Designing Technology for Seniors

If you work in the technology industry, it’s relatively easy to ignore special needs when designing technology for seniors.  This is also true on college campuses where young product designers and engineers are trained.  So you can see why most technology, from smartphones to software apps, is designed for younger people.

Its no secret that tech executives spend much more time thinking about younger people than those 65 and older.  But the young will get old, and as technology continues to develop rapidly, they will face their own usability challenges.  At some point they will suffer from some combination of the same physical and cognitive impairments as their grandparents.  Medical advances may postpone some of these impairments, but many are as inevitable as death and taxes.

By 2030, almost 20% of people in the United States will be adults over 65.  This is about the same number of people as own an iPhone in 2015 – a very large and lucrative market. We all know that technology has the potential for making life easier, more fulfilling, and more enjoyable for the elderly.  If you are a technology executive or a young entrepreneur – does this sound like an opportunity to positively impact society while making some money?  It should.

But do we really understand designing technology for seniors?  What about testing technology products given the special needs of elderly adults?  More specifically, do we understand how to design, build and test the user Interfaces (or UI’s) for seniors?  A report by AARP answers states that “most technology products, challenging in their complexity, are designed for none.”  There is much truth to this.

Most best practice guidelines for designing technology for seniors seem to exist for website user interfaces.  In 2008, the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C)  AGE Project conducted an extensive literature review pertaining to web accessibility for older adults.  But their design recommendations were folded into its more generalized Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Web Accessibility Techniques (WAG 2.0) for disabilities.  The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has also published Standards for Accessibility.  These also pertain to accessibility for the disabled in general.  With focus on specific needs of seniors, AARP and NIA have published design guidelines, but these are also for websites.

The guidelines for designing technology for seniors provided herein integrate the recommendations made by W3C, ISO, AARP and NAI.  But we have added information pertaining specifically to user interface design for older people.  This additional information was gleaned from hundreds of academic and professional papers, magazine articles, blog articles and websites.  While most of the available literature pertains to smartphones, personal computer software and website design – most of the points gleaned from these are applicable to almost any technology user interface design (e.g., automobiles, home appliances, A.I. home helpers, wearable devices, kiosks, medical devices …).

Many people will say that most of the considerations for designing technology for seniors are good for any age group.  In fact, much of the information presented here resembles what you would expect to find in a beginner course in user interface design.  But the points presented here are especially important for older people, and should be used in conjunction with other more generalized and accepted user interface design principles.

Finally, a common statement made by product managers to engineers is: “make it so my grandmother can use it”.  Those of you that have actually tried designing technology for seniors know this is easier said than done.  We think you will find the information provided on this website helpful.

Summary Articles:  Top 10 Technical User Interface Design Tips for Seniors | Top 10 NON-Technical User Interface Design Tips for Seniors

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