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UX Design Principles For Seniors & Older Adults – Part II

Before digging into the UX design principles required to connect digital products with seniors and older adult cohorts, let’s examine the business case that drives this research.
Michael Clingerman

For all the articles written about the Great Wealth Transfer, the spending power of older generations continues to grow. According to the AARP, Americans 50 and up contribute $8.3 trillion in economic activity to the US economy each year, with a GDP that’s expected to triple by 2050.

This spending power is driven by several factors, including:

  • Longer lifespans: People are living longer and healthier lives than ever before. This means that older generations have more time to save, invest, and spend.
  • Higher incomes: Simply put, older generations have higher incomes than younger generations due to several factors, often including higher levels of education and work experience.
  • Asset accumulation: Older generations have had more time to accumulate assets like houses, stocks, and bonds. In short, elders possess wealth.

Given the numbers that support the business case for improving experiences for older generations, given the obvious hole in so many established markets, and given that it’s simply the right thing to do – let’s consider the creative and knowledge deficits that pervade even the best UX and product design teams. For example, in the first part of this series, I shared my own experience gifting my father a pair of Apple AirTags. And we reviewed a number of the most common physiological and cognitive changes that product teams and UX designers must consider as they look to connect with this valuable cohort.

UX design principles specific to older adults

Designing for the elderly and older adults requires a nuanced understanding of the unique challenges they face, both physiologically and psychologically. Might it be time for a new approach to designing and testing for this demographic?

Here are the top 10 failure points in usability design that are unique to this user group:

  1. Small touch targets: As dexterity decreases with age, small buttons or touch targets can be challenging. It’s essential to provide larger touch targets to accommodate less precise fine motor skills.
  2. Low contrast & small font size: Aging eyes may struggle with low-contrast color schemes and small font sizes. It’s not only crucial to use high-contrast colors, designers must also consider how the overall design will be affected when users adjust font sizes.
  3. Over-reliance on icons without labels: While icons can be intuitive for younger generations who’ve grown up with certain symbols, they might be unfamiliar to older users (and cultures). Always pair icons with text labels. Combined with the first two items on this list, clearly labeling appropriately sized touch targets should be considered table stakes going forward.
  4. Complex navigation: Too many options or nested menus can be overwhelming. It’s better to have a clear, linear path with fewer steps, and ensure that the back and home options are both obvious and easily accessible. As always, thoughtful consideration must also be placed around naming conventions.
  5. Assuming prior knowledge: Avoid jargon or terms that are uniquely common among tech industry professionals, but don’t translate intuitively to others. Instead of assuming a common knowledge base, provide clear instructions and onboarding tutorials. Consider that different individuals of any generation learn differently – visual cues, auditory instructions and text should all be available among tutorial content.
  6. Lack of feedback: Older users might not be sure if their action was registered by the app. Providing immediate feedback, like button animations or sounds, is reassuring to older users and users with slower devices.
  7. Fast-paced interactions: Animations and features that move too quickly can be disorienting. Ensure that all motion is slow and deliberate, and avoid auto-advancing features like carousels. If there is no alternative, ensure that you’re using 5-7 second delays.
  8. Non-standard gestures: Stick to universal gestures like scrolling and swiping. Introducing new or non-standard gestures can be counterproductive.
  9. Lack of accessibility features: Ensure your design is compatible with screen readers, voice commands, and other accessibility tools. Offer options like a magnifying feature or read-aloud functionality.
  10. Ignoring cognitive load: As we age, our working memory might not be as sharp. Avoid inundating users with too much information at once. Break tasks into manageable steps and provide reminders or save points.

Remember, the key is to embrace empathy. Conducting qualitative research, like interviews and usability testing with elderly participants will provide invaluable insights to inform your design decisions. Balancing usability data with quantitative medical statistics about how and how many individuals are afflicted with various challenges each year would be a good basis for selecting subjects for testing. It’s always beneficial to co-design with your target audience and iterate based on their direct feedback and user data, combined with your own observations.

Psychological challenges common among seniors

From a psychological perspective, the elderly often face unique challenges and concerns about adopting new technology. Many of the physiological changes described above are featured in the list below, not only to illustrate how these design considerations are linked between the body and mind, but to illustrate the compounding effects – positive or negative – of getting it all right.

Here are some psychological insights and corresponding design tips that can assist product teams looking to grow with this demographic:

Fear of making mistakes: Many elderly individuals have a sincere concern that they will “break” the technology or make irreversible errors. This is covered in some detail in Jakob Nielsen’s Ten Usability Heuristics, see “Error Tolerance.” Simple fixes like designing a more forgiving interface with easy undo/redo actions and feedback messaging goes a long way toward reassuring users that they can easily revert or change actions.

Cognitive overload: If a user’s cognitive faculties decline with age, processing information does become more challenging. Reduce clutter, essentialize available actions, and present information in bite-sized chunks. Utilize progressive disclosure to present information as needed. A subset of cognitive overload is a design principle I call Patience & Pace – elderly users may prefer to take their time to understand and interact, so avoid timed actions or processes and allow users to learn at their own pace, lest they feel rushed.

Social Influence: The elderly often trust and value opinions from their peers the most. Use testimonials, case studies, or endorsements from individuals within their age group. Bonus tip: too many product teams track only actions, but providing personalized instruction around actions-not-taken is a woefully underutilized path to increasing engagement, especially when the messaging comes paired with a peer voice.

Emotional resonance: There is a common misperception among tech professionals and designers that human behavior is largely rational or logical. It’s not. Engaging users on an emotional level makes them feel valued and understood. Storytelling, or employing scenarios that resonate with a user’s life experiences, is not just the domain of our colleagues in marketing and branding. Ensure marketing materials and instructions reflect both lifestyle and aspirations.

Three key emotionally resonant drivers that encourage users to learn and adopt:

  1. Self-Efficacy: The belief in one’s ability to succeed in a specific situation. Incorporate onboarding tutorials and provide positive feedback for completed tasks in order to boost confidence and efficacy.
  2. Personal Relevance: If the technology doesn’t seem relevant or beneficial, it’s less likely to be adopted. Clearly communicate the value proposition in terms relatable to a user’s daily life. Highlight benefits that cater to their specific real world needs.
  3. Autonomy & Control: Feeling in control will invariably enhance adoption, providing clear exit points, options to customize settings, and the ability to control notifications or other disruptive elements is helpful to older users.

By understanding these psychological factors and integrating them into the design and promotion of technology, product teams can better cater to the needs and preferences of the elderly. Always remember that continuous feedback and iterative design, informed by actual older users, is invaluable.

Conducting UX testing with senior & older adult user groups

Conducting UX testing with the elderly requires a unique approach and sensitivity to their specific needs and preferences. Here are some considerations and best practices for performing UX testing with older adults:

  • Recruitment & Representation: Ensure that your participants truly represent the demographic you’re targeting. A set of qualifying questions can improve the participant selection process. Consider factors like tech-savviness, health conditions, and previous technology experience.
  • Environment & Setup: Conduct tests in a quiet, well-lit environment. If possible, consider in-home testing as it will likely yield the best results, as you can observe them in a natural setting. Ensure that all fonts on your testing materials and interfaces are large enough to read comfortably.
  • Duration & Fatigue: Keep sessions shorter. Elderly participants might tire more easily, so it’s essential to monitor their energy levels and offer breaks.
  • Instructions & Clarity: Be clear and specific with instructions. Avoid using jargon or terms that might be unfamiliar. Be ready to repeat or rephrase instructions if needed.
  • Patience & Empathy: Be patient and give them time to think and respond. Never rush them. Understand that they might have different mental models or approaches to technology. Listen actively and avoid making them feel judged or inadequate.
  • Physical considerations: Be prepared for potential motor or sensory limitations. Some might have tremors, reduced vision, or hearing impairments. Ensure your setup accommodates these needs.
  • Encourage open feedback: Reassure participants that there are no wrong answers and that their feedback, whether positive or negative, is invaluable.
  • Observation beyond verbal feedback: Watch for non-verbal cues. Frowns, hesitations, or sighs can be as revealing as verbal feedback.
  • Follow-up support: After the session, provide participants with a summary of what was covered, and ensure they have a point of contact for any further questions or feedback.
  • Compensation & Appreciation: Ensure that your participants are adequately compensated for their time and contribution. A small token of appreciation or a thank-you note can also make a difference.
  • Data Privacy & Ethical Considerations: Clearly explain how the data will be used and ensure their privacy. Obtain informed consent and ensure they understand their rights as participants.
  • Iterative testing: Elderly users might have diverse experiences and perspectives. Consider conducting multiple rounds of testing with different participants to get a holistic view.

Remember, the goal is to create a comfortable and respectful environment where older participants feel valued and heard. Their insights can be invaluable in making products more accessible and user-friendly for their demographic.

Top Apps Among Users 50+

One of the best ways to get to know this user demo is to familiarize yourself with the products they currently use. The top app categories by percentage according to Business of Apps are News, Auto, Weather, Medical, Health and fitness, and Navigation.

74% of app users in this demographic regularly use the Facebook app, making it among the most popular apps for this group. The most popular app for seniors is an app called Speechify, which converts any text to speech with a range of customization options including voice selection, speed control, and the ability to highlight text as it’s read aloud.

Some of the top recommended apps for this demo include tools – another highly ranked category for seniors – like Lumosity, which offers brain training that improves cognitive functions like memory, attention, flexibility, and problem-solving skills. Medisafe offers medication management, including notifications for when to take pills as well as alerts that can be sent to family and caregivers when a dosage is skipped. AARP offers its own app called AARP Now, designed specifically for seniors. The app offers news and other informative content and provides access to exclusive AARP member benefits, discounts, and offers. Additionally, the app offers access to AARP community events and volunteer opportunities in their local areas. Tools and resources help seniors manage their health, including medication reminders, fitness tracking, and symptom tracking.

In addition to studying the specific needs of this demo, it is a worthwhile exercise to download and study the functionality, design elements, and UX features therein. Above all else, designing experiences for seniors requires empathy, which we will examine in detail in the third part of this series as well as the strategies and resources that can help product teams exhibit that empathy and easily bring it to life.

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