8 Principles for Elderly User Experience Design

Shahaf Bornstein

When was the last time you sat down with your grandparents and tried to help them learn how to use a new app? Everyone who’s been there can recognize the fascinating (and frustrating) experience in which an elderly user enters this new technological world, and requires explanations for things we deem self-explanatory.

So, we’re here to say that you should probably start building up your patience for your gran and poppy and their smartphones, since it’s pretty likely that one of your next projects could include design and planning of a digital product for exactly them.

According to all usage stats, senior citizens are one of the most rapidly growing user bases in tech usage. Grey Tech products are popping up left and right, helping users in every area of life: from health, shopping and communications, to finding love.

The User experience of users aged 65 and up is inherently different than that of users of the X, Y and Z generations, making a unique challenge out of planning and designing  UX for them. In order to make some sense of this new territory, we came up with eight basic principles for elderly user oriented experience design.

A 2010 ad for Xperia X10, showing how simple actions (operating the camera) can seem baffling to an elderly user

Simple Does It: How to Design Elderly-Oriented Digital Products

The most important goal we should strive for when we design and plan products for senior citizen users is simplicity. The products should be easy to use, and take into account the hindrances that are posed by the users’ usage habits,  knowledge and perception capabilities.

1: Consistency. Consistency. Consistency.

A majority of senior citizens and middle agers have complicated relationship with technology. Unlike millennials and X gens, they didn’t grow up into a technological world, so they are required to put in effort and time in order to learn the norms and rules of navigation in an app or software. The encounter with a new interface is often muddled with trepidation, as they know the learning curve that each functionality and element will require.

An easy way to relieve the users’ fear and ease their learning is maintaining visual consistency: menus should be placed in set locations, instructions should be plain and coherent, fonts, sizes, links and buttons should be consistent throughout the system. There is no way to overemphasize the importance of creating a cohesive behavioural and procedural logic throughout the system. Consistency creates trust, eases the learning process and nurtures the user’s patience.

2: Contrastual Obligation: Age Apropriate Contrast Relations

The golden years are abundant in eyesight issues. Some users suffer from blurry vision, some darkened, and some have a “burnt”, very light vision. Many older users experience the appearance of dark spots in their field of sight, whereas some will suffer from a narrowing of it. It is highly important that our design support the limited vision, with high contrast. It is best to avoid grey tones and subtle color changes. Our elements should be clear enough in order not to merge with the background.

Designers, test your designs with contrast and sharpness changing filters (curves, levels, blur etc.), and decide whether there is sufficient visibility. If we find the reading challenging and elements disappear, the contrast needs to be strengthened.

See how different eyesight ailments and conditions greatly affect the way users view and interact with UIs. 

3: (Not) In Every Color: Golden Age Safe Coloring.

It’s not common knowledge that the ability to perceive color deteriorates with age. The cells atop the retina that are in charge of discerning different hues of the same color lose their sensitivity, and we find it increasingly harder to differentiate different shades. In addition, due to varying factors, there is a yellowing of the eye lens, which alters the colors and makes us slightly color blind.  Therefore, our design shouldn’t rely on the user’s ability to differentiate between similar colors (such as blues and purples and greens and yellows), and we should maintain a relatively wide coloring gap between the shades we use.

Traffic light For Pumika blogA traffic light would appear all-yellow in the eyes of a colorblind driver.

 4: Come Again? Relieving Cognitive Overload

Memory issues are among the most ubiquitous complaints among elderly users. They find maintaining information in short term timeframes difficult, which makes their day to day tasks a whole lot harder. In order to ease their load, we should use more than one form of communication to communicate the same message. In other words – double coding.

One of the simplest examples for double coding are car parks. They usually use colors, numbers, and in most cases an illustration to mark your parking spot, so that in the case we forget one element of the marking we have at least two others to guide us through the lot.  

In Mobile UI design, this coding comes into play when we use labels aside icons (a home icon with the word “Home” attached to it) and when we use directions combined with buttons that resemble the action that needs to be performed (“Send Message” instead of “Send”, a “flying” envelope instead of just an envelope) etc.

We also don’t recommend splitting one action into many different screens and stages, as it challenges the user’s memory. When we find it necessary to divide an action into stages (for example in a wizard), it’s beneficial to bind tasks that relate to each other in one stage, and display any required information from previous stages.

5: Sound of Music: Experience-Boosting Sound

Sound can be used to compliment design. Sound assists marking and emphasizing important stages or changes, such as an outgoing email sent, or an incoming message. Sound can also complete the experience for users with eyesight difficulties.

We don’t, however, recommend relying on sound alone. Many elderly users experience hearing loss in addition to their eyesight problems. In addition, sound use is contextual, and there are many social contexts where it is inappropriate (elderly club, hospital etc.). Generally, if we chose to use sound, we make sure to include a clear and easy way to mute and control its levels. 

6: Hit The Spot: Designing Within The Confines of Motoric Challenges

In the nineties, elderly and middle aged users found the bane of their user experience in using the mouse and mastering the art of the elusive double click. These days, things got a lot more complex. Most elderly users suffer from motoric and digit agility difficulties (arthritis, tremors, Parkinson’s Disease and coordination challenges), that hinders delicate movement and generally turns their motion into slow and inconsistent.

There are a few things we can do in order to create an experience that aids motoric difficulties. Generally, avoid relying on small button. In touch-based interfaces, try not to rely on long movements (such as a long continuous or circular swipe) and double-taps or clicks. As a rule, opt for mid range length touch movements, since rapid-response interfaces can also pose an unnecessary hindrance.

7: Size Does Matter: Large, Readable Fonts

As their vision deteriorates, elderly users find reading increasingly difficult, requiring texts to be presented in sizes that exceed the usual norms. Using fonts with thin, small letter sizes poses an unnecessary effort for users. Generally, the fonts should be coherent and relatively large. If possible, consider allowing users to customize the font size to their liking and preference.

When choosing your type, pay attention to the readability of the font and try to go for fonts without decorative elements – sans serifs, with simplistic shapes would be optimal. At times, users prefer serif fonts because they relate to elements in the physical world that they are used to consume (newspapers, books). If you choose to use a serif font, we recommend to do so only in headlines, and in large fonts sizes. Generally, make sure not to use more than 2 to 3 fonts, and to maintain consistency in their use.

8: Where Are You Headed? Assisting Navigation and Scanning

Compared to the average user, elderly users are a lot less apt in using advanced interfaces. It’s crucial that we assist them in finding their way around the app, switching tasks and moving through different areas.

What we should aim for is a simple navigation system, clear and coherent – which repeats the same conventions and orders as much as possible. Using experimental and innovative UI elements can confuse the users, who spend time looking for what they know. In this case, conforming to known patterns is a virtue.
The navigation system should be as “flat” as possible, and avoid hiding content in the depths of the system. The current location of the users should be very clear and so should the way back to where they were.

The screen should be designed in a manner that assists quick scanning of the core content and swift navigation to the relevant location. Topic headlines should be clear and visible, indicate the content coherently, and main elements should be in plain sight.

With some assistance from teenage mentors, CyberSeniors get to explore the infinite communication possibilities of the internet. 

With Friendly Technology, Life in the Golden Age is Gold.

Possibly more so than for any other demographic, technology has the power to change the lives of elderly users for the best. Every day, Silicon Valley comes up with new solutions to aid and better their experience, from health all the way through their social lives. As our longevity prospers, this demographic will grow exponentially, and with it, new apps and systems will arise to try and meet their needs.

At the end of the day, we should probably bear in mind that we will all be Golden Agers some day. Designing elderly oriented UX helps the elderly, but it also aids society as well.

UX strategy expert, pioneer digital marketer with a soft spot for coding and analytics. Shahaf is an honors graduate of Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, a sci-fi enthusiast, and a Partner and Director of Strategy at Pumika.