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To Test a Video Device for Seniors, Go Where the Seniors Are
In order to find out how seniors feel about its video calling solution, a young executive moves in. Messaging matters, he finds out, and some assumptions are offensive.

Focus testing is important, but it’s not always easy.

Companies that create educational toys need to regularly play-test their creations with toddlers, bringing the children into the office and watching as they play. Focus groups that talk to real-world consumers are essential for many industries. In September, Sentab, a London-based company that creates video-calling solutions for seniors, debuted a product called Sentab TV. Bringing seniors into the office didn’t provide the natural feedback the company wanted, so it did the next best thing: Dayle Rodriguez, Sentab’s community and marketing manager, stayed at a senior home for 5 days. Living with older adults, he found some of his preconceptions about seniors and technology were completely wrong (while some were fairly accurate). Mostly, he found that messaging matters.

Video chat products are nothing new. Most people reading this have a computer and phone next to them that offer video calling. But seniors are sometimes wary of new technology, and even simple software can seem difficult. Sentab’s innovation was to integrate video chats with the television set, a device seniors are comfortable with. Setup is easy, and on-screen options overlay with TV programming, so the controls feel natural.

But was it all simple enough? To find out, Rodriguez flew from his home in England to Torrance, Calif., to check in for a week’s stay at a Brookdale Senior Living facility. Brookdale runs a chain of senior communities throughout the country and has an entrepreneur-in-residence program that welcomes inventors.

To help Rodriguez, the staff at Brookdale chose some residents they thought would be open to new technology. Rodriguez came armed with 10 Sentab TV devices and a list of questions: Do seniors want this? Do they need it? Is it patronizing or condescending, or would it prove simple and useful, as the company hoped?

“Sentab TV operates on four main devices: smartphones, tablets, PCs/laptops, and, of course, TV,” Rodriguez says. “Sentab TV allows all those devices to communicate with each other. If you were, for example, a senior with a Sentab TV box, the box plugs into a television via an HDMI port from Sentab. It gives you access to the overlay system the box can project onto the TV screen, and you can make and receive video calls via your TV with a camera that we also provide to any other device on the Sentab network.

“We developed a free app that people can download. If you were the senior, you could call your grandchildren, they could use their smartphone, their iPhone or the Samsung or whatever, and they can receive audio or video calls. Sitting behind that is the Sentab network, which is a niche social network aimed at a smaller community group: friends, family, 30 or so participants in a small community group for each Sentab TV user.”

Overcoming Resistance

If Rodriguez was guilty of anything prior to his trip, it was thinking all seniors would have the same lack of familiarity with tech and would have similar thoughts on the product. What he found instead were individuals.

For example, he met Ray. Ray is 97 and a huge Apple fan. Ray has two Macs in his room on which he edits video. While he enjoyed learning about the device, it wasn’t for him. Ray can pick up an iPhone and chat whenever he wants. But he has a devilish sense of humor and enjoyed “seeing a British guy squirm.”

“I got interviewed by ABC News at one point, and Ray found out that there was a reporter coming,” Rodriguez says. “He jokingly said before the reporter came, ‘I’m going to make you look bad on TV.’ He volunteered to be interviewed, but when he was he didn’t say anything on TV. After the camera was off him he punches me on the arm and goes, ‘Told you I’d make you look bad.’ I was like, ‘Thanks, Ray. I’m very grateful.’”

Rodriguez learned not all seniors are technophobic. While there were more folks like Ray, there were others who wanted no part of Sentab. One 67-year-old was completely technophobic and didn’t warm up to the device for days. Once she understood it, however, she liked how easy and inexpensive it was to stay in touch with her children. But getting her to that point took some effort.

At least she came around. Others never wanted to hear about the product, no matter how simple it was.

“Some people were complete adamant technophobes,” Rodriguez says. “Despite explaining the concept of Sentab, there were two ladies in particular that were like, ‘Nope, I don’t want this installed at all. This is something completely new. I won’t even look at it; I won’t even listen to you.’ Which is one of the issues we’re trying to combat. Because this is something completely different or something new, they weren’t willing to listen to the concept of how it worked or even let me demonstrate it.

“The only way I got them to see it is I installed a Sentab TV unit in one of the common areas on one of the communal TVs. Only after they saw it did they realize how easy it was to use and how helpful it could be to them. This was the second-to-last day I was there. I did a demonstration and they went, ‘I could call my grandson, he’s in Chicago.’

“I was like, ‘Yeah.’”

“It won’t cost him anything?”

“No.”

“He can do it from his phone?”

“Yeah.”

“Why didn’t you let me install it sooner?”

“I was like, ‘I tried to explain to you sooner.’” Those things happened. That’s a learning curve for me and for Sentab. How do we overcome that barrier? For us, I think it is partnering with people who have access to seniors in this way—businesses—and promoting it to family and friends who can explain it or install it for their loved ones, for their seniors.”

One-on-One Marketing

While Rodriguez experienced some frustrations during his stay at Brookdale, it was also a valuable learning experience. One thing he learned is a one-on-one approach is best for the senior market. Seniors have been marketed to for the last 60 years, he says, and are turned off by a traditional sales spiel. It took a few days of Rodriguez living at Brookdale before some of the residents started to trust him. It’s a slow process, but creating a relationship and explaining why Sentab TV was created and why it works the way it does yielded results.

Rodriguez wasn’t present for the video calls residents made from their private apartments, but when he demoed Sentab TV in the common room, the results were positive. Many of the residents were familiar with FaceTime, but they liked that the TV image was larger and that they didn’t need to hold their phones. The Torrance, Calif., retiree market might be a little more tech proficient than most, he learned: Many in that community worked in engineering, science, or education, so they were comfortable with computers.

The week also taught Rodriguez a valuable lesson in how not to market to seniors.

“When I first joined the company back in May, we had a strong message about social isolation and loneliness,” Rodriguez says. “As noble as that sounds—and it is an issue and it’s been explored in our media in the U.K. and the U.S., how detrimental to health it can be—it’s quite an offensive thing to say to somebody. It’s saying if you’re of a certain age, there’s a possibility that you’re lonely, so here’s something that can fix that. It’s quite insulting.”

While social isolation is a problem for seniors, blasting the message in people’s faces is not the way to go. That negative feedback on messaging has already led to marketing changes at Sentab.

During his visit, Rodriguez also talked to the Brookdale staff, since his company wants to sell its products to institutions as well as individuals. While the staff liked the product, they didn’t see a benefit for the company. That led to Sentab looking into how it could create a health and wellness solution that can prevent problems before they start. Sentab is working on a fitness tracking watch that can monitor the wearer’s fitness levels and alert staff if there’s a trip or fall.

“We’re now developing a Sentab well-being index which will measure how social people are, their cognitive ability,” Rodriguez says. “Cognitive gains combat dementia. We’re also partnering with a company called iHealth to use fitness watches. It will collect data from people’s daily routine and upload it to Sentab so they can see the complete overall of their well-being and fitness within the Sentab system as a hub device.”

Spending a week at a senior community was an unusual step, but for Sentab it paid off in multiple ways. Getting to know the customers’ needs is always a good idea, no matter the product. Moving in, on the other hand, is not for everyone.

[This article appears in the January/February 2017 issue of Streaming Media Magazine."]

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