Working at 90 and designing for age

Written by: Jim Schrempp. Posted: January 26, 2015. 


All Things Considered on NPR recently had an interview with a product designer at the famous firm IDEO. Barbara Beskind is 90 years old, has macular degeneration, and works as a consumer product designer. Her focus is on products for older adults.

The entire article is here.

Barbara relates the story of working with the designers of some new glasses for older adults. The glasses require a battery and the young team was talking about how small the battery could be. Barbara reminded them that old hands don't deal well with little batteries - they needed another solution. She could not be more right.

User interfaces: poorly designed for older adults

I've helped many older adults with their iPhones, iPads, Macs, and PCs. I've helped them with email and getting photos from their phones to their computers. I have been struck by how poorly these user interfaces are designed. Not only are buttons small - a common complaint - but oftentimes important information is displayed in a soft gray, low contrast font. These light fonts are good for hiding these hints from the young, sharp eyed, computer literate users. They are a user interface affordance that makes it easy for a young person to ignore this - to them - unneeded information.

But these same affordances for youth become user interface barriers to older users. When it becomes impossible to see the text "Start Your Reply Here", then it becomes difficult for an older user to know where to type their email reply.

An older person, less familiar with a technology and less quick on the uptake than a 20 year old, could use a few reminders about where to type the reply message and where to put the TO email address. Things that are "hints" to new users become the reminder signposts that make an email program usable by an older adult. In the old days computers were unable to render such subtle shades of coloring and everything was big, bold, and blocky. In those days even someone with poor eyesight could run the email program. These days user interface designers have used the new capabilities of our computer displays to make the computer unusable by older adults.

Frequent "improvements" are not necessarily a plus

Let's consider another affordance for youth. It is well known maxim in the industry that to retain the interest of young users, software has to change. Move some buttons, change colors, add a new feature, swap the layout. While some of these changes are made in the interests of improved usability, there are many made just to keep things lively for the younger among us. This constant shifting is sometimes complained about by younger users, but that complaining also keeps the particular application on top of mind. No press is bad press, as they say.

Consider the effect these changes have on older users. People who work hard to learn to use a certain web site, find one day that everything has moved. The buttons they used to click on the right are now on the left. Their favorite game has new colors. They are uncertain where to direct their attention; what to look for. Their regular landmarks are gone.

I'm reminded of the older adult who worked with me to learn Gmail. I asked her to reply to an email and turned my attention to another student. I could see the frustration mounting on her face. I called across the room to remind her, "just type where it says Start Your Reply". She couldn't see it. I walked over to help and what did I find? There was now a pop up box over the Start Your Reply text. The pop up said something like, "Would you like to try our new Pencil feature?" Oh my. Here they were proudly advertising some new feature to a person who does not want to use it and in the process making the product unusable to her. No wonder many older adults (and younger ones too) hate technology.

Why not two interfaces?

The solution to these problems are simple. Every software application and web site should have two user interfaces. One that is new, lively, current, ever changing. And a second that is staid, reliable, familiar. A user should be able to select their user interface preference in their profile. Dare I say that if a user enters their age as over 80 the software might just default to the more stable user interface?

It would seem that maintaining two user interfaces is twice the work, but that isn't really true. The very fact that the stable interface doesn't change makes it easier to test, limits investment in new features, and actually attracts new customers.

How long will we wait for the goliath that is Google to decide that older adults should have a gmail interface that they can really use?

Barbara, I hope you keep pushing the design teams to look for solutions as we live to be 110!






Reader Comments: "Working at 90 and designing for age"


from Donna Smith (unverified) at February 02, 2015

Thank you, Barbara, for mentioning some of the problems older people have using computers. I'm not ninety yet, but still a senior citizen. Sometimes I have to stop a process I've started on the computer, because I cannot find instructions for the next step, anywhere I look. Maybe that's because younger computer-wise users know from their experience what to do. Also Seniors have trouble reading red print. It's even worse if the red print is superimposed over another color. I don't know why this is, but I hear other older people complain about it. Older people are usually a bit slow. Sometimes a message flashes past my eyes too fast for me to read it, And I don't know if I've missed something  important or not. I really appeciate you recognizing these elder- associated difficulties and passing them on to those who design computer programs.

I really like your idea of having two interfaces. I know people who have given up learning to use the computer, because they had to buy a new one ( their old Windows program was no longer being sold) and the new one looked so unfamiliar they were overwhelmed. I've pretty much overcome that, having learned a bit more about computers, but when I consult "help" pages, it's like they are written in a different language. I have no idea what they are telling me to do. I know it would be a lot of trouble, but sometimes, I wish someone would write a "simplified version" of common "help" pages and perhaps just publish them all in a book., including what some various "caution" messages really mean.  It might even be as popular as the "Dummies" Series!

Older people are a bit reluctant to ask for help from youger people. Young people may be willing to help and glad to show off their knowledge, but often don't have the time and then explain too quickly for an older person to follow and remember. I've had the feeling at times, that I might as well be asking a twelve-year-old to show me how to tie my shoes. It keeps me humble.


from JGRigney (member) at March 10, 2015

I have started to work with older adults, teaching them to use their iPads and android devices. I have found that the use of icons is very confusing. Even the common icon that looks like a trash can being used for a delete button is confusing.



from jschrempp (member) at June 22, 2015

I came across an app designer who blogged on this topic with some interesting insight:

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Key words: 
design, Ageism, User interface

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