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Designing Digital Products for Older Adults
How Does Aging Affect User Experience and What Can We Do?
As populations around the world rapidly age, designing inclusive digital experiences for older adults has become an imperative for UX professionals. By 2050, adults over 60 will comprise 22% of the U.S. population, up from only 9% in 1994 (Gregor et al., 2002). As smartphone ownership is increasing among older demographics and most services become digitalised, we need to ensure that the experiences we design are inclusive and easy to use by all groups. However, cognitive, physical and social changes associated with aging present design challenges that we must consider. In this article, we’ll discuss some of those changes and ways we can address them.
Age-Related User Experience Changes
Aging brings declines in several physical capacities that can affect day to day life as well as interactions with digital interfaces:
Vision: Farsightedness increases starting around age 40 as the lenses lose flexibility. Over time, visual acuity, contrast sensitivity and colour perception worsen, while risk of cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration increases (Gregor et al., 2002). Small text and low-contrast elements become harder to see.
Hearing: Age-related hearing loss accelerates from the 50s onward, with 60% of 60-65 year olds having some difficulties. This reaches 89% by age 80. Reduced hearing can have a negative impact on the ability to follow auditory instructions or rely on auditory cues.
Dexterity: Fine motor control and hand-eye coordination often degrade due to arthritis, slower movement, and reduced precision (Desrosiers et al., 1995). This makes accurate tapping and gestures more challenging, which can cause big challenges when using mobile devices or related equipment.
However, cognitive changes with age may have the most substantial impact on user experience:
Processing speed refers to the ability to process information rapidly. It starts slowing in healthy adults as early as the 30s and continues declining steadily with age (Gregor et al., 2002). This impacts how quickly users can perceive, interpret, and respond to information on screens.
With slowed processing, older users need more time to read and comprehend labels, instructions, and other textual elements. They may fall behind if content auto-advances too quickly.
When learning new interfaces, older users need more time to mentally model workflows and understand how elements relate. Designs that require quick uptake of new mental models are challenging.
Working memory enables us to temporarily hold information in mind and manipulate it. It is necessary for language comprehension, learning, and reasoning. For example, tasks like taking notes when someone is speaking or remembering a phone number before making a call rely on working memory. In UX it is often associated with cognitive load. Unfortunately, this capacity declines with age (Fabiani, 2012).
The decline in working memory means that older users will have more difficulty retaining operational concepts, page locations, and other information as they navigate across multiple screens and workflows.
Designs that require users to juggle several pieces of information at once, or to hold details in memory across steps, impose higher cognitive load.
Distractibility refers to difficulty concentrating on a task and maintaining focused attention needed to process information or complete the task. Aging reduces the ability to filter out and ignore irrelevant information and distractions (Nagy et al., 2020). As a result, older adults are less able to regulate their attention and they end up processing more distracting information than younger adults.
Older users will struggle more with cluttered interfaces where non-essential elements compete for attention. This inhibits focusing on key information.
Multi-page designs with animated ads increase distractibility. Autoplaying video/audio can also disrupt if it surprises users.
Executive function refers to the set of cognitive skills, such as identifying options, setting goals, initiating behaviour, and tracking performance, that allow us to successfully plan and execute a task. It is also referred to as higher-level cognition and it’s another ability that declines with age.
Following complex workflows with many steps or managing several concurrent tasks imposes high demands on executive functions.
Older users will benefit from simplifying complex processes into discrete stages with clear objectives. Providing one path reduces the amount of effort required and can be less taxing.
It is important to note that the cognitive functions discusses above tend to decline steadily with age while crystallised knowledge (knowledge that comes from prior learning and past experiences) remains intact. As a result, digital solutions requiring the quick uptake of new mental models present barriers for older users.
While designing solution that will be used by older users we must thoroughly understand these age-related effects on perception, motor control, and cognition in order to empathise with and accommodate them. Involving real older adults directly in the design process is crucial.
Guidelines for Inclusive UX Design
Below we discuss some practices you can consider to accommodate age-related changes and create more inclusive digital experiences for older adults:
Simplify Interfaces: Reducing visual clutter, using clear typography, and limiting non-essential buttons or options simplifies interfaces. This supports focus and comprehension by decreasing unnecessary cognitive load for users with slowed processing (Gregor et al., 2002).
Use generous whitespace and a strong visual hierarchy: This makes pages easier to scan and improves their perceived usability. Legible font sizes are important, as are high-contrast colour schemes accounting for age-related vision changes. The best font size depends on the case study and a number of factors (e.g., Hou et al., 2022)
Support recognition over recall: Rather than rely heavily on memory, leverage familiar UI patterns and icons that users will easily recognise. Keep navigation controls and options consistently positioned across a site or app.
Offer clear wayfinding cues: Don't make users recall the steps to reach certain pages or functions. For example, use breadcrumb trails, sticky headers, and footers with major navigation persisted on the screen can aid recognition.
Minimise required steps for key actions: Thoughtful information architecture and workflows that reduce the number of clicks, taps, or other actions needed to complete tasks supports users with declining cognitive resources and motor control.
Ensure easy access points to key pages/features: Ensure input mechanisms accommodate less precise motions, such as taps. If users have to tap ensure that the targets at least 8mm to minimise errors and increase speed (Kobayashi et al., 2011).
Explicitly display the current mode: Older users are less likely to notice changes of the modes and can become confused. Applications should avoid multimode interfaces as much as possible. If a multi-mode design is needed, then there should be explicit feedback about mode-changes and a display of the current mode.
Provide feedback: Clear confirmation messages and error handling provides feedback on attempted actions, building user confidence. The messages should be persistent and distinguishable, since the elderly users may fail to notice short alerts or small changes in the look-and-feel. Also, the feedback should be readable as they tend to have difficulty in interpreting the meanings of symbolic representations.
Ensure users can recover from errors: Allow easy recovery with prominent "back" buttons in case of accidental taps (Ziefle et al., 2010). Auto-saving input and offering undo capabilities also can help with this. For longer processes, progress indicators help orient users and signal remaining steps.
Enable self-pacing: Don't rush users or force hurried interactions. Allow them to set their own pace and take time to read and comprehend content. Make key info persist on screen until users actively advance.
Give users control: Allowing users to control animations, carousels, and allowing manual advancement can help them adjust the design to their ability and reduce complexity.
Like always those guidelines are just a starting point and do not replace User Research! You need to test your design with older users in order to optimise it. By better understanding what their needs and pain points are you can further refine your design to ensure it caters for wider audiences.
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