As put by Ollie Campbell in Smashing Magazine, when you’re designing technology user interfaces, you’re working within a certain “experience scaffolding”. The scaffolding is formed by all the prior technology products you have used. When you learn a new user interface, you build on top of this preexisting experience. This scaffolding will be very different for different age groups, with older people having less scaffolding than younger people who grew up with technology. Therefore, it is critical that designers have a clear understanding of what preexisting scaffolding their user interfaces assume and depend upon. These factors should inform designing technology for older people.
In 2016 most people older than 75 will not have had significant experience using personal computers in their work lives. In contrast, older adults who have more recently retired may well have had this experience. And those who are young adults today will certainly have gained a much higher level of experience using personal computers. But consider this – the children of these young adults may not gain any deep experience with personal computers, as they will be using smartphones, tablets and other devices to do what their parents and grandparents did with PC’s.
So should technology designers expect a shrinking gap in ability as today’s young get older? Probably not. The impairments that come with age are very real and for some people inescapable. And there will always be differences in experience scaffolding between generations.
Additionally, consider to what extent future newly developed technologies may create new forms of inexperience. For example, something like a brain implant that controls a user interface may create equal challenges for all age groups at the time of its introduction. So while today’s young may have an advantage with today’s technologies, they still may have trouble learning future technologies.
- Design products with very clearly stated assumptions about prior knowledge and baseline user interface experience scaffolding.
- Design technical support and learning programs with a clear understanding of what baseline user experience is being assumed.
- When designing technology for older people, employ “skeuomorphism” which is the design concept of making user interface elements resemble their real-world counterparts. (e.g., email represented by an envelope icon).
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