Cognition – Attention

Cognition and Attention Considerations in UI Design for Older PeopleIt’s easy to view ageing as decline, but it’s not all bad news. One big plus is that elderly people consistently excel in certain types of attention span, persistence and thoroughness.  Older adults tend to be “methodical” in their behaviors.  They tend to read everything on a user interface screen or page before acting.  They take more time to explore technology user interfaces and often find things that younger people skip right over.  These factors should inform UI design for older people.

This bodes well for seniors’ use of technology when user interfaces are designed well.  But this does not mean that older users’ attention span is not vulnerable.  And too often user interfaces fail to take into account age-related challenges that affect attention and other cognitive functions.

Attention is thought to be a function of working memory.  It can be consciously directed towards specific tasks, or it can be ‘grabbed’ by a distracting event such as an animation or the sound of one’s name. This can be advantageous, in directing a person’s attention towards a warning or impending hazard, or it can be a distraction if, for example, an animation directs attention away from the task at hand.

Cognitian - Attention - UI Design for Older People

As stated above, seniors tend to work at a slower, more deliberate pace when technology is involved.  This increases the time it takes to complete tasks which in turn may create problems with maintaining focused performance and keeping up with task status over time (but this appears to depend on the type of task).  Elderly people have less ability to break a complicated technology task into a sequence of less complicated subtasks.  Understanding this is critical in good UI design for older people.

Older people have poorer ability to inhibit responses to irrelevant items and are more likely than younger people to become distracted.  They are less adept at dividing their attention between multiple tasks and they can easily become overwhelmed and frustrated to the extent that they give up (particularly when anxiety is involved).  In a world obsessed with multi-tasking, this can seem like a handicap.  But because multi-tasking is probably a bad idea in the first place, designing products that help seniors to focus on one thing at a time can have benefits for all age groups.  Paradoxically, attention problems in multi-task situations may show up on individual tasks that take less concentration in and of themselves (i.e., it’s the simultaneous combination of tasks that’s the problem, even if the individual tasks are simple).

Mitigation Strategies:

  • Minimize information overload  in UI design for older people.
  • Provide predictability and consistency in UI design for older people.
  • Ensure that attention is required to be directed in only one place at a Avoid dividing users’ attention between multiple tasks or parts of the screen or page.
  • Limit distraction from movement and irrelevant material (e.g., advertisements, animation, moving text). If advertising is present, make sure it is easily distinguishable from information content.
  • Minimize the amount of text and ensure that only necessary information is present in a good UI design for older people.  However, where warranted, don’t be afraid of long-form text and deep content, just be sure it is easy to find and relevant.
  • Ensure that pathways for completing tasks are understandable. Make the path for any given task a reasonable length (2-5 clicks) and free of distractions and other obstacles.
  • Break long complicated user interface tasks into a series of shorter, less complicated tasks. Make it easy for seniors to track their progress through tasks and provide feedback when tasks are completed.
  • Allow users to complete tasks without any time limit when possible. And be wary of potential problems that can result when multiple tasks do have to be completed within a certain time period (for example, a timer that triggers logging out of a secure page).
  • Allow information content to be paused, and restarted from where it was paused.
  • Provide a mechanism to postpone or control the timing of updating information content.
  • Don’t rely on text messages or app notifications to convey important information.
  • Avoid automatic screen rotation between portrait and panorama mode in UI design for older people.

Related Articles on Cognition:  Memory | Decision Making | Learning | Using Color When Designing Technology for Seniors

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