Cool and Accessible: Successful Design for Senior Users

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Mateusz Kłosiński

Feb 7, 2022 • 9 min read
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If digital natives were lucky enough to grow up in the information age, digital seniors have a great chance to sit back and make the most of it.

All they need to fully enjoy using digital tools are designers who look out for them. Here’s a short guide to accessibility for seniors.

Digital inclusion for the elderly has become a topic of growing importance for designers worldwide. While some societies age faster than others and digital literacy and the access to digital tools may differ from country to country, it should come as no surprise that technology adoption and tech spending among seniors are on the rise globally. Top ten smartphone activities among older users include video chat, searching for directions or traffic information, social media, and financial transactions.

Let’s dive deeper into successful design for senior users, look closer at the most common age-related health challenges they face, and discuss some of their behavior patterns. We’ll also collect a list of useful tips for designing better products for the elderly and dig into the WCAG guidelines for digital seniors.

What does Don Norman say about being a senior?

We will all be seniors one day. What better way to get the ball rolling than to give the stage to a true advocate of user-centered design, an accomplished and widely recognized academic and researcher, who happens to be a senior himself: Don Norman.

Walkers for Gen-Zs? If you design them successfully, they just might turn into the hottest thing out there! Products for the elderly, digital or not, can (and should!) be made so beautiful that they’re simply fun to use.

Who is a senior user?

It’s simple to say that seniors are users aged 65 or older. There is no upper age limit, but it’s a huge simplification, and everyone who is going to design for older user groups needs to be aware of that.

The aging process starts when we are 20 and people in their 40s already tend to have reduced eyesight and require larger font sizes than users who are 10 or 20 years younger.

Many factors influence our ability to use technology to its full potential, both medical and social. There are users in their 80s who are using mobile apps on a daily basis despite having issues with their vision. On the other hand, there are also perfectly healthy 65-year-olds who have no clue how to use a tablet. When designing for the elderly, we need to keep in mind all the different cases.

What are the main age-related challenges faced by seniors?

Vision

For many older people it gets difficult to read web pages and apps that use small fonts or low-contrast elements. ​​In the U.S. alone vision loss affects as many as 37 million people over 50 and one in four who are older than 80 years. Severe vision loss is usually caused by age-related cataracts, macular degeneration or diabetes. The main issues reported are reduced contrast sensitivity, reduced color perception, and weaker near-focus.

Physical ability

There may come a time when using a mouse to click on smart targets starts to get challenging because of reduced dexterity and fine motor control. When users get older, their cognitive information processing slows down. Completing the same task usually takes longer than before.

Hearing

At some point, a person may start experiencing difficulty with hearing high-pitched sounds and separating sounds. Receiving and processing clear auditory input starts to be problematic, especially with interfering background music.

Cognitive ability

Thinking and learning abilities tend to slow down as people enter their 60’s and 70’s. Navigating websites and completing online tasks become more challenging or impossible to achieve due to reduced short-term memory and difficulty concentrating.

What should you keep in mind when designing for senior users?

Motivation

Elderly users may not see technology as a natural component of their life. Most of them see it as a tool - they need to see the benefits of using an app/website. While gamification engages users from younger age groups, seniors expect the app to be useful. They want technology to help them in their life. That’s one of the reasons why medical apps are so popular with seniors.

Devices

Older people tend to prefer tablets to smartphones. According to Pew Research, 27% of older adults own either a tablet or e-reader, and only 18% a smartphone. Bigger screen sizes are easier to read and navigate.

Security and trust

Seniors are much more cautious about security and data privacy than younger users. Gaining their trust can be more challenging, so it’s crucial to make any registration process as simple and transparent as possible and ask only for the most essential data.

On the other hand, elderly users may accidentally share information publicly without realizing it. Any app they use should protect them from sharing sensitive data by accident.

How to make your product senior-friendly?

Here’s a short list of tips for all the designers out there. Keep these in mind and make your senior users happy.

Vision

✅ Keep a high contrast between the text and its background.

✅ Keep text and button sizes large.

✅ Fonts should be a minimum of 16px.

✅ Enable customizable font sizes.

✅ Use sans-serif fonts for higher on-screen readability.

✅ Label icons with text whenever possible.

✅ Ensure that icons are easy to understand by everyone (avoid using memes, GIFs).

✅ Add subtitles to videos.

❌ Avoid using captcha — low contrast can be hard to read.

Interaction

✅ Consider increasing the dimensions of UI elements (such as buttons).

✅ Keep the “recommended” size and distance as an absolute minimum (Human Interface Guidelines/Material Design).

✅ Keep gestures simple to perform (horizontal, vertical, diagonal movements are okay).

❌ Avoid complex gestures that require both hands or more than two fingers.

❌ Avoid time limitations for performing necessary tasks (for elderly users, one minute to perform an action might not be sufficient).

Memory and concentration

✅ Gradually introduce information and avoid information overload.

✅ Use self-explanatory labels on buttons (this will also help screen reader users).

✅ Keep your design minimalistic.

✅ Keep the amount of information/tasks visible at once as low as possible.

✅ Provide clear feedback - keep the user informed about the progress and the end goal (to avoid memory-related issues).

✅ Include easy-to-find tooltips and reminders.

✅ Speak the user’s language - keep in mind that they might not be familiar with digital vocab like “drop-down” etc.

✅ Allow the user to complete tasks at their own speed - avoid anything that would push the user to take action faster.

Security and privacy

✅ Make sure the registration and onboarding flow is simple and transparent.

✅ Ask only for essential data.

✅ Make sure that users are well informed if they are to share anything (mostly in case of social apps).

❌ Avoid using passwords or PIN codes as older users might forget them - consider using their phone number as a confirmation code.

From digital inclusion to digital excellence

The pandemic has accelerated the shift to digital channels for all, including seniors. In the U.S. technology spending among the elderly grew by nearly 200% in 2020. Many senior users got accustomed to video calls, online news, social platforms, digital banking, and online purchases.

Although there’s a growing number of tech-savvy seniors out there, we’re not even close to bridging the digital divide yet. Digital products should be accessible to all, not just the digitally fluent users.

Also, as Don Norman points out, designers should keep in mind that the products meant for older age groups should not be merely easy-to-use and safe - they ought to be great, too. Let’s treat the above selection of tips as bare minimum - accessibility is a must for successful products.

Photo of Mateusz Kłosiński

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Mateusz Kłosiński

User Experience Designer at Netguru
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