Accessibility: An Interview with Kate Finn and Jeff Johnson

January 22, 2018

As a result of the rapid evolution of technological products and services, a growing population of older adults is now facing the challenges of learning new, advanced technologies. How should product organizations tackle this challenge? How can designers and developers reduce or eliminate age-related design issues?

Cover of Designing User Interfaces for an Aging PopulationTo get answers to these questions and more, I turned to Jeff Johnson and Kate Finn, coauthors of the book Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population: Towards Universal Design. We discussed inclusivity and guidelines for designing for older adults. In this interview, Jeff and Kate offer their knowledge and expertise on how we can successfully design digital products and services that provide congenial user interactions for everyone, including the aging population.

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Kate Finn, at the left in Figure 1, is Co-Founder and CEO of Wiser Usability, Inc. Jeff Johnson, at the right in Figure 1, is Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of San Francisco, Co-Founder and Principal at Wiser Usability, Inc., and the author of several books on UX topics. Both Kate and Jeff have written articles for UXmatters.

Figure 1—Kate Finn and Jeff Johnson
Kate Finn and Jeff Johnson

The Inspiration Behind the Book

Angelita: What inspired you to write your book Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population?

Kate: The short answer is that we wanted to make designers and developers generally aware of the size and importance of the aging demographic and show there are age-related differences that can significantly affect our user experience. More specifically, we wanted to summarize existing user-interface design guidelines. But rather than simply listing the guidelines, we’ve explained why they matter in the context of age-related changes and differences.

A longer answer: Infinitely segmenting your target users or consumers is obviously time-consuming and would yield diminishing returns. Plus, there are general user-interface recommendations that should cover the entire range of possible users and consumers—for example, making sure that your content is visible and legible. But so many digital interfaces seem to be designed for use by tech-savvy, able-bodied users, who spend much of their time online. If you think about it, such a design approach is bound to exclude an awful lot of people. And excluded people aren’t going to be able to access your information, order your products, or sign up for your services. Plus, this lack of inclusivity is just unethical.

In our book, we describe the scope of the world’s population of people ages 50 and up. These statistics convey just how sizable this group is and how much of your potential audience comprises people we designate as older. Many of the usability issues impacting older adults are the same issues that impact other subgroups such as people with visual, motor, or auditory impairments; people who are minimally literate; people who are not digitally literate; or people who are learning a second language. So the same design guidelines we recommend for older people can also benefit members of these other groups.

There is a respectable amount of valuable literature on designing user interfaces for older people, dating from as early as 1990. But, in the past ten years or so, more and more relevant research publications have come out. At this point, there are almost too many individual references to count—in all formats, including papers, theses, books and book chapters, and video presentations.

There have been presentations on this topic at a wide variety of conferences—including those focusing on fields that might not seem closely related such as User Experience (UX) and human-computer interaction (HCI), as well as accessibility, automotive design, education, game design, gerontechnology, gerontology, graphic design, health and social services, human factors, industrial design, information science, interface design, medical devices, mobile devices, nursing, psychology, robotics, and wearable technologies. Therefore, one of our goals was to simplify the UX designer’s work by curating user-interface design guidelines from disparate fields and distilling them into a single, coherent set of guidelines.

Just as importantly, however, we wanted to show why these recommendations are important to producing a user interface that people over 50 can easily use. To that end, most of the book’s chapters open with a description of how, for older people, a given sense or channel—for example, vision, hearing, or cognition—differs from that of younger people. Only once we’ve provided an understanding of the problem do we present related design guidelines, so readers get an understanding of both the problem and its solution. Our hope is that this presentation method is more salient and more convincing than mere disembodied recommendations.

The Forgotten Older Population

Angelita: The aging population is a group that UX designers often overlook. When designers are innovating or enhancing digital products or services, do you think they are intentionally choosing to leave older adults behind to focus on younger generations?

Kate: While I believe that designers often overlook the characteristics and habits of older demographics, I’m not sure how much conscious intentionality I would read into this. It’s probably more a matter of prevailing circumstances and attitudes.

For instance, product-development cycles are now remarkably compressed in comparison to those of 20 years ago. Given these time constraints, many design teams are not able to engage in collaborative or user-centered design or conduct formal usability studies.

Any designer whose work is influenced by market factors—probably about 99.9% of them!—will pay more attention to the characteristics and habits of Millennials, which is now the largest demographic in the US, or even the younger Gen Z demographic. Plus, it’s easiest to design for the demographic to which you belong, and designers definitely skew younger.

Inclusive UX and Interface Design for Everyone

Angelita: In Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population, you’ve emphasized that the design guidelines you offer in the book are not exclusively for older adults. So, Jeff, how do these guidelines differ from those you presented in your book Designing with the Mind in Mind: Simple Guide to Understanding User Interface Design Guidelines?

Jeff: The goal of Designing with the Mind in Mind was to give readers a background in cognitive and perceptual psychology, upon which UX design guidelines are based. That book does not focus on any specific segment of the human population.

Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population focuses on designing for adults over 50—a population segment that often struggles with digital technology and could benefit from universal design. The book starts by describing the generational, physiological, and psychological factors that can make using digital technology difficult for older adults, then provides guidelines for designing around those factors.

Nonetheless, there is some overlap between the two books. To avoid lengthy explanations of the topics I’ve already covered in Designing with the Mind in Mind, Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population sometimes summarizes a topic, then refers readers who want more detail to Designing with the Mind in Mind. Designers who want a thorough grounding in the basics should probably read Designing with the Mind in Mind first, then Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population.

Angelita: Do you feel that there is some pushback from older adults when it comes to using technology? If so, why and what can we do to change their attitude?

Kate: Well, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that there is any pushback. Plus, regarding the relatively lower levels of technology adoption by older adults in comparison to younger adults, I certainly wouldn’t say that there is any problem with older adults’ attitudes. Not at all!

Saying that older adults are reluctant to adopt new technologies doesn’t capture what’s going on. These people might feel some aversion to what they see as an unhealthy obsession with technology—especially social media. However, there are more tangible factors that may present major barriers to technology adoption, including initial and ongoing costs; lack of technical support in selecting, setting up, and learning how to use devices or apps; and possible age-related conditions—especially vision, fine motor abilities, learning, and memory.

In addition to these barriers, many digital user interfaces are just not that easy to use. They are generally inaccessible—that is, inaccessible to people with a very broad range of backgrounds, education levels, technical literacies, and physical and cognitive differences. Many—not all!—older people experience more frequent and more significant usability issues when using technology. If the issues prove to be too much for people to deal with, they may simply refuse to use an app, Web site, device, or whatever.

Moving forward, it may be that improving usability and accessibility in the most general sense will provide more positive user experiences for people of all ages and abilities. Such positive user experiences could result in everyone’s being less fearful or reluctant about trying new technologies.

As we discuss in the book, you have to look beyond the current cohort of older adults and plan to design inclusively for the older adults of the future. So it just makes sense for designers to learn now how to design age-inclusive user interfaces.

Angelita: Kate, in your 2013 UXmatters article, “Designing User Interfaces for Older Adults: Myth Busters,” you discuss ten myths regarding the creation of user-friendly designs for older adults. Do UX designers still assume these myths are true?

Kate: There may be designers who always do the right thing and come up with easy-to-use, memorable, distinctive, universal, trendy, classic, simple, sophisticated, succinct, all-powerful user interfaces. (Yes, these attributes may sometimes be contradictory.) Plus, they know they should design for a broad range of abilities and usage styles, follow design guidelines, and conduct usability testing. That’s the ideal.

But in the real world, most designers toil away, working within extremely limited budgets and even less time. They need to develop a user interface that is effective, fast to load, easy to maintain and update, and difficult to hack. They must do all of this to spec and within a tight deadline. These designers don’t have time to think about every possible use case. So, if nobody specifically directs them to include older adults in their design process, well, there goes that consideration.

Since 2013, when I wrote that article, we’ve increasingly seen users shift from computer Web sites toward mobile apps—and, to be honest, pretty much all things mobile—or wearable. This has meant the miniaturization or even elimination of many user-interface elements, including screens, keypads, and mouse devices or other controllers. Sadly, making things smaller does not make them more age friendly.

UX Design in the Future

Angelita: You made an interesting statement in your chapter about the digital technology–knowledge gap, suggesting that the chapter would be obsolete within 20 years because of three big changes:

  1. A new generation of older adults
  2. The fact that this new generation of older adults will have more experience with technology
  3. Changes to information and communications technology

Can you speculate about what design tips you’d need to exclude from that chapter—or new tips you’d include to make that chapter current in the future?

Jeff: In 20 years, Generation Xers, the children of Baby Boomers, will be turning 50 or 60. They’ll be turning into older adults. Of course, they are just as likely as their parents and grandparents to experience age-related perceptual, motor, cognitive, and attitudinal changes. However, in contrast with their parents and grandparents, they will have grown up using digital technology, so will be more familiar with the terminology, symbology, and interaction styles of digital technology.

However, as the book explains, technology will certainly have advanced in 20 years. First, it is fairly clear that quantum, neural, and biological computing will replace—or, at least, heavily augment digital computing. Second, computing through services that are ubiquitous—in our cars, clothes, homes, tools, and bodies—will have largely replaced computing devices. Third, the apps of 2037 will be more like good butlers—not waiting for instructions, but anticipating our needs and learning from experience. Fourth, when it is necessary to give instructions to the computing environment that surrounds us, we’ll do this mostly by talking instead of manipulating graphic user interfaces.

Therefore, our book’s examples of terminology and graphic symbols that are unfamiliar to today’s older adults will be outdated, and we’ll need to replace them with new unfamiliar terminology, symbology, and interaction styles.


Angelita: In your book, you stated: “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.” What are some steps that teams can take before the design phase even begins to ensure that usability will be inclusive for everyone—especially older adults?

Jeff: There are three steps teams should take:

Step 1: Technology developers should educate themselves about the following:

  1. The growing percentage of people over 50 in the population—a demographic trend that is rapidly making older adults difficult to ignore as a market segment
  2. The fact that different generations of people have grown up with different technologies. Each generation is comfortable with technologies they grew up with and uncomfortable with later technologies.
  3. The perceptual, motor, cognitive, and attitudinal changes that affect most people as they age and impact their ability to use technology. However, it is possible to design technology in ways that prevent these age-related changes from becoming barriers to the use of technology.

Step 2: When conducting up-front user research to learn the requirements for a new technology, designers and developers should include diverse potential users, including older adults.

Step 3: Designers should challenge themselves to create the technological equivalent of curb cuts—that is, designs that help a wide variety of people, not just older adults. 

Freelance UX Designer

Chicago, Illinois, USA

Angelita RogersAngelita is currently a graduate student at Kent State University, studying UX Design. She has a passion for user experience and aspires to become the voice of the user and create smart design solutions that keep users engaged. An empathetic problem solver, Angelita is dedicated to designing digital products and experiences that eliminate confusion and noise. She is a member of the User Experience Professionals’ Association and the Interaction Design Association. Prior to discovering her love for UX design, she was a Compliance Consultant at Gallagher Bassett Services, Inc., a role in which she won numerous customer-service and quality-improvement awards.  Read More

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