Seniors are less comfortable with technology than younger people. But a common myth is that old people can’t or won’t learn new technology skills. This may be true for a segment of older adults, but it’s true for a segment of the younger population as well. The advantage that seniors generally have is more free time and an old-fashioned work ethic. For many, learning technology can foster self-esteem and confidence. But with age come many real learning challenges. These factors should inform UX design for seniors (“UX” is shorthand for “user experience”).
The speed with which individual older adults learn varies widely. But in general, learning takes more effort and more time. This need for extra time in very important in UX design for seniors. Also, after learning a task there may be a prolonged period during which it is easily forgotten.
Older people prefer long established learning pathways. A learning pathway is the chosen route taken by a learner through a range of activities, allowing him or her to build knowledge progressively. For most seniors these learning pathways were developed and ingrained well before they began using information technology. So they need to learn differently than younger users.
Seniors learn better if the user interface model resembles something they already know from the past. For example, they will learn an email user interface more easily if email terms and symbols resemble postal mail. Or if they already know email, they will learn texting more easily if texting terms and symbols resemble email. The prior mental model guides how they think the new user interface will work. This is very important in UX design for seniors.
When learning, elderly people are more easily overwhelmed and are quicker to become frustrated. When becoming frustrated (and often giving up), seniors tend to assign blame either to self, or to the application they are trying to learn (often with good reason). When older people see themselves in negative age-stereotyped terms this further impairs their ability to perform.
Several studies suggest that older people benefit from attitude-positive learning (forward looking, risk-taking and experimental) vs. attitude-negative learning (confidence lacking or fearful). They often have greater emotional need for support from another human being when learning. Seniors place more trust in expert opinion than younger people do.
Much literature supports the notion that older adults benefit from instruction which is transferred visually and supported by audio narration, especially for complex tasks. This bodes well for in-person training, and the use of instructional videos and on-line learning materials that employ video and audio. However, such learning materials will themselves need to be specially designed for older people using some of the best practices contained herein.
When learning is in-person, seniors can more easily be overwhelmed by typically younger instructors who go too fast, present too many ideas and tend to be impatient with the slow and uncertain progress typifying older people. Seniors do better with instructors from the same (older) age group or instructors who have adjusted their style to accommodate older learners. Elderly people also appear to benefit from learning in small (2 to 4 person) groups rather than individually or in large groups.
Learning can easily be disrupted by the provision of too much information. Seniors benefit from a focus on learning a minimum of essential concepts and techniques, learning skills as a set of concrete procedures, and actually performing skills as they learn. They may benefit from simple background information that places their learning in context, but they are more easily distracted or confused by too much focus on conceptual material (vs. practical goal relevant material).
The order in which user interface concepts are introduced and learned matters a great deal. If older people learn one way of doing something at the start of learning to use an application, they will find it very difficult to switch to another method of performing the same or similar task later – even if that other method is more efficient. This means that user interface designers need to be concerned with which parts of the user interface get exposed first, and the subsequent order of learning.
Expect elderly people to try to use applications without having put much time into learning them (although they may make a greater effort than much younger users). Expect older people to avoid help systems or help forums.
Elderly people often fail to find important screen features that younger user interface designers consider obvious. Older people can be surprisingly blind to parts of the screen away from the areas they usually look at. For example, status bar information at the bottom of a page or screen is likely to be missed. This is further compounded when visual field impairments are involved.
One area in which older users consistently fail is in learning to understand file management systems. Expect seniors to struggle with file Open and Save tasks, especially if they are asked to change folders. Also expect older people to have problems finding documents they have previously created.
For the user interface:
- Make it easy to find instructions and help quickly in your UX design for seniors. Provide help functions on every user interface screen or page
- Give instructions clearly and number each step in your UX design for seniors. Minimize jargon and technical terms.
- Minimize the amount of text to only necessary information.
- Provide for longer learning times or self-paced learning of the user interface.
- Provide more repetition in learning to use the user interface.
- Provide a sense of accomplishment in your UX design for seniors when important tasks are completed.
- Ensure that all possible actions generate suitable feedback to guide the user.
- Insert statements of what has been achieved “up to this point” as a way of helping older people keep track of what they are doing in long sequences of procedural steps.
- Avoid reliance on skill transfer between situations in your UX design for seniors.
- Use interface structure, and stress familiar pathways over efficiency in your UX design for seniors.
- Use distinctive spatial positions for navigation and action elements, and be aware of the potential confusion if these positions change.
- Make text labels on user interface elements start with different, distinct, and relevant key words. Make the words descriptive enough to make it easy to accurately predict their function in your UX design for seniors. Use words that older adults are familiar with. Use the same word labels for user interface elements that perform the same function.
- Divide the application so that some configuration tasks are off-loaded to the helpers and supporters of older users.
- Don’t rely on text messages or app notifications to convey important information in your UX design for seniors.
For in-person training and support:
- Enable “trusted persons” to directly or remotely provide help and support.
- Provide instructors from the same (older) age group or instructors who have adjusted their teaching style to accommodate older learners.
- Provide learning in small (2 to 4 person) groups rather than individually or in large groups.
- Provide instructors and supporters of seniors with information about how to adjust the user interface, or even the operating system, for age-related impairments.
- As with the user interface itself, instructional materials need to be designed to deliver information gradually, over longer periods of time, and with more repetition.
- Dispel the fear of “breaking something”. Design learning materials and programs which foster self-esteem and confidence and minimize the possibility of embarrassment.
For instructional text:
- For user manuals, include cheat-sheets that assist older user remember how to perform important actions.
- Make instructions easy to recognize and differentiate them from other types of nearby content.
- Put the key message first, and minimize the use of introductory paragraphs. Put conclusions and implications at the top of a body of text, with supporting content after it (inverted pyramid).
- Write using simple sentence construction and plain language. Use terms that seniors will be familiar with. Keep paragraphs and sentences short.
- Make liberal use of headings, bullet lists, and links to assist skimming. Making headings descriptive enough to make it easy to accurately predict what the content will be under each topic category. Ensure that headings start with different, distinct, and relevant key words.
- Minimize the use of multiple types of highlighting in order to stress important information (e.g., the mixed use of bold, underline and italic for the same purpose).
- If instructions have more than one step, number them. Ensure that numbered or bullet lists have the main points and important keywords at the beginning. Do not combine two or more procedures within one point in a list of instructions.
- Included numbered step-by-step illustrations with your instructional text (see the Instructional Illustrations section below for more).
- Explain clearly and be direct. For example, instead of writing something like “Some people find that talking to their healthcare provider can be helpful when deciding how to care for their hypertension” write something like “Talk with your doctor about managing high blood pressure.”
- Use active voice which puts the focus on people and actions. For example, instead of writing a passive statement like “Prescription medicines are taken by many older adults”, write an active statement like “Many older adults take prescription medicines.”
- Use positive statements and avoid negatives. For example, instead of writing a negative statement like “Don’t forget to take your medicine”, write a positive statement like “Remember to take your medicine”.
- Address your older learner by “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 the include the words “old” and “older”. Use terms like “senior” or “elder” instead.
- If humor is used, then use it appropriately given the sensitivities of an older audience. Never tease them, even if intended in a kind way.
- Define terms which may be unfamiliar to older people.
- Keep instructions very specific to the task at hand.
- Summarize key points.
- Provide a consistent layout
- Place instructions physically close to the point on the screen where they are to be applied.
- Use concrete examples and language together with supporting and relevant illustrations.
- Instructions which ask users to type some specified text should use a distinctive font to identify what is to be typed, not quotation marks.
- Expect older people to be very literal in their interpretation of instructions.
- Test instructions carefully to remove ambiguity and to avoid unexpected results.
- See the Vision section for additional recommendations relating to type face, font size and formatting.
For instructional illustrations, photographs and animation:
- Included numbered step-by-step illustrations with your instructional text. Use numbering and highlighting to clearly identify the order and location of areas to be clicked, tapped, selected or typed into.
- Make sure pictures relate to the text. Visuals should support the text; they should not be merely for decoration.
- Provide captioning and or meaningful alt-text for images and animation.
- Use pictures of older adults when talking about, or to, older adults. Pictures of people should also reflect the diversity of your audience.
- See the Vision section for additional recommendations having to do with size and spacing.
For instructional videos and multimedia:
- Use captions that provide text versions of the audio content, synchronized with the video.
- Use audio description in a separate narrative audio track that describes important visual content, making it accessible to people who are unable to see the video.
- Provide live captioning and live audio description for learning events which are simulcast over the Web.
- Provide a transcript text version of the media content which captures all the spoken audio, plus on-screen text and descriptions of key visual information which wouldn’t otherwise be accessible without seeing the video.
- Choose an accessible media player that supports the above and conforms to the other user interface best practices discussed herein.
Below are some tools and resources that can assist user interface designers:
- The University of Washington accessibility portal provides guidance on creating accessible learning videos and accessible multimedia learning.
- Learning Paths methodology provides a practical approach to defining proficiency and then produces an effective sequence of training, practice, coaching, and experience.