Visualizing User Design for An Older Population

Thanks to the latest prototyping technology It’s easy to cost effectively test your product designs. You can run prototypes on actual devices, such as iPads and Android phones, to test designs on users in multiple demographics.

For one of those demographics, the older population, it’s more important than ever to test designs, because that group is finding it increasingly challenging to keep up with the rapid changes in app features and functionality and all the newer hardware technology.

You can make it easier on them by learning key design patterns that are intended for aging users. They’re contained in the best practices that the World Wide Consortium (W3C) outlines under its 508c and ADA requirements. In particular, many of the practices for “low vision” or “blindness” can be effectively implemented in designs for older users.

Why digital is harder for seniors, but design needn’t be

Simply put, older users of digital devices tend to have more problems acclimating to them than younger people. Among other things, they take longer to learn new applications or devices and to complete tasks; make more input errors and find it harder to cope with errors; and experience more difficulty hitting on-screen targets. There are any number of possible reasons for this, depending upon the person: declining eyesight or hand dexterity, a learning curve that is steeper and takes longer to negotiate, or a lack of social media- or techno-babble savviness.

It isn’t necessarily harder to design products just for this demographic, partly because certain guidelines that make sense for aging users also make sense generally. People of all ages have experienced impaired sight, loss of hearing or memory, and restricted motor movements.

Things to keep in mind:

  • Controls should be clearly marked and distinct
  • Users should be readily able to distinguish interactive graphics from non-interactive ones
  • Touchscreen tap targets and clickable items should look much different from non-clickable ones because starkly different colors—not simply different color hues—are used to single them out. (As dark blue is the constant for web links, blue should be avoided for non-linked interface material.)

Meeting challenges specific to older people

Nevertheless, because older folks are more likely to experience these impediments, you can do things that address those challenges within the design process. You can try to test your products using screen readers to see if they work well together. You can use large fonts (preferably nothing smaller than 12 point) and make it easy to adjust the screen text size. You can subtitle video and audio portions of the product. You can simplify touchscreen access by properly spacing sequential items (putting them close together but not right on top of one another). You can break information into shorter sections to make it more readable and provide visual relief with the deft placement of white space.

The mouse and the scrollbar are two particular bugaboos for people with unsteady motor skills (which tend to diminish between ages 55 and 65). To overcome these obstacles, designers can reduce the number of necessary mouse clicks—even down to a single click, where necessary—and offer plentiful scrollbar options, such as clicking on scrollbar arrows or inside a page’s draggable area, and using the mouse’s scroll wheel or the keyboard’s arrow keys.

These two concerns fold into a larger, over-arching concern, making navigation as clear and streamlined as possible. Standard icons and navigation formats such as breadcrumbs should take users to particular places with a minimum of clicks.

The words you use are no less important than how they appear. Certain kinds of jargon, slang, colloquialisms and plays on words can elude older adults who don’t have a context for understanding them. The same line of content won’t always say the same thing to elderly people that it says to much younger folks.

Consider, too, that tablets and touchscreen personal computers are easier for seniors to read and manipulate than smartphones, so that’s where your design emphasis probably should be if you are focusing this demographic.

Since short-term memory can be problematic for some elderly people, they can have trouble retaining the knowledge of new skills that they’re learning. One possible solution for this is a reminder button that can take people back through the steps of a new skill process. To avoid complexity whenever possible, individual pages can be limited to one item apiece.

Testing for this group is necessary, and even advantageous

Designers sometimes are hampered when it comes to aging adults because they don’t often work closely with them, so it’s important to make the effort to seek them out for testing.

In at least one sense, older people might be preferred test subjects. They tend to lack the facility for multi-tasking in which many Millennials seem to take pride. Ironically, that can make older people usability testers because they’re methodical, focused workers who give all their attention to a single task.

With seniors, what’s going on in their minds is just as important for testing as what’s going in with their hands, eyes or ears. The think-aloud approach to user testing lets you see everything occurring on a test user’s screen during the test—and that, in turn, informs your understanding of the user’s cognitive as well as physical abilities.

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