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Making user-friendly software an easy sell Add to ...

Stephen Beath wanted to buy his grandmother a computer. But he knew a conventional setup could be overwhelming for the 90-year-old, who'd never used a computer before. "It just didn't seem practical," he says.

When he looked around for a suitable alternative, he found nothing. "I was astounded," Mr. Beath says.

His friend had a similar experience trying to help his mother receive family photos from relatives in Malaysia using Hotmail. "I thought, there's got to be something better out there," Raul Rupsingh says, but he also came up empty-handed.

So the pair, both computer engineers, created SoftShell, computer software designed to allow users to read and answer e-mail, organize photos, play games and browse the Internet without the distractions of standard programs, and with the added feature of large fonts.

Mr. Beath and Mr. Rupsingh launched SoftShell in October. The software can be downloaded for free from the company's website for a two-month trial, after which it costs $8 a month. The software is compatible with Microsoft Windows on PCs purchased in the last three years, but not Apple's Macs. Although SoftShell does not replace the existing operating system, "it can appear like that is the case as SoftShell takes over the entire screen, thus hiding all the confusing Windows elements," Mr. Beath says.

Before designing the program, they spent four months teaching members of a seniors' centre how to use Windows. "It helped us understand what they were having problems with," Mr. Beath says.

"Our biggest challenge," Mr. Rupsingh says, "is that we've designed this product that makes computing easy and we've realized that there are many markets for it."

Mr. Rupsingh says that while many individuals in the age-65-and-up group are tech-savvy, their product targets those who are unfamiliar with computers, or who, for physical reasons such as failing eyesight, have a difficult time using a conventional computer interface.

"We're quite certain that the seniors' market is the largest and most obvious," he says. "But now our challenge is, how do we market to them?"

They believe that if a senior can get to their website and download their product, they probably don't need it. "We're also targeting the middle-aged person in the sandwich generation," Mr. Rupsingh says.

What the experts say

Pam Feldman, director of communications for Toronto-based Baycrest Foundation, which supports an academic health sciences centre focused on aging, thinks Mr. Beath and Mr. Rupsingh are on the right track. "If they're targeting a senior population that is unfamiliar or overwhelmed with using a computer, it's going to be really challenging to explain this to them using any form of technology," she says. Going after the end-user's kids or grandchildren eliminates that hurdle.

She suggests SoftShell try to partner with a retailer, like Future Shop or Best Buy, and distribute flyers or offer a discount on the product through that channel. "The seniors who would need this are not purchasing their own computers," she says. "My sense is that they're getting hand-me-downs." The perfect time for their sales pitch would be at the point of purchase of the new computer for the younger family member. They may see the SoftShell product and think, hey, Grandma could really use that, she says.

Whether or not Grandma is the one who really needs it is a point that's up for debate, says David Cravit, author of The New Old and executive vice-president of Zoomer Media. He thinks Mr. Beath and Mr. Rupsingh need to pause and think a little more about who their end-user is. "We have people logging on to our site well into their 70s and 80s," he says. "The driving force behind this should be that it's for people who do not know how to use a computer, no matter what their age."

Mr. Cravit says that he's not disputing there is a viable market for SoftShell among the senior population (there are 1.7 million people over the age of 75 in Canada), but he thinks it could be a mistake to emphasize only seniors in the marketing. "It's clear that this group does not want to be thought of as elderly and helpless." There's a danger that marketing a program that's perceived as "dumbed-down" to seniors might come off as condescending, he says.

He suggests broadening their market. "The number of seniors who can't use a computer is not a growing number; it's a declining number," he says, explaining that if you define senior as anyone over 65, the oldest baby boomer is only a year or two behind that age. "And that market is definitely not intimidated by computers."

Rather than zeroing in on seniors, he suggests letting the product speak for itself as one that could be useful to anyone who has difficulty using a conventional computer system. That brings SoftShell back to other markets they may consider, such as people with learning disabilities or visual impairments.

As far as marketing channels go, Mr. Cravit had this advice: "They can advertise inexpensively online and certainly on [Zoomer Media's]website."

To get access to the various target markets, Ms. Feldman recommends SoftShell partner with specialized organizations, such as CNIB, an organization that supports those with vision loss. To specifically reach seniors, she had a number of suggestions, starting with the creation of a how-to video that features a senior. "Seniors trust seniors," she says.

Ms. Feldman says it is also crucial that SoftShell keeps its message simple and concise. "Keep the message simple and get rid of jargon," she says. She suggests the primary message should be the ease of use. "How do you get that message across? Maybe through third-party testimonials, like having a senior with vision problems talk about the product, or, to target the children, have an occupational therapist talk about what a fantastic tool it is."

If they really want to earn the trust of seniors, Ms. Feldman has one last suggestion: "They need to offer assistance. Seniors need to be able to speak to a live operator. Don't make them go through a huge voice-mail jungle."

*****

In a nutshell

Broaden your market

Seniors who don't know how to use a computer are a declining market. It makes good business sense to position the product to all the groups that can use it.

Go after the kids

A senior that can get to the SoftShell website and successfully download the product probably doesn't need it. Target the kids and grandkids when they buy new computers for themselves - and potentially pass on their old one to Grandma or Grandpa.

Partner with specialized

organizations

Associations that cater to a population segment, such as the CNIB organization for those who are suffering vision loss, can serve as a fast track to consumers.

Keep it simple

To appeal to the seniors' population, SoftShell's message must be direct and emphasize, first, the ease of use of the product and, second, the benefit of keeping seniors connected.

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