Talkin’ ‘bout my generation

Talkin’ ‘bout my generation

No-one likes to admit that they are getting old.  It’s very rare that someone will say, ‘I’m past it, please sell me an old folks phone’.

Talk to anyone about mobile phones for older people and they get it. Tell them about how we all suffer from hearing loss, degrading eyesight and reduced dexterity and within five minutes they’ll say, ‘That’s just the thing for my gran’, or at least something similar.

The very same people who want a mobile phone for their parents will then refuse to buy similar handsets for their chain of shops or networks. At least that used to be the case, but it’s changing. The Senior Market Mobile conference has been running for three years. Back in 2009 it was very hard to walk into a retailer and pick up a phone for your gran. Today it’s quite a bit better, but you’ll still only find a couple of suitable handsets at most.


When you look at the opportunity for retailers it’s only scratching the surface. There are more people in the UK over 60 than there are under 16, and while pretty much every 16-year-old owns a phone, only about half the older population has a mobile device.

Not only are senior citizens overlooked, they are misunderstood. It’s not enough to have one product and think that suits all older users. Some will be dexterous and want lots of features, but just need some help with hearing the phone. Others will find the whole idea of a mobile phone intimidating and just want something simple. Adding a range of mobiles geared towards the older generation could be a great way to boost sales.

With all those potential customers it’s little wonder that Doro, the UK’s most successful specialist manufacturer, is looking to double sales.

While most areas of mobile are growing slowly, if at all, the senior mobile sector is building rapidly. Another sign of growth is the rising number of companies supplying the senior market with a variety of handsets.

Who buys senior phones and how to sell to them

There are two ways to sell a senior phone and two types of customer. You can either say, ‘now that you are getting on a bit, you need a phone that you can see and hear’. This is very much the approach taken by BT with its big button cordless phones. The mobile market tends to take the second, more inclusive approach, which concludes that ‘all mobile phones have become difficult and complicated, here’s one that breaks the mould and everyone can use’.

The two types of customer are the older person purchasing a phone for themselves and their children, typically in their forties, buying a phone for the senior parent. The market is divided pretty evenly between these two types. When selling to people buying for older parents you can be a little more blunt about the needs and features, and that makes it an easier sale. With so many phones being bought as gifts there is very little in the way of contract sales. It’s nearly always Sim-free or prepay.

What makes a senior phone?

Big buttons and an easy to read screen are obvious features for a senior mobile, but what other attributes do these phones have that marks them out as special?

Hearing aid support is a common one. Some mobile phones interfere with hearing aids, but a good senior phone will minimise this disruption. Even better is compatibility that allows you to use the hearing aid as an earphone, so the user hears calls through the hearing aid. This uses an inductive loop and the T-coil setting on the hearing aid.

A surprisingly large number of normal phones support this facility as there is a US regulation that requires a percentage of devices a manufacturer sells to have an inductive loop and, ridiculously, TTY support. There are four levels of inductive loop support – T4 is the best and it is what you should look for in a phone for a hearing aid user.

Extra amplification and loud ringtones are particularly common. Just making the call volume louder isn’t always the solution, so phones often have tone controls. Many seniors like to use the handsfree function, and the Emporia RL1 has a dedicated button built into the desktop charger.

An emergency button is another common feature on a senior mobile. Usually large, red and on the back of the phone, it sounds an alarm when pressed and calls up to five pre-determined numbers (which the user has to set to relatives and friends) until it gets a reply. It will also text a preset message to those numbers.

Another traditional feature on most senior mobiles is a torch. This ideally has a dedicated button and doesn’t require the user to go through menus.

Most people only call around 10 numbers frequently, and seniors, as lighter phone users, have even fewer regular contacts. This makes the inclusion of quick dial keys quite valuable. Usually labelled something like M1, M2 and M3 for memory, it helps if they are labelled with stickers saying whose number is stored in each.

Even the most dexterous of us have trouble with micro-USB leads. Doro offers an innovative solution with a lead that is clearly labelled to show which way round it goes. But the best solution, used by all the major manufacturers, is a docking station.

Clamshell or slider?

There was a time when phones looked cool. Those who recall the Motorola StarTac (pictured), Nokia 8810 or Sony Ericsson T68 know how just the appearance made these handsets special. Today’s smartphones look either like an iPhone or a BlackBerry. In the senior market there is more choice in terms of design and form factor.

The candybar is the most popular design, not least because it’s the cheapest to make. It also looks most like a house phone, which can make users feel more comfortable, and is the design that allows for the best buttons. Clamshells and sliders don’t have the space for the buttons to have a lot of travel. However, with big buttons you either have to make the screen small or the phone unusually large. A slider counters this because you can have a big screen and big buttons on a phone that’s a sensible size. It also has the advantage of covering the buttons. Some people think of big buttons as being stigmatising. The definition of ‘old’ is 15 years from where you are now, and while people might admit to themselves that they have trouble seeing the buttons on a phone, they don’t want to broadcast the fact. Covering up the buttons also reduces the chances of in-pocket dialling.

Sliders are seen by industry buyers as the successor to clamshells. Despite being old-fashioned, clamshells have a number of advantages. Opening to answer and closing to finish a call is an obvious one. For anyone accustomed to mobile phones, pressing the buttons to perform this function is second nature, but for people to whom mobiles are a strange new technology it’s easier not to have to peer at the buttons and wonder which one to press when it’s ringing.

Some people don’t understand ‘standby’ – they think that when the screen backlight goes off the phone is switched off. Retailers need to explain that this is merely a power saving measure.

Value-added services

Value-added services such as app sales and email have become increasingly vital to mobile network operators. However, only tech-savvy seniors are likely to want access to these services. Bu that doesn’t mean there isn’t scope for value-added services in the senior market – they just need to be the right ones.

Emergency button monitoring is a huge business for the senior industry. It gives senior citizens independence in that they can live in their own home and summon help by simply pressing a button attached to a necklace. When the button is pressed it sends a call to a service that will arrange help.

These services typically cost £10-£15 per month, a substantial lift in ARPU for most operators. We are only just beginning to see these services linked to mobile phone emergency buttons.

Technology isn’t just about ‘what if’. One of the best value-added services around at the moment is – this turns an Android tablet into a digital picture frame and allows multiple generations of families to share pictures. For instance, the eldest relatives in a family could have a tablet on the table at home while their children and grandchildren upload pictures to the device remotely.

A Dutch company hailing from Eindhoven, a town dominated by electronics giant Philips, Bea-fon has made a few attempts to break into the UK market, with mixed success. Its range includes basic candybar phones, sliders and a particularly well-made dual mode DECT/GSM phone called the S700.

Best known as a consumer electronics brand, Binatone has a number of interesting products including fixed-line Android phones, Motorola-branded digital picture frames and of course big button mobile phones aimed at seniors in its Speakeasy range. The Speakeasy 200 has exceptionally large, high contrast buttons.

Bluechip World
Staffordshire-based Bluechip World counts former LG big cheese John Barton as a non-executive director. The company has an impressive range of budget products including a couple of senior phones. The BC5i is one of the cheapest senior mobiles on the market and is stocked by Tesco Mobile.

A Swedish company hailing from Lund, Doro is one of the most successful companies in the senior market and has an extensive range of fixed and mobile phones for seniors. Doro phones have some
of the best distribution deals in the UK and the excellent PhoneEasy 410gsm is available on both Virgin Mobile and Orange, having sold exceptionally well through Orange in France. Also of note is the PhoneEasy 615gsm, the only 3G senior phone available in the UK.

Big deals with T-Mobile in Germany and in its native Austria have helped Emporia establish itself as one of the major players in the senior market. The RL1 is a candybar phone exclusively available from Vodafone that has a particularly bright display and large buttons but is more mainstream than most senior phones. Emporia has helped establish credibility for itself and the whole market with spectacular stands at MWC.

A company that specialises in technology for the hard of hearing, Geemarc has several senior mobile phone products. The most recent is the CL8400, which is a clamshell handset that features boosted audio and comes with a docking station. The mobiles are sold alongside other products for the hard of hearing, principally through hearing aid shops.

John’s Phone
One thing often missing from senior phones is a sense of style. Just because people are old doesn’t mean they don’t have a sense of fashion. John’s Phone aims to change that. It’s only got a one-line display along the top of the phone but the buttons are big and up-front. There’s no SMS support, but perhaps the coolest thing about the phone is that the phonebook comes in paper form.  A pen to write down your friends’ numbers is included with the handset.

Those of us with long memories have a fondness for Panasonic, which was the first company to ship a phone with a Lithium-ion battery. After a long break, Pansonic is re-entering the mobile market with a phone aimed at seniors. The KX-TU301 is already on sale in Italy and Germany and launches in the UK soon.
(no website yet)

Keeping track of people with GPS-enabled phones has been a niche market for some time. SafelinQ sells phones integrated with a call and web monitoring service aimed at security staff and seniors living alone. The call centre guarantees a response and will stay on the line until help reaches the user. Products range from a tracking module to a conventional looking phone with four buttons.

Written by Mobile Today
Mobile Today


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