Designing for Older Adults: Jeff Johnson Interview

Written by: Richard Caro. Posted: July 17, 2019. 



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

Designing User Interfaces for an Aging PopulationJeff 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







Reader Comments: "Designing for Older Adults: Jeff Johnson Interview"


from Mike N (unverified) at July 18, 2019

Very interesting interview.  I was especially intrigued by Dr. Johnson's knowledge of technology design and aging, and how he frequently added a 'history of technology' perspective as well.


from [email protected] (unverified) at January 06, 2020

Shouldn't there be a transcript of this interview for those of us who have trouble hearing podcasts?


from webmaster (member) at January 06, 2020

That would be ideal. We rely on donations to fund that sort of thing. :)


from Brooke Colwell (unverified) at October 01, 2020

I would think as a site aimed at and marketing to oldee adults, when they request greater accessability, you would refer to 1. the law and 2. Client satisfaction. Consider structuring your budget around affiliate links and "Showcase" (sponsored) products rather than relying on donations from those same older consumers. :)
Regardless, I was going to comment that as a nwecomer here, and a student of product design, I am so glad I stumbled across this site via Richard Caro's LinkedIn page.
And to the older adults reading or listening to this article, as well as the one suggesting two interfaces for different preferences (and it isn't just older folks who get tired of the constant, needless updates) just know I will carry what I learned here back to the classroom and then to the product design tables I eventually sit at. And we WILL prioritize our most treasured generation, if I have anything to say about it.
I hope you can be emcouraged knowing the youngest generation emerging now (much younger than myself) is passionate and earnest about standing together against racism, sexismz ageism, and every form of arbitrary, unmerited discrimination, against our vulnerable populations especially.
I hope I can cone back for more insights as I build my portfolio.
Thank you so much!



from chunwa (member) at January 06, 2020

I'm all for it, for I am hearing impaired. In fact, videos without CC closed caption are a bummer.


from [email protected] (unverified) at January 06, 2020

While it is true that many of us don't understand the metaphors of computer use, there is a large population, especially in the SF Bay Area, of people who have been using computers since at least the Seventies. The problem for a lot of us is not the multiple screen interface, but our vision and manual dexterity. Also, the more urgent the task, the fewer screens it should require.


from Philip Stafford (unverified) at October 27, 2020

Great interview, Richard. I think what came through for me is an affirmation of the concept of universal design and that it will be harder than designing for specific groups which, ironically, may be more homogenous. Yet, I suppose both approaches are needed and there is good reason to ask whether one or the other is preferred before starting out. Like orphan drugs, "orphan products" might need support beyond the private market.

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Key words: 
age friendly design, Design for older adults, universal design, accessibility

Last Updated: May 13, 2020.

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