Designing for Older Adults: Jeff Johnson Interview

By:  Richard Caro   |  Posted: July 17, 2019   |  Updated: April 17, 2023



In this interview with Dr. Jeff Johnson — who with Dr. Kate Finn literally “wrote the book” on designing for older adults — Jeff discusses with Richard Caro a variety of topics relating to designing better products for older adults.


Listen to the Interview


What We Discussed

Listen to this interview to hear about topics like:

  • Why Jeff and his co-author Dr. Kate Finn decided the world needed a book on designing products for older adults;
  • Why designing for older adults is not the same as designing for people with disabilities;
  • Why the Longevity Explorers keep seeing “senior-focused” products that are beige, boring, and stigmatizing;
  • Why so many new product concepts designed to be useful for older adults seem to miss the basics like avoiding small fonts; maintaining contrast; and having large buttons;
  • The different physical capabilities for which changes as we age need attention from designers;
  • Why “the problem is that they are not digital natives” is not the right way to think about things;
  • How a person’s mental model of how things work influences how they respond to design;
  • The typical “issues” Jeff sees when he critiques a design;
  • How different learning styles matter.


Additional Thoughts

Dr. Johnson thought this additional thought would add to our discussion:

In the interview I mentioned that older adults often struggle with new technology because the mental models they developed based on the technology they grew up with don’t fit today’s digital technology.

For today’s adults over 50 years of age, the dominant technology during their formative years — age 10-25 — was electro-mechanical and analog electronic.  Think of old tube televisions, vacuum cleaners, toasters, land-line telephones, boom-boxes, analog stereo receivers, and classic car dashboards.

With those appliances, the entire user interface — all the functionality — was available at once.  There was no need to navigate through those user interfaces to get to what you wanted. In contrast, most digital devices today have multi-screen user interfaces, in which you have to navigate from one screen to another to get to the functionality you want.

Today’s older adults aren’t used to that.  For them, the idea of navigating through a user interface is foreign — it doesn’t match their mental model of how appliances work.

In a usability test, I once asked an older test participant “So where are you now that you clicked that?”  She replied: “Where am I?  I’m still sitting in this chair, looking at this screen.”

This conceptual gap may be a bigger obstacle to today’s older adults using digital technology than more obvious obstacles such as unreadable text, tiny click-targets, and inaudible audio.


About the Book

Jeff Johnson and Kate Finn wrote the book entitled “Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population: Towards Universal Design“.


The Tech-enhanced Life team recommends this book highly as a starting place for understanding just what needs to be different when you design products for people in their 70’s and 80’s, rather than for people in their 20’s or 30’s.



About Dr. Jeff Johnson

Jeff Johnson is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of San Francisco.  He is also President and Principal Consultant at UI Wizards, Inc., a product usability consulting firm.  After earning B.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Yale and Stanford Universities, he worked as a UI designer, implementer, manager, usability tester, and researcher at Cromemco, Xerox, US West, Hewlett-Packard, and Sun.  He has previously taught at Stanford, Mills, and the University of Canterbury.  He is a member of the ACM SIGCHI Academy and a recipient of SIGCHI’s Lifetime Achievement in Practice Award.  He has authored articles on a variety of topics in HCI, as well as the books GUI Bloopers (1st and 2nd eds.), Web Bloopers, Designing with the Mind in Mind (1st and 2nd eds.), Conceptual Models: Core to Good Design (with Austin Henderson), and Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population (with Kate Finn).

View Dr. Johnson’s profile here






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