Please Design for Elders
Most elders struggle to some degree with the digital services and products we develop today. They often jump to the conclusion that they are stupid and incapable of completing tasks if they misinterpret or misunderstand in a digital environment. Very few criticize the design, and rather criticize themselves.
Why Should You Care?
According to the United Nations, our world’s population is aging fast. In an increasingly digital society, elders will need to be able to use digital services and products to be functional members of society and keep their independence. It will be the task of designers, among others, to make the digital world accessible and usable for elders so they can still deliver their taxes, access their health records, get groceries and more.
What Happens When We Get Old?
Along with physical changes, healthy aging commences many gradual changes in cognitive abilities. This might include issues with short-term memory, speed of processing, learning and problem-solving in new circumstances. While today's accessibility laws and regulations accommodate physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities are less included.
Won’t The Problem Solve Itself?
The next generation of elders might have more digital competency with the technologies of today. However, they will most likely still struggle to keep up with new technologies, as the decline in cognitive functions affect the ability to learn new abilities and problem solve.
How Can We Help?
This project aims to stimulate inclusive design by sharing insights and tips to encourage empathic and empowering solutions for digitally lacking, cognitively disabled elders. This collection of insights is the end product of a master thesis at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
The Digitally Lacking Elder
Elders today vary in digital competency. The majority can be defined as digitally lacking. As we age, cognitive functions decline at various degrees and at various speeds for different people which impacts the use of digital services and products.
Digital competency is not about being digital or non-digital, but rather a scale from non-digital, through digitally lacking, to digitally competent. The vast majority of elders are placed somewhere in the middle and can be defined as digitally lacking in competence in various ways. While some elders are completely non-digital, an equal number are also very digitally competent.
HOW TO HELP
Simplify Visual Language
Keep a simple visual language (icons, pictures, illustrations, etc). Do not rely on design conventions that elders may not understand without explanation or verification. Be sure to explain what they are, and user test that they work.
Use Relevant Illustrations
Make sure illustrations (media, pictures whatever) serve a relevant function, and are not just there as a decorative measure. Some elders will try to find the connection between the illustration and other content, and can get confused, or conclude that they are missing something if this connection does not exist. Others might mistake illustrations as an interactive part of the user interface, and feel stupid or frustrated when the interaction is unsuccessful.
Be Aware of Unrepresentative Insights
Recognize that the insight you gather on elders will likely be unrepresentative to some degree. It is difficult, if not impossible, to reach the most vulnerable users in our society, including the least digital elders. Be aware that your solution may need simplification beyond what your insights reveal.
“I would say that around 60% of those who live around me are not that good with digital things.”
“There are elders who are digital outsiders, but the vast majority are digital in some way. It ranges from being able to use a mobile phone to being very digital. Being digital isn’t a thing, it’s a scale.”
Feelings and Frustrations
When elders interact with digital services and products, they can get stressed, uncertain, intimidated, and some even experience fear.
When navigating and making choices, elders often hesitate and feel uncertain about their choices both before and after making them. Several are afraid to make irreversible mistakes that can have huge consequences for themselves or other individuals. Some are unable to separate between plausible consequences, such as sending money to the wrong bank account, and implausible consequences, like giving away all their savings by clicking the wrong button.
Elders are also afraid to learn about technology in general, as they feel like there is too much to learn and understand. They fear that their skill level is worse than that of others of similar age or experience. Additionally, most elders are aware of potentially dangerous interactions online, like scams or fishing, which results in an unwarranted skepticism for all interactions with digital services and technologies which are frequently present in the wrong contexts.
HOW TO HELP
Be Mindful of Redesigns
Both small and large redesigns and updates will likely confuse and stress your elderly users, as they struggle to relearn. Reflect on the motivations and reasonings behind redesigns and updates beforehand. Be helpful by providing guides, and consider offering extra help in the days and weeks after a redesign or major update.
Clarify Expectations and Actions
Our insights show that some elders might have unrealistic fears of the consequences of their actions. Allow elders to understand what happens when they perform an action before it is performed, in order to feel safe.
Incorporate Extra Confirmations for Actions
Help ensure that elderly users understand and can confirm that they wish to complete the action.
Only Ask for Required Information
Only ask for the information you require at any given time. Explain why you need that information to ensure that elderly users understand and feel in control.
“I see how angry my friends get with certain apps. I understand well that they have to update and change them, but every time there is an update, there is also a new challenge for elders. When we have learned the system, it changes again and we cannot keep up.”
“They are uncertain in the digital world in the first place, so they get easily stressed when they have to fill something out.”
Old age impacts elders’ cognitive functions in various ways. They might use more time, struggle with prolonged focus, and find it difficult to comprehend complicated content online. Some might struggle with problem-solving, and experience decreased processing speed and information overload more frequently than other user groups.
Decreased cognitive function, means that elders need more time to absorb, process, and interact to avoid getting stressed. This is especially true with digitally lacking elders. Many designers are aware of this, but struggle to avoid information overload while still trying to keep the elders' focus and give enough information to make the content understandable. Some designers express uncertainty when it comes to how cognitive issues affect elders' use of their services. Our insights show that designers discuss and describe these cognitive challenges often, but the vast majority do not identify them as cognitive challenges.
HOW TO HELP
Avoid Complicated Language
Technology terms that may be unfamiliar to elders. Instead, use short, simple sentences with concrete, everyday words. Avoid abbreviations and complicated punctuation.
Keep Text Relevant and Concise
Some elders might feel pressed to read all text presented on the page, but struggle to keep focus long enough to complete.
Refrain from Stressing a Choice
Avoid stressing users by forcing them to make a choice before they are ready, such as time limited offers. Give them time and space to process and move forward at their own pace.
Make Actions and Buttons Descriptive
Actions and buttons should be more descriptive than simply "Read more". Be sure to rather add context by writing "Read the article" or similar.
“The elderly spent a lot of time evaluating the nuances of the answer options [in our survey], something they did not need to do at all. So we have tried to remove things that can create confusion.”
“Time is a thing with the elderly, as they are stressed by the quick pace of digital services today. Therefore, digital services aimed at elders must have a different time span, as they become more stressed.”
Navigation is a huge challenge for elders and might struggle with otherwise simple navigational cues and navigational language.
Some elders struggle to navigate back and forth between pages and tabs and in general understand established navigational language, like for example the hamburger menu. Designers struggle to know what navigational language elders understand and what they cannot rely on. Some elders do not understand scrolling conventions, like scrolling up, down, or sideways when navigating digital services and products. Others prefer this method compared to navigating back and forth within a hierarchy of pages to receive information.
HOW TO HELP
Divide content into several sequences to avoid information overload. It is important to find a balance between avoiding information overload and keeping focus.
Make Backtracking Understandable
Be sure that elderly users understand how to go back to a previous page or action. Consider carefully whether the word "back" and it's convention is understood clearly.
Allow Multiple Ways of Navigation
Have tolerance for variety in navigation, as elders will have different ways to navigate. Some elders struggle to learn new ways of navigating and might feel frustrated if they can't navigate the way that they already know.
Give Feedback During Navigation
Create navigational structures that allow elderly users to feel in control. Be sure to give them clear feedback on where they are, where they are navigating next and other possibilities for navigation.
Nudge Users to Scroll When Needed
Be sure to clearly communicate when scrolling is an available option.
Keep Choices to a Minimum
Be aware that some elders struggle to process and navigate too many choices, due to a decline in cognitive function. Many prefer making one choice at a time rather than several choices at once.
“Before the menu was on the left side, and you also had a main page with a summary. But then the users were most concerned with the main page and did not notice the menu. Now there is only a menu.”
“Things that seem obvious are not. Even when just scrolling on a website, we have to guide a little more than we usually do. We need to create several alternative ways to do something on the same screen.”
Isolation & Independence
Elders struggle to keep up with the fast-moving and innovative pace of technology but feel pressured to use it to avoid becoming isolated from society.
They desire independence in their daily lives as they are often forced to seek out help from spouses, family, and friends to overcome digital challenges, for example paying bills online. Some elders are forced to share personal data to overcome these digital challenges. While some are aware that they should not share certain personal data, they don’t feel like they have any other alternatives.
HOW TO HELP
Offer a Helping Hand
Help your elderly users through helpful text, information-text-buttons, FAQ’s, tips, and explanations.
Supply Human Contact
Consider providing easy-to-find customer support like an online chat or phone number users can get help from.
Digital services and products should be forgiving of typos and mistakes in places that require user input, such as search fields, forms, etc.
“I will keep up to date, even when I retire. You have to keep up all the time or you will quickly fall behind.”