Shortly after establishing our Elder Lab we became aware of the special technology learning needs of seniors. After considerable research and testing with older adults, we developed something we call “Simple Steps”.
By 2030, over 20% of people in the United States will be adults over 65. But the high-tech sector largely has and continues to overlook older adults when designing smartphones, tablets, PC’s and apps – all of which offer life-enhancing potential for seniors [ref]. It’s no secret that engineers and product managers responsible for these transformative products are relatively young [ref]. And it’s no secret that tech executives spend much more time thinking about younger consumers than those 65 and older [ref].
Nevertheless, seniors are adopting technology at impressive rates [ref]. Technology has the potential for making life easier, more fulfilling, and more enjoyable for older adults [ref]. We see this day to day in our Elder Laboratory [ref].
But despite technology’s life-enhancing potential and some impressive adoption rates, a very real “senior usability gap” is preventing most elderly people from taking advantage of technology. A report by AARP sums this up best: “… most technology products, challenging in their complexity, are designed for none”[ref]. Age related impairments to vision, hearing, movement control and cognition are very real and poorly though-out products only compound these problems [ref].
At the same time, there is good news: The cost of technology products continues to drop to the point where products are becoming affordable to more seniors than ever before. We recently purchased state-of-the-art Amazon Fire tablets for our Elder Laboratory for about $69 each. Most seniors are on fixed incomes, so these price points are very significant in terms of matching life enhancing potential with affordability [ref]. But even with costs falling, for the most part, these products still suffer from the “senior usability gap” that we expect to exist for years to come.
The only practical way to make these products useful in the near-term is to mitigate the senior usability gap by providing very specialized instruction to older adults. Learning for seniors can be different than learning for younger people, especially when technology is involved [ref]. AARP and other organizations provide web-based instruction covering some technology topics [ref]. However, experiments in our Elder Laboratory show the effectiveness of web-based lessons is limited, especially if the learner is not experienced in using the device on which the lesson is being delivered. Our experience is that in-person instruction is much more effective.
We have been researching how to provide effective, but informal tech instruction to seniors. The result is something we call “Simple Steps”. The emphasis here is on the word “informal”. We do not have any firm statistics, but anecdotal evidence suggests that in the US there are hundreds of thousands informal learning sessions provided by family, friends, and volunteers, providing millions of hours of informal instruction each year. The problem with informal instruction sessions lies in their effectiveness. Seniors can get easily confused and can quickly forget informally delivered instruction [ref].
As described below, Simple Steps are a lab-tested method for developing teaching materials. We have found that its best to provide instruction individually or in small groups to address individual age-related impairments and mitigate the fear of embarrassment. And where possible, its best to employ instructors who are themselves seniors, or younger instructors who are specially trained to work with elderly people. But Simple Steps can also be used by family and friends.
Below are the learning principles on which Simple Steps are based. Not all are applicable to every lesson. But all should be considered when drafting lessons.
Step by Step Explanations
- Teach single paths for completing tasks. For example, if multiple ways exist for downloading free books, teach only one of these in order to mitigate cognition problems. In the Simple Steps examples below, we teach searching for free kindle books via the Amazon Book Store since it provides the most streamlined download process. We avoided mentioning that you can also search for them via Google or Bing, or via Amazon website search.
- Provide lessons in small and discreet doses in order to mitigate cognition problems. For example, we provide separate lessons for “finding” free books and “reading” free books. We also provide a separate “Kindle Book Reader Basics”. This generally allows us to keep each lesson to 12 or fewer steps. The number 12 is not a hard limit, but we find it works well in our Elder Lab.
- Make learning paths as linear and self-contained as possible. For example, instead of saying “refer to our Simple Steps for xyz to get started”, you should include steps xyz in the current lesson if possible (subject to the 12-step rule).
- Number steps clearly. Each step should contain no more than one action (e.g., a tap or click). And as explained above, the number of steps should not exceed 12 for any one lesson wherever possible.
- Keep steps very specific to the task at hand. You can use “side notes” or “tips” for providing auxiliary information. Use shaded backgrounds, or some other formatting difference, to separate auxiliary text from the core step-by-step learning process.
Application Version and Device Platform Specific
- Lessons should be application specific and platform specific. For example, teaching Facebook on an iPad is different than teaching Facebook on an Android tablet. It’s different between iPhone and iPad. And it can even be different between iPad models. It will also be different for using the Facebook app vs. the Facebook website. And teaching Facebook will be different for different versions of the Facebook app on any given device, so you need to be clear on which app version you are teaching.
- Illustrations should be based on a specific target device platform. For example, the Simple Steps provided below are for a 6th generation Amazon Fire tablet. Different illustrations would have been used for the same lesson for 4th generation model as portions of the user interface look significantly different. When newer models are released, develop updated illustrations for them if the user interface changes. Use different illustrations when teaching something on a phone vs a tablet (e.g. iPhone vs iPad) even though the Simple Steps text may be exactly the same for both.
Text Size and Color Contrast
- Always prioritize mitigating vision and cognition problems over minimizing step or page count.
- Use large text to mitigate vision problems. We use 16-point fonts for critical information, and 14-point for notes and tips. Use sans serf fonts which are easier to read for older people. Refer to our Font Size article for more information [ref].
- Use colors which mitigate contrast sensitivity, color blindness and fear issues. We try to use black and white as much as possible as these provide the greatest contrast and are not prone to color blindness problems. We use red in the call-outs and step numbers. Refer to our article on using colors and contrast for more information [ref].
- Make the illustrations as large as possible in order to mitigate vision problems. Where needed, “magnify” a graphical element in an illustration to make it easier to recognize.
- Use the step numbers to connect text and illustrations. For example, if we say in the written text to tap something, then we provide a numbered “call-out” in the corresponding illustration pointing to what should be tapped. Refer to our article on Target Sizes for guidelines on sizing call-outs [ref].
- Make sure illustrations relate to the text. They should support the text; and not be just for decoration.
- Use pictures of older adults when talking about, or to, older adults. Pictures of people should also reflect the diversity of your audience.
- Provide a consistent page layout between lessons so that multiple formats do not need to be learned.
Appropriate Writing Style
- Expect older people to be very literal in their interpretation of instructions.
- Write using simple sentence construction and plain language. Keep paragraphs, sentences and steps short.
- Use terms that seniors will be familiar with. Define terms which may be unfamiliar to older people.
- Use active voice which puts the focus on people and actions. For example, instead of writing a passive statement like “Facebook is used by many older adults”, write an active statement like “Many older adults use Facebook.”
- Use positive statements and avoid negatives. For example, instead of writing a negative statement like “Don’t forget to enter your name”, write a positive statement like “Remember to enter your name”.
- Address your older learner as “you.” For example, instead of writing something like “If someone falls, that person should stay as calm as possible”, write something like “If you do fall, stay as calm as possible”.
- Use respectful terms. Most seniors dislike the terms “old” and “older”. Use terms like “senior” or “elder” instead.
- If humor is used at all, then use it appropriately given the sensitivities of an older audience. Never tease about age, even if intended in a kind way.
Printer Friendly Formatting
- Simple Steps should be printable so they can be used side-by-side with the target device. Seniors have a very difficult time using instructional materials that are displayed on the device that they are trying to learn, as this involves toggling between apps and screens. For example, toggling between a PDF file window describing how to do something in a browser and a browser window itself.
To illustrate these learning principles, below are pages from several lab-tested Simple Steps for finding and reading free Amazon books on a Amazon Fire tablet. Note that the layout format is not as important as the learning concepts used to formulate the lessons. The format below was designed for MS Word with the goal of saving PDF files that can be easily shared and printed on letter size paper. If you would like to obtain a more complete set of Amazon Fire Simple Steps then please send us a request via our contact form.