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Bridging the Digital Generation Gap: Enhancing UX For Our Aging Population, Like My Dad

Last fall I presented my father with a birthday gift: a pair of Apple AirTags.
Michael Clingerman

As I watched him open his present, I imagined all of the everyday items that he would be able to locate now, things that he frequently loses as he has struggles with cognitive loss moving from his mid to late seventies.

The excitement on his face when he saw the gift – presented in true Apple fashion – was exactly what I expected. After opening the box containing the AirTags he also discovered the key chain I had purchased in combination. Within minutes he was focused on the keychain and had convinced himself that the keychain was a crucial part of the functionality of the AirTag. Watching his chain of decision making unfold I slowly sank deeper into my chair and into a state of qualitative research.

I asked him why he was so convinced about the importance of the keychain, and I could see he was making up stories to support the parts that were in front of him. He hadn’t even removed a single AirTag from the box yet. Third party “Apple” accessories can look a lot like Apple products today, which can cause further confusion, especially for older product users. These similarities extend to the packaging as well, including the heavy board box and minimal lettering.

The next challenge was the size of the fonts on the packaging. The instructions were printed in a font size that I myself, in my 50s, struggled to read. Even with my  reading glasses. I realized quite quickly that I had uncovered, in my personal life, an interesting case study that I would love to study professionally.

As my father continued to struggle with the instructions, I could see the frustration in his face. And it was mounting. He quickly moved to his iPhone to locate the app that would support the AirTags. Within minutes he was on the App Store searching for AirTag applications to support his new gift. Not being an Apple user myself I went along for the journey.

When he asked if he’d uncovered the right app, it was obviously a third party app. I asked him if he was sure he wanted to install a third party app on his phone. I could see this entire experience was going sideways. Sometimes when levels of frustration mount with our parents we often need to simply provide support, sit back and watch, rather than trying to problem solve for them. I decided to sit back and support him when he had questions but observe and provide instruction when he requested it. The process, from the opening of the giftbox to finally testing the location of the AirTag took approximately 2 hours.

At the end of the first hour I, myself, was frustrated. At the end of the second hour I was convinced someone needed to rethink this process specifically for our elders. The birthday gift I had been so excited to present has turned into a frustrating experience for one of the people I love the most. This is a failure of product design and UX, one that most likely happens all too often.

MY FATHER’S AIR TAGS

One year later, my father no longer uses his AirTags. To be honest, I think he lost them. Every once in a while I ask him about them and he told me at one point that one of the AirTags was traveling in and around an adjacent city. I sort of dismissed this concept and changed the subject of our conversation, knowing that I would never be able to solve that problem. However, I discovered a little later that people often hide AirTags to track other individuals.

Apple apparently accommodates for this kind of an issue and I ultimately circled back around to get to the bottom of this mystery as I was concerned that it was possible somebody was trying to take advantage of him.The frustration of simply trying to explain how an AirTag could be used to track somebody else in a malicious manner presented even more frustration, so I simply dropped the topic and advised him to potentially stop using the AirTags altogether.

Technology like the GPS tracking that involves hardware and software integration and setup presented deep design challenges. When taking into consideration an individual struggling with cognitive issues due to age like my father.

One potential solution is ongoing research and development qualitatively and observing the many aspects of challenges our elderly Community face moving into their golden years. cognitive decline is simply one aspect that requires observation.


The most common physical limitations and cognitive changes among aging Americans

Physical limitations:

  • Arthritis
  • Balance and coordination problems
  • Hearing loss
  • Heart disease
  • Mobility problems
  • Osteoporosis
  • Pain
  • Vision loss

Cognitive changes:

  • Age-related memory loss
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty finding words
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Difficulty planning and organizing
  • Difficulty processing information
  • Slowed thinking and reactions

Given the lists above, the future holds promise with emerging technologies that can further enhance new digital experiences for our elders. The lists above are not comprehensive but they obviously suggest a path forward for better UX and design.

Virtual reality therapy can offer mental stimulation and physical activity from the comfort of home. Remote healthcare monitoring can provide seniors with better access to medical care. As technology evolves, so do the opportunities to make it more accessible and beneficial for aging populations.

Let’s take this call to action seriously, the digital world should be for everyone, young and old alike. By prioritizing elder-friendly UX, we not only create better products and bolster revenue, we also foster a more inclusive and compassionate technological landscape — one where age is never a barrier to accessing the wonders of the digital age.

In Part II of this article we will explore a new set of UX design principles specific to seniors and older adults that account for the psychological and physiological changes that come with age. We also delve into today’s top products among this demo and best practices for conducting further UX testing..

About the author

Michael Clingerman is a working UX Design and Research Manager for a lean UX team in Seattle, Washington. He has also earned the titles of product designer, sculptor, entrepreneur, and board member. In short, Michael is obsessed with hand-grinding coffee beans, and espresso, mentoring, and solving the day-to-day obvious failures in usability.

Elder Care
Product
Research
Usability