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Designing for seniors

A few years ago I undertook some user research for a project aimed at helping seniors make the most of mobile technology. It was a fun project because I researched a group that I had not come across in my professional UX career, namely seniors. We interviewed a handful of seniors in a local independent living accommodation block with a broad age range. They had a range of technology skills, some quite impressive while others had never used a computer before. All of them were keen to learn more because they felt like they were being left behind. After all, their toddler grandchildren could operate a smart phone why couldn't they?

Recently, I bought my parents a tablet to allow them to Skype their grandkids thousands of miles away. It has been an instant hit, but seeing them struggle with it reinforced all the issues we uncovered during the research. What follows are the highlights that surprised me the most.

1. Fear.
There is an incredible fear of irreparably breaking the device. As the device is so powerful providing all these "apps" there is a perception that it is easy to break.

2. The tech language is impenetrable.
For many, who are not digitally native the language used to describe products and actions are foreign. Some of the seniors I interviewed described how they tried to "google" for information but would often find something unrelated. They described how frustrating it was as they knew the information was there but could not lay their hands on it. They also described how daunting it was hearing all these terms and not really knowing what it all meant for example, Twitter and Facebook.

3. Many apps are daunting.
Most people (regardless of age) find all the "app" options daunting. Simplifying the user interface by reducing the number of apps and using a specially simplified launcher (in our case BIG Launcher) greatly improved the usability of the tablet for my parents.

BIG Launcher tablet small
A photo of the BIG Launcher app designed specially for my parents.

4. Reduced manual dexterity makes touchscreen a pain.
As people age, they have reduced manual dexterity because of local structural changes in the hand (muscles) and neural control [1]. Both my parents who appear to have pretty good manual dexterity in most things (e.g. using T.V. remotes) really struggled using the touchscreen. Either they did not touch it for the right length of time or they would shift their finger while touching. However, using a stylus seemed to solve most of these problems. The size of the touch target also has an effect on the overall success of the touchscreen.

Tablet Stylus
Using a stylus was much easier than using a finger.

[1] Carmeli E., Patish H. and Coleman R. The aging hand. The Journals of Gerontology: Series A (2003). Volume 58, Issue 2Pp. M146-M152.