Thursday, April 16, 2015

Designing For The Elderly: Ways Older People Use Digital Technology Differently

If you work in the tech industry, it’s easy to forget that older people exist. Most tech workers are really young, so it’s easy to see why most technology is designed for young people. 

But consider this: By 2030, around 19% of people in the US will be over 65 (on about 70 Million people). Check the  U.S. and World Population Clock here;

Doesn’t sound like a lot? Well it happens to be about the same number of people in the US who own an iPhone today. Which of these two groups do you think Silicon Valley spends more time thinking about?

This seems unfortunate when you consider all of the things technology has to offer older people. A great example is Speaking Exchange, an initiative that connects retirees in the US with kids who are learning English in Brazil. 

While the ageing process is different for everyone, we all go through some fundamental changes. Not all of them are what you’d expect. For example, despite declining health, older people tend to be significantly happier and better atappreciating what they have.

But ageing makes some things harder as well, and one of those things is using technology. If you’re designing technology for older people, below are seven key things you need to know.

(How old is old? It depends. While I’ve deliberately avoided trying to define such an amorphous group using chronological boundaries, it’s safe to assume that each of the following issues becomes increasingly significant after 65 years of age.)

Vision And Hearing

From the age of about 40, the lens of the eye begins to harden, causing a condition called “presbyopia.” This is a normal part of ageing that makes it increasingly difficult to read text that is small and close.

Color vision also declines with age, and we become worse at distinguishing between similar colors. In particular, shades of blue appear to be faded or desaturated.

Hearing also declines in predictable ways, and a large proportion of people over 65 have some form of hearing loss. While audio is seldom fundamental to interaction with a product, there are obvious implications for certain types of content.

Key lessons:

Avoid font sizes smaller than 16 pixels (depending of course on device, viewing distance, line height etc.).
Let people adjust text size themselves.
Pay particular attention to contrast ratios with text.
Avoid blue for important interface elements.
Always test your product using screen readers.
Provide subtitles when video or audio content is fundamental to the user experience.

Motor Control

Our motor skills decline with age, which makes it harder to use computers in various ways. For example, during some user testing at a retirement village, we saw an 80-year-old who always uses the mouse with two hands. Like many older people, she had a lot of trouble hitting interface targets and moving from one thing to the next.

In the general population, a mouse is more accurate than a finger. But in our user testing, we’ve seen older people perform better using touch interfaces. This is consistent with research that shows that finger tapping declines later than some other motor skills.

Key lessons:

Reduce the distance between interface elements that are likely to be used in sequence (such as form fields), but make sure they’re at least 2 millimeters apart.
Buttons on touch interfaces should be at least 9.6 millimeters diagonally (for example, 44 × 44 pixels on an iPad) for ages up to 70, and larger for older people.
Interface elements to be clicked with a mouse (such as forms and buttons) should be at least 11 millimeters diagonally.
Pay attention to sizing in human interface guidelines (Luke Wroblewski has a good roundup of guidelines for different platforms).

Device Use

If you want to predict the future, just look at what middle-class American teens are doing. Right now, they’re using their mobile phones for everything.

– Dustin Curtis

It’s safe to assume Dustin has never watched a 75-year-old use a mobile phone. Eventually, changes in vision and motor control make small screens impractical for everyone. Smartphones are a young person’s tool, and not even the coolest teenager can escape their biological destiny.

In our research, older people consistently described phones as “annoying” and “fiddly.” Those who own them seldom use them, often not touching them for days at a time. They often ignore SMS’ entirely.

But older people aren’t afraid to try new technology when they see a clear benefit. For example, older people are the largest users of tablets. This makes sense when you consider the defining difference between a tablet and a phone: screen size. The recent slump in tablet sales also makes sense if you accept that older people have longer upgrade cycles than younger people.

Key lessons:

Avoid small-screen devices (i.e. phones).
Don’t rely on SMS to convey important information.


Older people have different relationships than young people, at least partly because they’ve had more time to cultivate them. For example, we conducted some research into how older people interact with health care professionals. In many cases, they’ve seen the same doctors for decades, leading to a very high degree of trust.

I regard it like going to see old pals.… I feel I could tell my GP almost anything.

– George, 73, on visiting his medical team

But due to health and mobility issues, the world available to the elderly is often smaller — both physically and socially. Digital technology has an obvious role to play here, by connecting people virtually when being in the same room is hard.

Key lessons:

Enable connection with a smaller, more important group of people (not a big, undifferentiated social network).
Don’t overemphasize security and privacy controls when trusted people are involved.
Be sensitive to issues of isolation.

Life Stage

During a user testing session, I sat with a 66-year-old as she signed up for an Apple ID. She was asked to complete a series of security questions. She read the first question out loud. “What was the model of your first car?” She laughed. “I have no idea! What car did I have in 1968? What a stupid question!”

It’s natural for a 30-year-old programmer to assume that this question has meaning for everyone, but it contains an implicit assumption about which life stage the user is at. Don’t make the same mistake in your design.

Key lessons:

Beware of content or functionality that implicitly assumes someone is young or at a certain stage in life.

Experience With Technology

I once sat with a man in his 80s as he used a library interface. “I know there are things down there that I want to read” he said, gesturing to the bottom of the screen, “but I can’t figure out how to get to them.” After I taught him how to use a scrollbar, his experience changed completely. In another session, two of the older participants told me that they’d never used a search field before.

Generally when you’re designing interfaces, you’re working within a certain kind of scaffolding. And it’s easy to assume that everyone knows how that scaffolding works. But people who didn’t grow up with computers might have never used the interface elements we take for granted. Is a scrollbar a good design for moving content up and down? Is its function self-evident? These aren’t questions most designers often ask. But the success of your design might depend on a thousand parts of the interface that you can’t control and probably aren’t even aware of.

Key lessons:

Don’t make assumptions about prior knowledge.
Interrogate all parts of your design for usability, even the parts you didn’t create.


The science of cognition is a huge topic, and ageing changes how we think in unpredictable ways. Some people are razor-sharp in their 80s, while others decline as early as in their 60s.

Despite this variability, three areas are particularly relevant to designing for the elderly: memory, attention and decision-making. (For a more comprehensive view of cognitive change with age, chapter 1 of Brain Aging: Models, Methods, and Mechanisms is a great place to start.)


There are different kinds of memory, and they’re affected differently by the ageing process. For example, procedural memory (that is, remembering how to do things) is generally unaffected. People of all ages are able to learn new skills and reproduce them over time.

But other types of memory suffer as we age. Short-term memory and episodicmemory are particularly vulnerable. And, although the causes are unclear, older people often have difficulty manipulating the contents of their working memory. This means that they may have trouble understanding how to combine complex new concepts in a product or interface.

Prospective memory (remembering to do something in the future) also suffers. This is particularly relevant for habitual tasks, like remembering to take medication at the right time every day.

How do people manage this decline? In our research, we’ve found that paper is king. Older people almost exclusively use calendars and diaries to supplement their memory. But well-designed technology has great potential to provide cues for these important actions.

For older people, paper is king. 

Key lessons:

Introduce product features gradually over time to prevent cognitive overload.
Avoid splitting tasks across multiple screens if they require memory of previous actions.
During longer tasks, give clear feedback on progress and reminders of goals.
Provide reminders and alerts as cues for habitual actions.


It’s easy to view ageing as a decline, but it’s not all bad news. In our research, we’ve observed one big advantage: Elderly people consistently excel in attention span, persistence and thoroughness. Jakob Nielsen has observed similar things, finding that 95% of seniors are “methodical” in their behaviors. This is significant in a world where the average person’s attention span has actually dropped below the level of a goldfish.

It can be a great feeling to watch an older user really take the time to explore your design during a testing session. And it means that older people often find things that younger people skip right over. I often find myself admiring this way of interacting with the world. But the obvious downside of a slower pace is increased time to complete tasks.

Older people are also less adept at dividing their attention between multiple tasks. In a world obsessed with multitasking, this can seem like a handicap. But because multi-tasking is probably a bad idea in the first place, designing products that help people to focus on one thing at a time can have benefits for all age groups.

Key lessons:

Don’t be afraid of long-form text and deep content.
Allow for greater time intervals in interactions (for example, server timeouts, inactivity warnings).
Avoid dividing users’ attention between multiple tasks or parts of the screen.


Young people tend to weigh a lot of options before settling on one. Older people make decisions a bit differently. They tend to emphasize prior knowledge (perhaps because they’ve had more time to accumulate it). And they give more weight to the opinions of experts (for example, their doctor for medical decisions).

The exact reason for this is unclear, but it may be due to other cognitive limitations that make comparing new options more difficult.

Key lessons:

Prioritize shortcuts to previous choices ahead of new alternatives.
Information framed as expert opinion may be more persuasive (but don’t abuse this bias).


A lot of people in the tech industry talk about “changing the world” and “making people’s lives better.” But bad design is excluding whole sections of the population from the benefits of technology. If you’re a designer, you can help change that. By following some simple principles, you can create more inclusive products that work better for everyone, especially the people who need them the most.

By Ollie Campbell

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Choosing a Tablet Computer for the Elderly & Technophobic by P.F. Anderson

From the “Drafts Pile” post, some folk commented and others emailed, but this was the most requested topic, which made it top of my list for writing the next blog post.


It wasn’t that long ago that we were picking out a tablet for my dad. Back in the day, my dad was a hard core computer geek — programmer, hacker, build-your-own. My childhood was chockfull of tickertape and punchcards and Tandy home computer kits being assembled in the basement. My dad was anything but technophobic, but even for him the new world of the Web was confusing. I remember when he and I were talking on the phone, and he was having a small rant about how he and his tech cronies at the local college had spent hours trying to figure out how to download an image from a web page. They were SO frustrated (this was about 10 years ago). I said, “What?! Right click didn’t work?” and he replied, “Right click? What are you talking about?” I suddenly realized that I had outstripped my father in the realm of technology. I think it was quite a shock for both of us.

When I heard that my dad was still trying to get by using a >10 year old Windows machine, flatbed scanner, and a 2400 baud modem, my heart ached. We kids talked it over and went together to get him and iPad. Why an iPad? Mostly because that’s what other folk in the family had already, and there was built in family assistance for him if he needed help. Not to mention, I could also add the charge for his Internet access to my account, and he never needed to worry about it. But that was us, and that was a few years back.

I cannot imagine how much MORE frustrating and intimidating it must be for people who were never strong with “The Force” when it comes to computers. In my family now, I am the tech wizard and my (ahem, adult) children are the ones who come to me with questions about how to do things. And I go to my geek-squad friends and sister when I get stuck with mobile tech. And someday, I will be like my dad, uncertain in the face of tech that has evolved so quickly it has outstripped my ability to keep up. What are the options now for you and your loved ones?


Being a senior doesn’t mean you are technophobic, being a technophobe doesn’t mean you are a senior, and you can still have challenges with technology without falling into either group. In addition to the elderly, there are others, such as children or persons with certain disabilities, who benefit from making tech simpler to use, more self-explanatory, and more durable. Ultimately, making computers easier to use benefits EVERYONE, just like curbcuts for wheelchairs help bicyclists and parent pushing strollers. That’s how accessibility works. What’s important is to not assume that “they can’t do it”, or it can’t be done. Everyday we make progress making computers better, stronger, faster, smarter, and, yes, EASIER. So, while this post focuses on the motivating idea of elderly folk who are struggling with computers, don’t limit your ideas of who might be helped to just those groups.

Seniors and Technology

The Pew Internet Research Center has been tracking how seniors use and work with the Internet since 2001, when only 15% were online (my early adopter dad being one). Now, 14 years later, it’s roughly 60%, and even within those seniors who use the Internet, there is a lot of variation in how well they are able to use it.

“Two different groups of older Americans emerge. The first group (which leans toward younger, more highly educated, or more affluent seniors) has relatively substantial technology assets, and also has a positive view toward the benefits of online platforms. The other (which tends to be older and less affluent, often with significant challenges with health or disability) is largely disconnected from the world of digital tools and services, both physically and psychologically.” Pew. “Older Adults and Technology Use,” 2014.

These two groups aren’t necessarily stable, either. People shift between them. Fifteen years ago, my dad fell into the first group of tech-savvy elders. By the time of his passing, earlier this month, he had shifted largely into the second category, but still wanted to check his email. For others, it might be that a new treatment, supportive living situation, or even a techy gift might actually bring someone MORE into the realm of using the technologies around them. While I was traveling home from my Dad’s funeral, an older woman stopped me in the waiting room at Union Station. Her 82-year-old boyfriend (her words) had given her an iPhone, and her girlfriend was texting her, but she didn’t know how to read or answer the texts. Our conversation ended with, ” … and when it turns green, that means it’s been sent? Oh, thank you!”


Technophobia is a far more important concern than simply one’s age. The fear of the technology can be isolating, keeping people apart from loved ones and friends when this is how they communicate and connect. This is such a problem, that people are actually building tech solutions to address such very specific issues such as sharing baby pictures on Facebook, and how do you include family members who are not ON Facebook? [Check out Kidpost, if you have this challenge in your family.] AARP recommended the Presto Printing Mailbox for seniors without a computer, allowing friends, relatives, and caregivers to send anything from family photos to medication reminders. AARP went on to fund a major white paper on the topic, Connected Living for Social Aging: Designing Technology for All (2011).

The phrase “digital isolation” has been adopted to describe this as a significant social issue within society, with titles like “Digital Isolation Plagues Those Who Need Internet Most” and “What Will Become of Britain’s Digitally Isolated After Martha Lane Fox’s Resignation?” Digital isolation is blamed as a contributing factor to poor outcomes in disaster response and health (especially in diabetes). The origins of technophobia may or may not lie in the technology itself, but the impacts are surely heavily social in nature.

“… rarely, if ever, is technophobia based just on the happenstance of technical ignorance. It almost always has its roots in … a sense of estrangement from the world into which one is cast. Here common sense cannot help, for it is from the prevaling common sense that one is estranged. To the technophobe, the technological world seems alien; to common sense, the technophobe seems foolish.” Burch, Robert. Confronting Technophobia: A Topology. Phenomenology + Pedagogy 1986 4(2):3-21.

Solutions to technophobia need incorporate that social aspect of the presumed problem. Sarah Maurer recommends that technophobes can get past the fear by starting slowly, taking a class, try a touch screen, get the same types of devices your relatives are using, and ask your kids and grandkids to help you learn your way around.

Maurer, Sarah. 10 Tips to Beat Technophobia: Seniors can conquer their fears and start enjoying online technology. WCCTA WebsiteCompass Spring 2012.

The National Legal Aid and Defender Association recommended in 2004 that you start out by playing Solitaire, using cheatsheets, and don’t make the mistake of asking a true geek for help (because they may not be the best communicators). They also recommended “reverse mentoring,” where you learn something and then teach it to someone else who knows even less. These are still good idea, although some folk might prefer to replace Solitaire with Candy Crush or Trivia Crack or one of the other hot new games.

NLADA. Overcoming Technophobia


If you are interested in tracking this area, I have two recommendations. One is Senior Tech Insider, a truly marvelous news tracking service from Karen Heyman which shares news and alerts about telemedicine, accessibility, policy and regulatory issues, and emerging technologies that touch on the lives of the elderly. The other is a counter to the argument I hear so often of, “I’m too old to try.” Me, I’m only approaching 60, so perhaps I’m not a persuasive case. So check out John F. McMullen, who is older than me. I’m not sure how much, but I know he was around for many of the tech events that shaped my youth, and he was tied right into them, knows the folk involved, and still writes about them and how the issues have progressed over time. He’s everywhere online (blogs, BlogTalkRadio,Facebook, Flickr, Google Plus, LinkedIn, OpenSalon, Podbean, Twitter, Youtube, …). He is enormously more engaged in multimedia production than I am. And he still writes and talks about technology. Never say it can’t be done. Heck, did you hear the one about the 114 year old woman who couldn’t register for Facebook because their age verification form didn’t go that far? It’s true.


So, even with recognizing there are some pretty significant social aspects to working with a loved one to help them get online, and assuming that they don’t have a philosophical opposition to the very concept and are willing to try, what happens next? Where do you go, what factors are most important in your decision, what are the choices? Do you go with a ASUS VivoTab, RealPad, In-Touch, iPad, Kindle Fire, or … what?




– Device Price
– Network Access (is included, or is extra?)
– Monthly fees?
– Carrying case or protection (optional)
– External keyboard (optional)
– Security or registration (optional)
– Training or courses (optional)
– Tech support (included or optional extra?)


– Display (resolution, crispness, color, screen size, enlargement, zoom, etc.)
– Buttons (size, visibility, clarity of purposes)
– Keyboard (built-in, optional add on, external, on-screen, in-case, …)
– Battery life
– Wall or plug-in charger
– Weight
– Memory card slot (optional)


– Tech Support available, what kind, does it match person’s preferences?
– Interface & appearance
– Accessibility & font enlargement
– Background Skills
– Special health concerns that may impact on how device is used
– Apps available for personal interests
– Apps available for hobbies & games
– Apps available for special health needs or tracking

More resources

For Dummies: For Seniors: Buying the Right Tablet:

My Ageing Parent: Computers or tablets for older people?

My Ageing Parent: Are there better tablets for elderly than iPad?

New York Public Library: Tablet Buying Guide: A Primer for Technophobes, Luddites and the Just Plain Confused (2013)

Senior Planet: The Best Tablets for Technophobes (2014)

TechRiggs: Best Tablets for Seniors and Elderly Senior Citizens (2015)


These are currently the best known and available tablet computers which were either designed explicitly for seniors or which are being promoted as useful for that demographic. Several of these were designed in collaboration with seniors, such as the AARP RealPad and the Senior Touchpad. Some of these have been around a while and have a lot of pre-existing support resources, like the iPad, Chromebook, and Kindle. Others are brand new, like the GrandPad, just announced in February 2015.

AARP RealPad (reviews: Forbes; Gizmodo; Huffington Post; Liliputing;ZDnet) (video)
Breezie (reviews: AgeUK, C|Net, Telegraph
Chromebook (reviews: 2011; 2013a; 2013b; 2014)
Claris Companion (reviews: LaptopMag, C|Net)
GrandPad (Techhive review)
HP Touchsmart (AARP review)
In-Touch (a.k.a. Senior Touchpad)
iPad or iPad mini (cheatsheet) (reviews: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014) (book) (apps) (usability with seniors (2014))
Kindle Fire (eReader Or Tablet review) (book)
Nook HD+ (MakeUseOf review)
Telikin (CR review)


Best Tablets for Seniors and Elderly Senior Citizens

Don’t waste your money on AARP’s RealPad

Great deals on tablets for seniors:

by P.F. Anderson 

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