Tech

INSIGHTS | China’s push to bring the elderly online

China’s tech heavyweights are finally making a big push to help older people better access digital technology. Over the past month, Baidu launched a large-font app designed for the elderly that also features a “companion radio” broadcasting the hottest news of the day. Alibaba-backed Gaode Map rolled out new services for the demographic group as well, boasting functions such as one-click ride-hailing that does not require inputting a destination–along with bigger fonts too.

While the digital divide remains huge, big tech seems to be becoming friendlier to senior citizens. How helpful will these new functions be, and how soon can we expect the technology gap to be bridged?

Bottom line: The accessibility problem for the elderly and other digitally challenged people won’t be solved overnight. Larger fonts certainly help, but ultimately it’s the complicated user interfaces and navigation that have been holding people back. Redevelopment and education take time. Still things are trending upwards. The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the transition and, along with some top-level nudges, you can bet the pace will continue. The untapped markets are too large to ignore.

The fonts are helpful, but older people have an inherent lack of confidence with smartphone apps, which have been catering to those who grew up in the digital age. Older people are unwilling to try out strange things from fear that they may mess up something.

— A Beijing-based UI designer

Leading from the top: Sporadic efforts by tech firms, such as switching to larger fonts, have been going on for a long time. Now the Chinese government is making a broader move towards a systematic framework with a raft of recent policies.

  • China’s State Council issued a guideline (in Chinese) last November, aiming at establishing a long-effect mechanism to overcome the “digital divide” for older people by the end of 2022.
  • In December China’s Ministry of Transport met with eight of the country’s biggest ride-hailing operators, including Didi and Gaode, to discuss ways of making travel more convenient for senior citizens. A one-click hailing button similar to Gaode’s is now found on most other popular apps.
  • The central bank ordered in mid-December that businesses could not refuse cash payments (in Chinese). By the end of 2020, it had penalized 16 organizations for such breaches.
  • The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in December initiated a year-long program (in Chinese) to make 115 public service websites and 43 apps in transport, social networking, e-commerce, healthcare, and other areas senior-friendly and barrier-free. Those apps include WeChat, Alipay, JD, Douyin, and Ctrip: in short, almost every app one might frequently use.

Silver economy: Motivations for bridging the divide aren’t purely altruistic. Senior citizens with growing spending power are forming a powerful consumer class, creating untapped market opportunities. China’s “silver economy” was projected to reach RMB 5.7 trillion ($882 billion) by 2021, according to Chinese consulting firm iMedia Research. In 2019 approximately 254 million Chinese people were aged 60 or above; the number is projected to rise to 300 million by 2025.

  • E-commerce: A 2019 report by JD.com noted that its sales of products to older adults had been climbing at an average annual rate of 39% in the prior three years. Sales of products such as home furnishing, prescription medicine, mobile phones, kitchenware, and apparel each expanded more than tenfold in 2019 alone.
  • Food delivery: Even before the pandemic, meal delivery for senior citizens surged tenfold on Eleme in 2019 compared to 2018. Meituan’s food delivery unit saw its active users aged over 50 shoot up by one-third year-on-year (in Chinese) in the first half of 2020.
  • Healthcare, entertainment, and other services: Meituan now records 50 million average monthly views of “senior facilities” and related keywords. The delivery firm has been adding more services (in Chinese) to meet seniors’ demands such as for reservations for karaoke sessions and haircuts.
  • Education: Covid-19 has sped up the development of online education. Jiayou, an online education and social networking startup targeting people between 50 and 70, has attracted one million users to its classes on wellbeing, cooking, music, and other subjects. Competitor Hongsong also boasts one million users. Tangdou, an app teaching older people square dancing, secured backing by Tencent in 2019 and today has 20 million active users.

It’s not font size, it’s complexity: Whether they already use the internet or not, the elderly are having trouble embracing new technology.

  • Nearly 100 million out of China’s 940 million internet users as of June 2020 were aged 60 or above, says a report by the China Internet Network Information Center (in Chinese). This compares to the country’s 254 million population in this age segment.
  • Almost half of China’s 463 million non-netizens say they are not online because they lack essential digital knowledge. The ratio could be much higher for seniors.
  • Some older people who are longtime internet users nonetheless still have more trouble accessing new technology than the younger generation, such as making online orders at restaurants or getting their health QR code.

Back to school: Training programs on smart technology designed for the elderly have mushroomed over the past five years.

  • Senior universities and public libraries now operate training programs.
  • After the Covid-19 outbreak, Alipay introduced a segment dubbed “Alipay Senior University” to teach the older people how to order food delivery and pay for bus rides on the app so they could avoid human contact.
  • Local governments such as Shanghai, Beijing, and some in Sichuan province have launched training sessions to help older people adapt to smart technologies.
  • Typically, people between the ages of 60 and 75 are quicker learners in those programs compared with 75 or above, but the most effective way might be to learn from their own social circles, with a little help from digital peer pressure.

What about accessibility for groups other than the elderly? China has 83 million people with disabilities, including 17 million with visual impairments and 27.8 million with hearing loss. Efforts to clear their barriers are just starting.

  • Video platform Youku launched a barrier-free version for the visually impaired in December, and is preparing to bring 100 accessible films online over the next three years.
  • Iflyrec, an audio processing app made by iFlytek, pledged in October to provide free-of-charge transcription services to people with hearing impairment. It also features real-time transcription that could help them in daily communication.
  • The coverage is still far from enough, and getting people with accessibility problems online could be a problem itself.
  • Aside from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s December initiative to promote barrier-free online experiences, the increasing need for contact-free public services amid the pandemic set things on a faster track as well.

Technology developed for other purposes, such as voice recognition, can sometimes benefit people with barriers. Apps designed for a special group [with accessibility problems] would be a good choice commercially, given China’s large population base. But I haven’t seen any so far. It’d be a much slower progress [for apps to cover people with barriers compared with senior citizens.]

— Beijing-based UI designer

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