Technology is more prominent in our lives today than it has ever been. We might not all have flying cars and jetpacks, but advances in mobile technology have made smartphones so accessible that over 36% of the world is connected through one. As with most technologies, older generations are typically the last to adopt, and this is also true regarding mobile devices.
One of the factors impacting the use of mobile technologies is that other advances are allowing people to live longer. Currently, 5% of the US population is over 65. By 2050 this number is expected to jump to 22%. Current seniors were 45 to 55 when smartphones first came out, so they have had some time to adapt to the technology. The proof of this is that in the past 5 years the number of seniors that own smartphones has doubled and is now at 42%.
Now, as more seniors adopt mobile technology and as the number of seniors continues to grow, the mobile industry has to adapt to fill the needs of those users. In order to fill their needs, it is imperative to focus on their user experience. However, before we can do that, we need to understand the older generation’s motivations, aspirations, and collective personality. What are their frustrations and what are their goals? For most people in the tech industry, these are our parents and our grandparents. Consider your parents and grandparents. I am certain that at some point in time you have had to help them with some kind of technology issue. Why did they need or want your help? Could they have figured it out on their own?
As you may have discerned, seniors are extremely habit driven. I remember a time when I was still in grade school and a new supermarket opened up down the street from my grandparents’ house. I thought this was great. It was new. It was only 5 minutes away as opposed to 20 minutes away. It was very nice inside and it had everything. I only knew this because my parents took me there.
To my grandparents, the new supermarket might as well have not existed. Both of my grandparents still drove the extra 15 minutes each way to go to their old store. Theoretically, they could have gone to the new store and it would not have taken very long for them to learn the ins and outs of the new store, which would have eventually saved them time and money. They did not care. They had no interest in the new store despite the benefits. It simply did not matter. They wanted to stay with what they knew and what they were comfortable with, regardless of the benefits provided by the new store.
Why is it that seniors, such as my grandparents, are hesitant to change their patterns and habits even when this change may benefit them? They are not stupid – so why do their priorities align in a way that makes them overlook what seem like obvious benefits. It is a combination of pain points, goals, and established mental models.
Some pain points are obvious and simple to address. As we get older our sight, hearing, touch, and dexterity start to fade. Other pain points require more abstract thinking to address such as memory loss, and lack of energy, and the feelings that come from watching our faculties fade.
The goals of seniors, for the most part, are the same as the goals of a younger audience. They want to be healthy, social, travel, shop, have access to news and finance information, and participate in activities that make them happy. How they go about these is going to be quite different from younger generations. Let’s think back to our earlier story and ask why would the grandparents continue to use the old store despite the benefits offered by the new store?
- As senses fade we become uncertain of ourselves and find comfort and security in what we know.
- Having to learn new things can be frustrating and can take time.
- New experiences mean a lack of control – the person must adapt and learn.
- New experiences require being comfortable with unknowns and relying on your senses.
Taking all of this information into account, how do we move forward? What can we do to address the pain points and goals of our audience so that they can have a great experience? The guide below provides some basic rules that any software company can apply to provide a better experience for their senior users.
Best Practices, Rules, and Guidelines
- Make everything larger. This includes text (minimum 16 pt font), icons, touchpoints, buttons, and any and all interactive elements. We also need an intuitive way for the user to adjust the size of the text content on their own.
- Ensure that all areas have high contrast and that there are no low contrast areas where the user might not be able to identify content.
- Be selective with gradients because they can lead to low contrast areas.
- Ensure that touch feedback can be seen clearly despite the user’s finger.
- Reduce the distance between sequential items such as form fields without making them so close the screen appears cluttered and leads to cognitive overload.
- All audio content should have easily accessible volume controls.
- Audio content should provide captions.
- Interactive audio feedback can be provided as another way of letting the user know that they are progressing. Making positive vs negative sounds can be a clear progress indicator depending on the situation.
- Large touch targets are easier for seniors to touch. Even younger audiences get upset when touch targets are too small and they are unable to access the content they want.
- Haptic feedback on the downpress also provides an excellent way to let the user know that the software is recognizing their input. The more feedback provided, the better the user knows what is happening as they work their way through the app.
- Navigation elements should be easy to find on all pages. The user should never not know where they are within the app.
- On mobile, the user should always have access to the main navigation.
- The search function should be available on primary navigation pages and should be forgiving of spelling errors and offer suggestions based on the app.
- Error Messages instead can be “Helper Messages”. Do not be negative and make sure that wording provides a clear message of what happened and what to do next.
- Loading icons should be present for any action that is not immediate. This way the user knows the app is working on that action.
- If content does not fit on a single page then the ability to scroll down the page should be made obvious and clear.
- Any element represented by an icon should also have tooltips to provide more information to the user in case the icon is not recognized.
- A tutorial or help function should be provided and be easily accessible.
- Interactive elements should be clearly distinct from non-interactive elements.
- Avoid pulldowns and dropdowns as they tend to rely on fine motor skills.
- Do not use technical jargon, use clear and simple language.
- Do not require downloads. Many seniors feel uncomfortable with downloads.
- Important information should be distinct and clear from basic information.
- Color use should be conservative and with purpose.
- Avoid animations as they can be distracting.
- Provide extra spacing between lines of content so it is easy to read.
- Do not overlay text on top of imagery.
We can see that many of these rules, guidelines, and suggestions align with good design principles but are slightly exaggerated beyond what would apply to your typical user base. As you move forward with your project, communicate with and observe your users to ensure the software is specific to their needs. And remember that even within the senior user base there will be subgroups and niche groups that have their own needs, desires and goals that need to be catered to in order to provide an optimal user experience.
By: Marc Hausle
Marc Hausle is a UX Designer and Consultant who has made an impact on 100’s of apps in the Google Play Store. Marc approaches projects with a combination of logic and high-energy creativity that generates engaging and effortless experiences for users.