SHANGHAI — Zheng Peijuan isn’t fond of shopping for groceries online. When the pandemic restricted her movement last year, she instead asked her daughter to help deliver food to her doorstep.
“All these apps have small fonts,” the 65-year-old from Shanghai told Sixth Tone. “They look very complicated and confusing.”
Zheng is among the country’s growing aging population facing difficulties in adapting to ever-changing technology, so much so that Chinese authorities told tech companies to help seniors better integrate digitally last December. The companies were urged to offer larger fonts, easy-to-use interfaces, and dialectal recognition to suit the needs of senior users.
A year later, 43 mobile apps and 115 websites — including the messaging app WeChat, short-video platform Douyin, and e-commerce site Taobao — have mostly complied with the government directive to provide senior-friendly versions. But not all issues have been resolved.
A commentary on Banyuetan, a media outlet under the state-run Xinhua News Agency, noted that though many apps have launched an “elderly version” with a simplified interface, some of the settings are “perfunctory.” For example, many apps have changed the primary interface on their landing pages but didn’t adjust the secondary pages accordingly.
“At present, some of these remain superficial, mainly because relevant companies find it difficult to profit from it, and some enterprises lack motivation,” the commentary said, adding that many of the apps still lacked multi-dialect speech recognition.
Chen Lan, an expert at the Shenzhen-based Committee of Accessibility Research Association, told Sixth Tone that while the government directive acknowledged the previously ignored issues many elderly mobile users face, companies need to do more to assist the growing demographic. As of June, nearly 30% of the country’s over 1 billion internet users were over the age of 50.
“Taking into consideration the decline in concentration and memory, the interface icons should have some explanations for the elderly users,” she said, adding that apps should also consider their tactile and cognitive needs, as well as improve speech recognition features.
“In areas where local dialects are largely spoken in everyday life, enhancing the interface’s capacity for dialectal speech recognition is a benefit of all residents,” Chen added. “Companies might also want to consider adding ethnic minority languages to their speech recognition technologies.”
E-commerce giant Alibaba offers large texts and icons on its senior-friendly version of the Alipay app.
In the wake of ongoing discussions, some companies have launched separate apps for the silver generation instead of modifying their current version.
Earlier this year, tech giant Baidu launched its entertainment and lifestyle-focused Big Character app for the elderly with a simple interface and large text. The app adjusts colors and sounds according to their needs and has a feature that transcribes content such as radio broadcasts and novels in the voice of their loved ones.
“At that time, we thought, how would the elderly feel if we could let their grandchildren record a paragraph, generating a voice package that read the news to them every day?” Xia Wei, head of Baidu’s Big Character app, said at the China Aging Industry Business Innovation Conference hosted by the consulting firm AgeClub on Tuesday. “We hope to define our product from a psychological level and give seniors peace of mind and more company.”
However, Chen said that many elderly-oriented apps haven’t been able to appeal to their target demographic. In her research, Chen and her team found that many senior residents were unaware that such apps even existed.
“They might have heard that the government is pushing for digital transformation for the elderly population, but they might not know of the progress and versions developed for them,” Chen said.
Zheng, the retiree from Shanghai, agreed, saying she didn’t know about the apps until her daughter switched the food delivery app Ele.me to the elderly-friendly version a few months ago. Though she still isn’t fond of them, she is gradually getting accustomed to the apps.
“The fonts are so much bigger, and the main function buttons are very clear,” Zheng said, tapping her phone screen. “Now I know where exactly to click for food delivery and grocery shopping.”
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: MOI/People Visual)