Healthcare Industry Insights

Part 2: Building a common language for technology-supported ageing: why we started with “Self”

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The Periodic Table for Ageing Technologies is designed to remind us what is elemental and fundamental to the humans at the center of any work that aims to solve for the needs of ageing individuals. Think of it as a playbook for what one might call ‘organizational emotional intelligence’. We need that level of understanding to actually reach and serve an incredibly diverse array of people across the spectrum of later life and those who provide help, support, or services to them in what has been labeled the Longevity Economy.

Periodic Table of Technology-Suppoerted Ageing

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Click here to download the “periodic table of technology-supported ageing”.

Development of this Periodic Table framework has long been in process. But our IBM approach crystalized as we explored the needs and issues in serving ageing populations through a series of Design Thinking workshops that were held all over the world. Regardless of who the intended user might be: an ageing individual, a family caregiver, or a provider of services—creating a good design for use had one thing in common. It must always and only revolve around the individual and their purpose, their requirements. It is far more than the design responsibilities often associated with technology solution development – as the targeted user has a name, a life, relationships, interests, concerns, fears, needs, joys, hopes and love.

We tested the theory.

When overlaid against examples of success and failure in the market, we could see a pattern emerging.  Time and again, those technologies or tech-enabled services that proved troublesome for the intended user, were abandoned or never used in the market seemed to be designed ‘about’ a process, rather than ‘for’ a person. We found that if the design center of gravity was the organization for which they were built, it missed the mark. While there appeared intent for the technology solution to serve the individual user, the organizational need to find business value often marginalized the benefit to the end users.

Medication adherence is a common target area for ageing individuals. Yet in design, it was more about how the sponsoring party views adherence rather than how the individual perceives convenience or context for when, where, and how they need to take their meds. The result is good technological solutions left untouched, while a simple plastic pill box remains the familiar and reliable management tool.

Consider new care coordination solutions. Many align seniors, family caregivers, care managers and even physician offices.   They might include coaching, appointment scheduling, patient education, and communications in their functionality. But taken in the full context of the life situation of each of the target users, routine use was likely to wane for all but the employees of the organization served by the technology.  The patient is only a patient in relationship to the sponsoring health organization.  The family caregiver and/or the ageing individual themselves have other channels and topics of communication that compete rather than align with the proposed solution. The hope of ‘engagement’ is subsequently lost to other prevailing priorities.

The design orientation for these examples is within the context of our healthcare systems, as is often the case for sponsored age-related solutions.  But what if the paradigm were to shift beyond the care of patients, to the quality of life of the individual it is to serve and replace the word “patient” with “person”?  What if those defining the solution then explored the person’s routines, resources and/or constraints? If an aging individual is the targeted user – the Self – perhaps they don’t perceive themselves as simply the ‘cared for’ but are the active agents for their lives.  In many cultures this same individual may also be caring for their parents, their children’s children, or their friends. Suddenly it becomes critical to reject stereotypical images of elders, including the language used to describe them, in order to design solutions with a more holistic representation of real “life”, supported by empirical data, instead of biases, over-generalizations or sheer guesswork.

Through explorations like these, it became ever clearer that human-experience design, with the individual at the center is an inviolable starting point, which hence became foundational for the framework. So much so, that it could only be represented through an ‘element’ that itself is a Category:


We invite your comments and thoughts on how to improve on the model as we continue to explore the Periodic Table for Technology-Supported Ageing.  …. or ‘Aging’, depending on where you live!

Please also read Part 1: Building a common language: why we need a periodic table for technology-supported ageing.

Global Manager of Aging & Accessibility Solutions, IBM Research

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