Designing for an aging population with new expectations of activity outside the home would be universally beneficial and requires innovative thinking around usability. Many devices that enable independence and mobility, like canes, walkers, and commercial-grade health monitors, look distinctly like medical devices. They’re bulky, ugly and scream “I’m frail! I’m old!” and people resist using them, compromising the scope of their independence and overall health in the process . Imagine if these products were more stylish and less obtrusive. Surely it would be beneficial for people to keep walking longer distances, grocery shop, and move about the wider world longer. Sometimes that means you need a place to sit rather than stand while in line, sometimes a smaller motorized scooter may help. Nearly one-third of adults over 65 have trouble walking a few blocks, and the portion of society over 65 is expected to double by 2060 (Schwab 2017). Check out these product designs for an exhibition called “New Old”. Each product is designed to address the issues of identity, mobility, community, working, and living that come with age. After working on the caregivAR augmented reality project in my first semester of the DIM program, it became clear that UX design in this area is tricky, but the benefits are so great for individuals and an aging society that thinking of designing for our older selves or less capable selves is important.
“Do not think that thoughtful design is just for the elderly, or the sick, or the disabled. In the field of design, this is called ‘inclusive design’ for a reason: It helps everyone. Curb cuts were meant to help people who had trouble walking, but it helps anyone wheeling things: carts, baby carriages, suitcases. Closed captions are used in noisy bars.” (Norman 2019)
“As Kat Holmes points out in her book Mismatch, all of us are disabled now and then. Some of us have permanent disabilities, but all of us have suffered from situational and temporary problems. When outside in the sun, the text message that just arrived is unreadable: wouldn’t it be nice if the display, whether cellphone, watch, or tablet, could switch to large, higher contrast lettering? Are elderly people handicapped? Maybe, but so is a young, athletic parent while carrying a baby on one arm and a bag of groceries in the other (and perhaps trying to open their car door).” (Norman 2019)
The number of older adults in society is expected to grow in every developed nation, as baby boomers age. Many seniors are expected to stay in the workforce past the age of 65, meaning that we may need to look at usability beyond sites and apps for personal use, and into the B2B and intranet space as well. A study by the Nielsen Norman group shows that seniors today are much more able to successfully use the web than their predecessors, likely from years of working with computers in their offices and homes. They believe this has led to today and tomorrow’s seniors having better mental models to guide them through computer related tasks (Nielsen 2013). However, there’s two main areas where many websites fail older users, as well as other users who have eyesight and dexterity: Readability and Clickability.
In terms of readability, Nielsen Norman Group recommends text at least size 12 for sites targeting seniors, as well as allowing any user to change the text size on the site to any size comfortable for them. My dad’s most visited website is Publishers Clearing House (yes, I guess they still exist in the 21st century) and much of the type is purposely small, or bound to an image so the font size settings on his browser can’t adjust it to be readable. After I had LASIK surgery, I was also unable to read most websites for a few weeks while my eyes healed. While Accessibility settings helped quite a bit, they couldn’t assist with every piece of text on websites. I’ve also seen many older women on the subway who have had to increase the text size on their phones to the point where only a few words at a time are displayed on the screen, making it much harder to see the interface as a cohesive whole.
Several common navigation designs are challenging to use for anyone whose dexterity is less than 100%. Walking menus, drop down menus, and other elements that have to be hovered over to select are difficult to use for anyone lacking steady hands. I know I am commonly most frustrated by the Amazon menu for your account profile; any movement off of the menu while scrolling to the bottom options will cause the whole menu to disappear. Some of the options at the bottom are logging out and switching accounts, something I do on a regular basis. Walking menus and link text size and color can make clicking targets extremely difficult to hit, particularly if they are clustered together. With seniors twice as likely to give up on a task as younger users (Nielsen 2013), what seems like a small frustration related to a click target could mean a successful conversion and a negative connotation associated with the brand or site.
In general, Norman’s principles apply to seniors just as much as everyone else. If you take a look at the infographic below, you’ll see that seniors don’t use the web any differently than the rest of us, but they could likely use it better with more thoughtful design. “If you redesigned your website to give seniors the same user experience quality as younger users, you could expect to get 35% more business from them, based purely on the higher success rate.” (Nielsen 2013) As convenience services (Instacart, Lyft, etc.) spread across the US, they could support seniors aging in place or continuing to participate in the workforce. As the number of technologically savvy seniors grows, I hope many companies see the opportunities that inclusive and thoughtful design can offer.
Nielsen, Jakob. “Usability for Senior Citizens.” Nielsen Norman Group, 5 May 2013, www.nngroup.com/articles/usability-for-senior-citizens/.
Norman, Don, and Bruce Tognazzini. “How Apple Is Giving Design A Bad Name.” Fast Company, Fast Company, 11 Oct. 2015, www.fastcompany.com/3053406/how-apple-is-giving-design-a-bad-name.
Norman, Don. “I Wrote the Book on User-Friendly Design. What I See Today Horrifies Me.” Fast Company, Fast Company, 8 May 2019, www.fastcompany.com/90338379/i-wrote-the-book-on-user-friendly-design-what-i-see-today-horrifies-me?utm_source=pocket&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=pockethits.