, users become dismissive of designs that are visually unappealing and hard to navigate. Due to its complexity, task abandonment may occur, or a user may take alternate measures such as phone calls to operational teams. This increases labour and internal business costs. Universality in designs results in accessible, simple, easy-to-use digital systems.
Increased productivity and employee retention
In digitised workplaces, the ‘digital gap’ also presents a ‘performance gap’ for the older workers. Inclusive digital environments facilitate productivity across the board, and help support an employer’s business goals. The presence of older workers also enables the sharing of extensive experience, knowledge, and guidance down to younger staff members.
Advances in medicine and healthcare
There have been great technological advances in self-care and self-diagnostic personal medical devices for seniors. However, while we have seen a reduction in patient loads and associated medical costs, usability still remains a major barrier to innovation in this space. Without an inclusive approach to design, the full potential of technology cannot be realised. For example,the usability of healthcare applications has been below standard. Over 67% of medical practitioners and staff share dissatisfaction with current healthcare digital designs. The potential benefits of universal design in high pressure, high stress situations should be further explored. Users working in areas such as law enforcement, military, and rescue and fire services would undoubtedly benefit from simple, intuitive, and easy to learn digital tools. Reduced learning curves would also lead to lower training costs.
The future of accessibility and design
As the global appetite for digital consumption grows, UX research methodologies will be under pressure to provide solutions that appeal to a wider audience. Current research methodologies will need to be adjusted to include accessibility considerations, while testing will require a larger spectrum of users as opposed to highly targeted user segments.
While an important component of universal design is accessibility, its application and benefits are not restricted to people with disabilities. Universal design is a pattern of design thinking that incorporates the needs of all user groups, regardless of age, ability or situation.
More studies should be done to explore the desires of Baby Boomers, and how products and services suit them. Furthermore, businesses should put more emphasis on factoring older generations in their marketing plans. Actionable insights from these studies can then be aligned with expectations of younger market segments for maximum benefit.
As the legal and commercial pressures around accessibility and inclusive design grow, notions around ‘designing for everyone’ become difficult and complex. It is important to note that retrofitting accessibility and inclusive solutions are complex and expensive. The good news is the cost benefit of inclusive design far outweighs current design approaches.
Njonjo Githuka is a UX consultant at U1 Group.