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Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population

April 10, 2017

This is an excerpt of a sample chapter from Jeff Johnson and Kate Finn’s new book Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population. 2017 Morgan Kaufmann.

Chapter 1: Introduction

Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population CoverTechnology is making the world ever smaller: communications are more frequent, transactions are more instantaneous, and reporting is more direct and unfiltered. If you aren’t connected, you can be at a real disadvantage. Another disadvantage is being unable to easily and effectively use digital devices and online resources. As designers, developers, and advocates of digital technology, we should be doing our best to make it useful and usable for everyone, so no one will be at a disadvantage.

We know the benefits of staying mentally, socially, and physically active as we age. Digital technology can help with that. So it seems paradoxical that older adults can be particularly susceptible to the ill effects of poorly designed digital devices and user interfaces.

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At the highest level, the message of this book can be summarized in these four points:

  1. Poor usability detracts from everyone’s user experience.
  2. Poor usability tends to affect older adults more often and more seriously than it affects younger people.
  3. Other groups who experience usability issues similar to older adults include people with low [technical] literacy, second language learners, people with low general literacy, and those with low vision or other impairments.
  4. By specifically designing digital user interfaces with these individuals’ usability issues in mind, we can improve the user experience for many people.

[Note]—The number and degree of individual differences increases with age. We all know people whose technical expertise, health, cognition, adaptability, and other relative attributes are exceptionally low or exceptionally high. For every tendency we discuss, there are always exceptions.

What Does an Aging World Mean?

You’ve probably heard it said that our world is aging. What does this mean?

Thanks to improvements in sanitation, housing, education, and health care, life expectancy has been increasing since the early 1900s. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that life expectancy increased by 5 years from 2000 to 2015. In 2015, global life expectancy was 73.8 years for females and 69.1 years for males. [WHO, 2016] As a result, the numbers and percentages of older people in national populations have also grown. And they are continuing to grow. Consider the number of people currently aged 50+. Figure 1.1 lists the 10 countries with the greatest numbers of people aged 50+ as of 2015. The top three countries, China, India, and the US, also had the largest national populations. There were nearly 400 million people aged 50+ in China alone!

Figure 1.1—Countries with the greatest populations of people aged 50+
Countries with the greatest populations of people aged 50+

Image source: UNDESA, 2015a

For another perspective, consider the percentages of people aged 50+. Worldwide, people aged 50+ will make up 28.9% of the population in 2035. In many countries, however, people aged 50+ will constitute an even larger proportion of the general population: nearly 45% of the population in more developed regions will be aged 50+. (See Figure 1.2.) Nobody in our field should be ignoring a demographic that comprises 45% of the population.

Figure 1.2—Areas with highest percentage of adults 50+, 2015–35
Areas with highest percentage of adults 50+, 2015-35

Image source: UNDESA, 2015a

Increased life expectancies. More older people. Countries with large populations. Countries with growing numbers and percentages of older people. The data underscore the importance of addressing the needs and desires of a population that is rapidly growing older.

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Why Should the Aging of the World’s Population Matter to Designers?

As usability specialists, we often hear from friends, relatives, and casual acquaintances about their problems with digital devices, Web sites, or apps. Most of these interactions are with people over the age of 50—as we ourselves are—although some are with people much younger. Even when they’re not trying to do anything especially complex, people are often frustrated and confused. Our aim with this book is to provide a means for lessening their frustration and confusion, thereby enhancing user experience for older adults and their younger counterparts.

Usability studies sometimes directly examine the performance differences between older and younger participants. Compared to younger participants, older ones tend to:

  • take longer to learn new applications or devices
  • take longer to complete tasks
  • use different search strategies
  • perform worse on tasks relying on memory
  • be more distractible
  • have a harder time dealing with errors
  • make more erratic or accidental movements with the pointer
  • make more input errors
  • have more trouble hitting on-screen targets.

On the plus side, older study participants tend to have better vocabularies and can draw from more real-world knowledge and experiences. Perhaps because they tend to be less impulsive and more risk averse, they often use fewer mouse clicks to complete a task.

Believe it or not, there are still people who are not online! In the US as of 2015, 15% of all adults aged 18+ were not online. [Perrin and Duggan, 2015] A much higher percentage of older adults than younger adults are not online—19–42% versus 4–7%. [Perrin and Duggan, 2015] Of all offliners, 32% cited usability issues: “finding it too difficult or frustrating to go online, or saying that they don’t know how or are physically unable.” [Zickuhr, 2013] Other reasons included high cost, no perceived benefit, and lack of access or availability.

But many other people aged 50+ have used digital technology, in some form and to some extent, for decades. They may own computers, tablets, smartphones, ereaders, and fitness trackers. Some of these older adults are casual users—email, shopping, videos—while others have very high levels of technical expertise. Why do some older adults have a hard time with technology?

Maybe their eyesight isn’t what it once was. Their hands might not be as steady on touch screens or small targets. It might take longer for them to learn and adapt to something new. Perhaps they don’t keep up with social networking trends or understand the latest techno-speak. After all, nobody could have anticipated the frenzied pace of today’s tech culture! But like people of any age, we older adults want to be independent, well informed, current, and relevant.

To communicate with friends and associates, shop, make travel arrangements, apply for benefits, conduct financial transactions, access information, and read publications, we are increasingly able—and sometimes forced—to conduct life’s affairs online.

Given the general aging of the developed world and the growing expectation that most people are always online, designing age-friendly digital devices and user interfaces is certainly logical. Not only does age-friendly design make sense from the viewpoint of wanting to reach as wide an audience as possible, but it has also taken on an ethical imperative. The universe of digital technology can offer a wealth of information, empowerment, and potential. We cannot justify denying this wealth to any portion of our society.

Do We Really Need Yet Another Set of Design Guidelines for Yet Another Subgroup?

A Distinguished Heritage: Other Usability Guidelines

There are, of course, other sets of guidelines available for designers of digital user interfaces. Perhaps the best-known guidelines are Nielsen’s “10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design.” [Nielsen, 1995] Nielsen himself calls them “broad rules of thumb and not specific usability guidelines,” but 20+ years later their relevance is still acknowledged, and traces of them can be seen in nearly every other set of guidelines that has been developed since 1995.

There are also guidelines specifically about designing Web sites for older adults. In 2004–06, AARP sponsored work that resulted in several publications about designing Web sites for older adults. [Chisnell and Redish, 2004; Chisnell and Redish, 2005; Chisnell et al., 2006] They provided literature reviews, expert reviews of Web sites, and persona-based assessments to develop “heuristics for understanding older adults as Web users.”

In 2006, Dan Hawthorn presented his thesis, “Designing Effective Interfaces for Older Users,” [Hawthorn, 2006] which contained the most detailed summary of related literature, the design implications of physical and cognitive aging, as well as the results of several programs developed to instruct and support the older adult who is beginning to use computers. Although Hawthorn recommends getting to know older adults by working closely with them rather than applying a checklist of guidelines to people you don’t even know, he nonetheless offers a great deal of insight into designs that do or don’t work.

In 2009, the Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement (CREATE) published the second edition of Designing for Older Adults: Principles and Creative Human Factors Approaches. [Fisk et al., 2009] That book also covers both the characteristics of aging adults and design methodologies. The authors offer design guidelines for information perception, input/output devices, and instructional programs. They also include a separate chapter on user interface design, listing several well-established guidelines.

In 2013, the Nielsen Norman Group released their second edition of “Senior Citizens (Ages 65 and Older) on the Web.” [Pernice et al., 2013] This commercially available report focuses on design guidelines for specific tasks and components of Web sites. These publications, as well as countless other efforts, have all contributed to our understanding of older adults as users of digital products and online services: what usability issues they might face; what strategies they might employ to overcome obstacles; what their goals and values are. Most have focused on Web sites, basing their findings on usability studies and other assessments of existing Web sites and classroom sessions for teaching basic computer skills.

What About Accessibility Guidelines?

We are also often asked how designing technology for older adults differs from designing technology to be accessible to people with disabilities. After all, much of this book describes how certain sensory, motor, and cognitive abilities often decline with age, which means that, compared to younger adults, many older adults have disabilities. Some accessibility experts refer to people who lack disabilities as “temporarily able-bodied.” [Rae, 1989] Why isn’t it enough for technology designers to just follow accessibility guidelines?

Hopefully, you’ve heard of WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0), published in 2008 by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). [W3C-WCAG2.0, 2008] Not as well known, adhered to, or enforced in the US as in some other parts of the world, WCAG 2.0 is the result of a truly herculean and massively democratic effort. However, it is sometimes criticized for being obsolete, inflexible, or overly complex. (The word inaccessible comes to mind.)

The Ageing Education and Harmonisation Project (WAI-AGE), completed in 2010, concluded that WCAG 2.0 was sufficient to ensure Web accessibility for older people. [W3C-WAI-AGE, 2010; W3C-WAI-older-users, 2010] WCAG 2.0 has three different success criteria levels, A, AA, and AAA, with AAA being the strictest. Unfortunately, some guidelines that we consider necessary for older adults are found only at level AAA. Gilbertson [2015] concurs, as can be seen in her comment:

“While the AAA ranking for link purpose and simple language is likely due to the prescriptive nature of these recommendations to the point where designers would possibly feel constrained…, the placement at the AAA level risks rendering such recommendations invisible to designers, developers, and project managers.” [Gilbertson, 2015]

More evidence that WCAG 2.0 is not sufficient to guide designers toward age-friendly design was provided by Gilbertson’s survey of industry attitudes toward aging and accessibility. [Gilbertson, 2015] Of the respondents—all from Web developer companies in the UK—only about 50% considered aging to be an accessibility issue. And fewer than 20% were aware of how WCAG 2.0 applied to older people. Results were even worse when comparing project managers’ responses to front line professionals’ responses.

Some additional reasons to look beyond pure accessibility guidelines:

  1. Many older adults experience multiple age-related changes that affect their ability to use digital technology. The effects of multiple changes can interact with one another, making them even more difficult to overcome. Older adults’ multiple-age differences are best addressed together.
  2. Older adults are prime potential beneficiaries of digital technology, so we want to go beyond making such technology merely accessible for them. We also want to make it attractive, easy, productive, and enjoyable to use.
  3. Older adults may differ from younger adults in their knowledge and attitudes about new digital technology. Accessibility guidelines rarely address such differences, possibly because young people, regardless of ability, typically have very similar knowledge and attitudes about technology—there tends to be a greater degree of difference among older adults.
  4. Older adults often possess greater task-domain knowledge than younger adults. With respect to know-how, younger adults are often at a disadvantage. Where appropriate, design can take advantage of this difference by giving older adults a way to use their domain knowledge.

So, yes, you should be aware of accessibility guidelines, but also be aware that following them may not suffice to provide older adults with positive user experiences.

What Makes This Book’s Guidelines Different?

None of us wants to design completely different versions of devices, apps, and online services for different age groups. But we also don’t want to design technology exclusively for one age group and risk alienating all the other age groups. So, what’s a designer to do?

Many of the guidelines we present are not exclusive to older users; in fact, you may look at them and think, But this is just plain old good UI design!—or just common sense. But remember, older people will tend to have more frequent and more serious usability issues with user interfaces that don’t observe age-friendly guidelines.

Our view is that user interfaces designed for older adults are often better for a lot of other people. Take, for example, this recommendation from Chapter 3: Vision, Figure 1.3.

Figure 1.3—An example guideline from Chapter 3: Vision
An example guideline from <em>Chapter 3: Vision</em>

That’s not unreasonable, is it? After all, who wants to hunt around on a screen trying to figure out which bits are active and which bits are just decorative?

And here’s another example taken from Chapter 4: Motor Control, Figure 1.3.

Figure 1.4—An example guideline from Chapter 4: Motor Control
An example guideline from Chapter 4: Motor Control

Our guidelines for sizing and spacing of targets maximize the odds that someone will be able to hit their intended target instead of the one next to it. Shouldn’t that prove beneficial for just about everyone?

Think of These Guidelines as Curb Cuts and OXO Designs for Digital Technology

Figure 1.4—Curb Cut
Curb Cut

Photo by Jeff Johnson.

Curb cuts—also known as kerb ramps or dropped kerbs—are inclined planes that provide a gradual change from one height to another. They are typically used at curbs or staircases. They were originally intended to improve access for people using wheelchairs, but have proven to be helpful for people using other mobility aids—for example, canes, rolling walkers, crutches, motorized scooters. Curb cuts also benefit users of shopping carts, baby strollers, wheeled suitcases, skateboards, bicycles, rollerblades, and so on

Similarly, the US-based manufacturer OXO originated when its founder, Sam Farber, noticed the difficulties his wife Betsey had using a kitchen peeler. Sam promised Betsey, who suffered from arthritis in her hands, that he would invent a more comfortable peeler for her. The first 15 OXO kitchen tools—including a peeler—were introduced in 1990. The product line has since grown to include over 1000 items for the kitchen, office, and home. OXO products are famous for their ergonomic design and are enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities. [OXO, 2016]

Figure 1.5—Selection of OXO peelers and choppers
Selection of OXO peelers and choppers

Image source: OXO

Both of these are cases where a design intended to provide an improvement for one demographic had the unforeseen consequences of providing improvements for many other people.

Following such guidelines can make digital products and services more usable for many people, not just older adults. There are people of all ages with visual impairments, hearing loss, low literacy, limited motor ability, poor technical experience, and memory loss.

Moreover, consider instances of situational impairment. People who, due to temporary medical conditions, aren’t functioning at full capacity. Sleep-deprived students, workers, or parents. Individuals in dimly lit, noisy, or bumpy environments. Drivers of nondriverless cars who can’t use their hands. People struggling to focus under distracting conditions. Anyone moving from a dark to a bright environment, whose eyes need time to adjust, and whose digital display is no longer sufficiently contrastive. People with cold, damp, or gloved fingers, whose touch-screen devices won’t recognize their attempts at interactions.

Moving Forward

The designer’s maxim “Know your user” still applies. But in our experience, many designers have not had the opportunity to actually work closely with older adults. As a result, they may be operating from misconceptions and stereotypes. They may not have much background in cognitive science or human aging. The chapters in this book are intended to provide our readers with a practical and sufficient—but not overwhelming—amount of background information on older adults and user experience. But you should still get to know some real users!

We readily acknowledge that there’s more to creating a great user experience than merely complying with a checklist of guidelines. Guidelines, of course, are simply recommendations. How applicable and how appropriate they are depend on many factors, such as the user population, the purpose of an application or device, the circumstances of use, and the technical specifications.

That’s why, instead of just listing guidelines, we give you contextual information that you can use in deciding how, when, and whether to apply a particular guideline. We describe the general sensory, cognitive, knowledge, and experiential changes or circumstances of older adults which, if properly addressed, can provide better user experiences. The guidelines we suggest are all derived from the publications we reference. The authors of those publications were all motivated to provide improved user experiences for older adults in light of age-related changes, differences, and trends.

It would be lovely if, one day, user interfaces were so smart that they adapted to each user’s individual needs and preferences, whether long-term or situational. Maybe, one day, we won’t think in terms of interfaces because everything in the entire world will be so interconnected.

And it might be possible for you to create age-friendly digital designs just based on a list of guidelines—possible, but not likely. It really helps to understand what lies beneath the guidelines.

Still, please don’t just take our words for any of the information in the following chapters. If you yourself are not an older adult, we strongly encourage you to get to know some of them. And if you are an older adult, get to know members of your age group who are outside your typical social and business circles. Expand your horizons; empathize! 

Principal Consultant at Wiser Usability, Inc.

Assistant Professor, Computer Science Department, at University of San Francisco

San Francisco, California, USA

Jeff JohnsonAt Wiser Usability, Jeff focuses on usability for older users. He has previously worked as a user-interface designer, implementer, manager, usability tester, and researcher at Cromemco, Xerox, US West, Hewlett-Packard, and Sun Microsystems. In addition to Jeff’s current position as Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of San Francisco, he has also taught in the Computer Science Departments at Stanford University, Mills College, and the University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, New Zealand. After graduating from Yale University with a BA in Experimental Psychology, Jeff earned his PhD in Developmental and Experimental Psychology at Stanford University. He is a member of the ACM SIGCHI Academy and a recipient of SIGCHI’s Lifetime Achievement in Practice Award. Jeff has authored numerous articles on a variety of human-computer interaction topics, as well as the books Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population, with Kate Finn (2017); Designing with the Mind in Mind: Simple Guide to Understanding User Interface Design Rules (1st edition, 2010; 2nd edition, 2014); Conceptual Models: Core to Good Design, with Austin Henderson (2011); GUI Bloopers 2.0: Common User Interface Design Don’ts and Dos (2007), Web Bloopers: 60 Common Design Mistakes and How to Avoid Them (2003), and GUI Bloopers: Don’ts and Dos for Software Developers and Web Designers (2000).  Read More

CEO and Principal Consultant at WiserUsability, Inc.

Cupertino, California, USA

Kate FinnKate Finn has worked on user interfaces and usability since 1983. Early in her career, she conducted research on natural language–understanding systems and automated speech recognition. She was at SRI International for six years, where she created prototypes of graphic user interfaces for sophisticated intelligence systems. When working on multimedia and collaborative workstations, she co-edited the book Video-Mediated Communication (1997). Subsequently, Kate became a usability consultant, working primarily on Web sites. In 2011, Kate and Jeff Johnson formed Wiser Usability to focus on age-friendly design. In 2017, they published their book Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population. Kate received her PhD in Computational Linguistics from Georgetown University. Recently, she obtained a Certificate in Gerontology to better understand the unique capabilities and needs of older users.  Read More

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