Creating Digital Assistants for Japan’s Senior Citizens

By Masaaki Tanaka

Masaaki Tanaka, Designer, IBM
Masaaki Tanaka, Designer, IBM

When I came to work for IBM as a designer in the Tokyo Interactive Experience’s User Centered Design lab last September, I expected to focus on enterprise computing. But, much to my surprise, the project I’m working on now for an IBM client has me imagining the digital lifestyles of a certain class of individuals–Japan’s senior citizens.

In fact, the target customer for Japan Post’s just-launched online Watch Over service is my own father. My dad is a 75-year-old retiree who lives alone in a rural area in Saga Prefecture, in the south of Japan. He has never touched a computer. He rides a bike rather than driving a car, so he’s cut off from his friends and it takes him 20 minutes to pedal to the nearest convenience store. I hate to think what would happen if he had a medical emergency.

IBM and Apple are collaborating with Japan Post to create this first-of-a-kind service aimed at providing seniors with mobile digital assistants that can help them do everything from keep track of their medications and order grocery deliveries to video-chat with friends and reach out for assistance. There’s a community function that makes it easy for them interact with others by volunteering as crossing guards or school aides.

Seniors will be equipped with iPads containing a suite of mobile quality-of-life services custom-tailored for their needs. Silver aims to roll out the service to as many as 5 million customers by 2020.

I was the original designer assigned to the project when it started several months ago. This is a tremendously gratifying experience. Not only do I potentially get to help my own father, but this work could improve the lives of seniors not only in Japan, but, eventually, elsewhere in the world.

For a designer, it’s a fascinating endeavor. My colleagues and I now see the world through the eyes of people whose lives and experiences are very different from ours. It really gets to the essence of user experience design–which is critical as we rethink the relationships between people and machines so we can make computing more satisfying for everybody from senior citizens to CEOs.

Tim Cook, CEO Apple; Taizo Nishimuro, CEO, Japan Post; Ginni Rometty, CEO IBM
Tim Cook, CEO Apple; Taizo Nishimuro, CEO, Japan Post; Ginni Rometty, CEO IBM

A tiny team at IBM Japan got the whole thing going. My first market research subjects were my mother and my mother-in-law. My mom lives nearby, so I would pop over every couple of weeks to get her reactions to design ideas. Mom is comfortable using an iPad, so she represented our more sophisticated users. My mother-in-law was less experienced with mobile technology, so she stood in for our novices. She now has an iPad and takes it everywhere.

Since the project was secret, I couldn’t tell either of the moms what it was all about.

Before too long, I was joined on the project by teams of designers from IBM and Apple. To create a service that’s both highly practical and extremely easy to use, we considered the basic realities of the lives of seniors. For instance, we decided early on to use clicks rather than swipes for basic commands, since seniors are used to pressing buttons on microwaves and washing machines to get things done.

We also considered the unique culture of Japan. Typically, in Japan, you can’t schedule an appointment with your doctor over the phone. You have to show up when you’re sick. But consider my dad for a minute. What if he’s really sick and can’t ride his bicycle up to his nearest clinic or a hospital? That’s when this service comes in handy. Since it monitors his daily activities, it knows that he’s not taking all of his prescribed medicine or he’s not feeling well. The app service will allow him to easily dispatch a taxi if needed or contact his local Japan Post staff for assistance.

My ultimate personal goal is to get my dad to use the Watch Over service as soon as it becomes available in his area. It will make life easier for him, for sure. But I also think it could help bring my family closer together. That’s an important part of my dream. I want to help society, but I also want to help my own family.


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