​Designing for an Older Audience

My parents are in their 70s and 80s.

While mum has exclusive rights over the iPad and is now hooked on Facebook, dad reigns supreme over the iMac for more serious matters like paying bills online, listening to concerts on YouTube, and googling the side effects of his GP’s prescription.

Neither of them could ever be called “techies” but these little devices that connect them to a wider digital world have become important.

I think they’d say the digital space has enriched their life, but there are many times when they have a WTF expression on their face, while staring at a hamburger menu, or while waiting for something to load because it’s not obvious anything is happening.

Behaviours and conventions we’ve come to expect can present a roadblock for them.

These frustrations are balanced out by joy when they figure out how to do something new. Whether it’s simply taking a photo and posting it to Facebook, or learning how to download music and play it on the bluetooth speaker, it’s empowering when things work.


Quick to Blame Themselves

A theme that shines through all research about seniors is the high levels of anxiety and hesitation to try new technology:

"In our studies, 45% of seniors showed behaviours that indicated they were uncomfortable trying new things or hesitant to explore. For example, when they failed in their first attempt at a task, some seniors were hesitant to try alternate paths. One senior, while looking for the average temperature for Dallas, Texas in January, went to his favourite weather website. When he couldn’t find the information, he didn’t want to go to a different website. Instead, he gave up. When users had problems, seniors blamed themselves 90% of the time, compared to 58% of younger users. "
Nilesen Norman

Technology is still in its infancy. For all the promise of touch surfaces, AI, and personalisation, it’s not perfect. It can be cumbersome, error-prone and downright clunky around the edges. And those edges aren’t kind to seniors. They get stuck there.

They loose context of where they are. Things don’t behave consistently. Certain elements don’t look clickable but are, then before they know it they’re lost. And it’s all too hard.

After all, this happens to all of us sometimes. It’s just much easier for it to happen when you’re a senior.


Sounds Good on Paper. Still Fails

There are numerous examples of apps that have been designed for elderly, which look “simple” but are not really simple to use, because they were not properly tested before launch.

In Norway, researchers gave 28 elderly men and women iPads to control the lighting and heating in their homes. Unfortunately, more than half of the participants in the study were unable to use the tablet to turn their lights on and off.
Huffington Post

How complex could an app be that turns lights on and off? Well, there’s plenty of ways to make a simple interface more complicated that it needs to be.

Whether something works and whether it’s easy to use are two very separate things. A product can tick the box on the former pretty easily, but you can only be sure of the latter after you have actually used it.


Small Details. Big Impact.

The labels on buttons, colours, spacing, proximity and feedback messages are all crucial little details that can guide or derail a user.

Older subjects took more time to recover from their failure and get more anxious when the tasks are getting more complex.
http://www.idt.mdh.se/utbildning/exjobb/files/TR1091.pdf

To guide a senior user through a complex workflow, the interface needs to be as simple, frictionless, and obvious as possible.


Context, Clarity, and Consistency

Where am I right now and how do I get back?

What can I do here, and what is it trying to tell me?

If I click that, what will happen?

Perhaps there’s no more apt principle than Steve Krug’s "Don’t make me think” .

My parents have learned to rely on certain conventions. Buttons and underlined links are clickable, when a photo pops up you can often swipe right or left to see the next one, and a little red circle over top of an icon means there’s a notification (probably another cat photo if Mum's on Facebook).

Doing a double-check on the 3 Cs here is important at every stage if you want the interface to be intuitive.


Prototype & Test it

There is no substitute for prototyping and testing with the actual people you're targeting. It’s simple: you want a good indication of whether what you’re designing will actually be easy to use before you commit it to full development.

Standards and guidelines exist but as studies have shown: apps designed for seniors still often fail. I believe that’s because of the differences between communities and context, and because they were not properly designed together with the target audience.

Prototyping is one thing we've come to do on all of our projects because of the difference it makes on the end result. And I think prototyping and testing is the single biggest thing you can do to improve your interface whether you're designing for seniors or any demographic.


Empower or Alienate

For me, observing my parents use technology clearly and sometimes painfully illustrates the power of user interface design to empower or alienate.

Granted, many interfaces are not aimed at this demographic, but if you really want to put your UI through its paces, try usability testing with some seniors.

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