It’s natural for a 30-year-old programmer to think that a word, question or symbol has meaning for everyone. But thinking so may make an implicit and unintentional assumption about which “life stage” the user is in. An understanding of life stage should inform designing a UX for older people (“UX” is shorthand for “user experience”).
Password retrieval security questions are a good example how life stage can affect a user interface. These often include questions like “What was the name of your fifth grade teacher?” or “What was the model of your first car?”. These questions are not life-stage relevant to many older people and the answers to them are likely to be forgotten or confused. Questions like “Where did you meet your spouse?” can be hurtful to a widow or widower, or confusing if they are remarried. Questions that are life-stage neutral make a better user interface, for example, “What is your favorite animal?”
Telephone numbers can also be life stage dependent. Consider what happens if a land line phone number is used in multi-step security authentication process, and the older person moves to an assisted living facility to which the number has not or cannot be ported. This is important when designing a UX for older people.
The words used in the interface matter and should correspond to older adults’ vocabulary and take into account the context within which the application is used. For example, the word “helper” may mean something different to an older adult residing in a nursing home vs. one not in a nursing home. In addition to age, the choice of words should also account for differences in educational and cultural backgrounds.
Choice of colors can also be important. Colors affect us differently at various stages of life. The right choice of colors in a user interface can boost interest and stimulate cognitive function. For seniors, softer shades of reds and oranges are warming and can help with circulation and energy levels in older people. Ditto with peaches, apricots, warm tans, terracottas and pinks. Navy blue, sky blue, and aquamarine are particular favorites of seniors. Blue is a restful color with a calming effect. Blues can also instill trust and confidence. Soft blues connect to the spiritual or reflective mood. Blue can reduce mental excitability and help concentration. Studies carried out in nursing homes indicate that soft pinky-beiges contrasted with soft blue-greens are soothing and peaceful. These principals have been used by interior designers for many years to create living and gathering spaces for elderly people. They can also be used when designing technology for seniors. See our full article on Color in Designing Technology for Seniors.
Keep in mind that the term “senior”, which is defined as 65 and older herein, spans a period of 30 plus years. User interfaces that work for a 70-year-old may not work as well for an 80-year-old, and vice versa. And those that work for an 80-year-old may not work as well for a 90-year-old, and vice versa.
Too often designers try to “dumb down” an existing user interface to better suit seniors, and too often this approach results in companies creating unattractive products. Paradoxically, many seniors do not consider themselves to be “old people” and even find the term offensive. Some experts warn that designing dumbed down senior specific technologies can wind up being offensive to the very consumers the companies are looking to engage.
So how do you balance the special needs of seniors with these attitudinal challenges? Some experts say that you do it by “designing for all”. In other words, the goal should be to design technology user interfaces which are adaptive to all age groups. Doing so not only makes a better user interface, but it also broadens the market for the product.
- Beware of content or functionality which implicitly assumes someone is young or at a certain stage in life when designing a UX for older people.
- Consider designs which are life stage neutral when designing a UX for older people.
- Consider designs which adapt themselves to different age brackets and stages in life.
- Employ colors which boost interest, create desired mood and stimulate cognitive functions. See our full article on Color in Designing Technology for Seniors.
- Select words that correspond to older adults’ vocabulary and take into account the context within which the application is used.
- Use respectful terms. Most seniors dislike terms that include the words “old” and “older”. Use terms such as “senior” or “elder” instead.
- Avoid simply “dumbing-down” an existing user interface.
- Use a “design for all” strategy.