The Paradox of Good UX Design for Seniors

“Is There a Way to Make the Empathy Happen?” The Paradox of Good UX Design for Seniors

By Marie Mika

“The situation necessitates a profound reframing of age and aging. We have to deal with outdated but pertinacious mental models…as well as certain forms of discrimination against older people.” — Ziefle and Schaar, 2014. “Technology Acceptance by Patients: Empowerment and Stigma.”

Lately I’ve been listening to conversations among older people conducted for the purpose of illuminating problems that might be solved with technological innovation. Troubles range from the macro and intractable, such as social isolation and loneliness, to the specific and mundane, such as frustration with clothes buttons.

One thematic thread running through the pain points, however, is the stigmatization of old age, and by extension, stigmatization associated with technologies specifically designed for the old.

Seniors report avoiding, or using in as stealth a matter as possible, technologies that would improve the quality of their lives — even enhance their safety — because they are associated with or specifically designed for the elderly.

The paradox, then, for good UX design that addresses seniors’ needs is to do so without explicitly seeming to target the “old.”

"Functional" need not be "ageist"

For example, instead of a default large font size, users could have the option of choosing a site’s font size. This choice, however, would ideally be obvious and easy to execute.

Vision, dexterity and memory begin to ebb long before 65. Designing for optimal readability and clickability will improve online experiences for those decades younger than retirement age, and need not at all be framed as “senior friendly.”

Hardware designers, too, would do well to avoid stigmatizing design and wearables. For example, several seniors mentioned that a walking stick serves the same purpose as a cane, but has no ageist connotations. Thus they would be more receptive to using a walking stick. Additionally, one of the best-selling canes comes in a variety of colors and patterns: women want to accessorize (think iPhone cases) past age 65. “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” endures as shorthand for cruel humor and parody associated with a serious health concern and its attendant technology. Similar health-monitoring devices could be crafted more as jewelry, or easily accessorized (note the homegrown, artisanal offerings sprouting up on Etsy to conceal or transform Fitbit hardware).

Ageism is here to stay - for the short term...

According to Ziefle and Schaar (2014) there are several essential requirements “which need to be considered for a user-centered technology development and design in the medical sector” (p.7). Their advice is explicitly aimed for senior design concerns:

  •  Design should be “holistic and interdisciplinary,” with input from medical technologists, engineers, ethicists, psychologists and sociologists
  •  Users should be actively included in all stages of the design process.
  •  There should be a paradigm shift about “elderly,” a destigmatization of “old”: “a reframing of social and societal attitudes and a novel definition of    age as a value in and for the whole society.”

Continued stigmatization of the elderly and of old age is likely, and an overdetermined phenomenon with many causal cultural streams (scientific and medical exploration of extending the life span, the secularization of society, cosmetic body modification, societal valuation of youth). Ceasing discrimination against our future selves is a tall order. However, what groups are considered stigmatized changes over time. Attitudes about LGBTQ peoples have changed radically over the past two decades; perhaps the coming greater percentage of seniors in the overall population will help to destigmatize aging and the elderly.

In the short term, however, holistic design that involves users throughout the design process is immediately achievable, and is the surest route to optimal user experiences.



Day, Rosie and Russell Hitchings. 2011. “Only Old Ladies Would Do That: Age Stigma and Peoples’ Strategies for Dealing with Winter Cold.” Health           Place 17(4) p. 885-894.

Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Jonson, Hakan. 2012. “We Will Be Different! Ageism and the Temporal Construction of Old Age.” The Gerontologist 53(2), p.198–204.

Nielsen, Jakob. May 28, 2013. “Seniors as Web Users.”

Orbach, Susie. 2009. Bodies. New York: Picador.

Pew Research Center. 2013. “Growing Support for Gay Marriage:

Changed Minds and Changing Demographics.”

Ziefele, Martina and Anne Kathrin Schaar. 2014. “Technology Acceptance by Patients: Empowerment and Stigma.” Pp. 1-10 in Handbook of Smart Homes, Health Care and Well-Being, edited by George Demeris, Jous van Houf and Eveline J.M. Wouters. Springer International Publishing.


Comments, Questions, Discussion

Key words: 
aging, stigma, UX research

Written by: Marie Mika. Posted: Mon, 03/23/2015 - 13:18. 

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