Our population is aging into “demographic time bombs.” The latest headlines constantly warn us of the stark reality of our aging dilemma. Fertility rates have dropped, and life expectancy has increased. Italy’s average age has surpassed 45 for the first time ever. A 2015 national consensus shows that Japan is currently the world’s oldest country, with almost 27% of its population over the age of 65.
According to UN estimations from World Population Prospects: the 2017 Revision, the number of persons aged 60 years or over is expected to more than double by 2015, encompassing over a fifth of the world population. Yet most tech designs—websites, services and products—aren’t catered to an aging population. Demographic time bomb aside, this means that we’re dooming ourselves to a tech time bomb. The population is aging, but the technology we depend on is poorly suited to older users.
Designing for the aging population helps safeguard against the demographic time bomb, as well as opening your tech services to a huge and growing section of society. Here is how to design for the changes to the body, senses and mind that occur when we age.
While the world battles with the severe economic risks the aging population poses, we need to adapt to society’s new age balance.
Tech for the elderly started to grow this year, with products designed to help the older population live independently for longer. These included devices to detect falls, monitor daily activity, and even track the location of our grandparents. But unless the product, service or website is aimed directly and explicitly at older users like those above, the elderly are still all too often overlooked by designers.
When we get older, the way we interact with the world changes. Some people find their bodies betraying them. Some lose the functionality of a sense or two. And some struggle with their memories. All these symptoms can make using tech products and websites difficult. But a few simple design choices can change that.
When we grow old, we can find problems controlling our bodies the way we used to. There are multiple reasons for this, from disease, to cellular aging, to a reduction in muscle mass.
Imagine trying to type when your fingers don’t work, or taking a selfie with your family when you can’t lift your arms above your head. Imagine controlling a mouse or tapping a small button on a touchscreen when you can’t keep your hands steady.
Older people can find themselves growing tired more often or suffering from reduced motor functions that make their hands shake. They might find it difficult to move their fingers due to arthritis, or struggle with their hand-eye coordination.
More options for the body
There are a few design choices you can make to support members of the aging population suffering from any of these issues.
- Increase the space between interactive buttons and links on your webpage or user interface. This will prevent the chance of mis clicks and make it easier for shaky hands to navigate your design. Plus, this pushes for a sleek and uncluttered design, making navigation easier for every user, regardless of age or ability.
- Where possible, provide more than one method of use. For example, optimize websites for touch screens or even voice control. Or, for programs or products that require typing, consider offering voice to text functionality. By offering more options and ways to use your service, you cater to preferences as well as disabilities, and stand to delight your wider audience further.
Just as growing older can have an adverse effect on your body, it can cause difficulty with your senses. This is particularly true of eyesight and hearing. Designs that don’t cater to weakened eyesight or hearing difficulties, then, can also exclude the aging population.
It’s both difficult and frustrating trying to read small text or find a little button when you can’t focus easily on the items in front of you. Or try locating an interactive feature when you can’t see the difference between colors clearly.
After the age of 40 or so, the lenses of our eyes can often start to harden, making it difficult to focus our vision on the things in front of us, such as gadgets, screens and text. This is a common condition called presbyopia. The cells in our eyes can also become less sensitive, diluting our perception of color—particularly blue.
Hearing can also decay as we get older. We find ourselves turning the volume of the TV or stereo up, we miss notifications and alarms, and we increasingly rely on vibration as our go-to tech alert.
Customization for the senses
Improving accessibility of your digital services for those people struggling with diluted senses comes down to customizable design.
- Offer the option to adjust the size of any text. Having the option of larger fonts and text will help anyone suffering from presbyopia—or other vision difficulties—focus on the content of your site or any text, labels or instructions in your software.
- Provide a choice of color themes and/or ensure that you’re using high contrasting colors in your designs. Customizability means that older users can choose the colors they can see best, and younger users can choose the aesthetics they like. High contrasting colors, meanwhile, help text and buttons stand out to everyone—weakened eyesight or not.
- Where there’s audio, provide a text/visual option. Some people (no matter their age) might be unable to listen — they could be hard of hearing, or they could be in a library without headphones. Whatever the reason, provide text where there’s audio — captions or subtitles in a video, for example. Doing so means that everyone can enjoy content with audio, no matter the language, location, disability or (of course) age.
Have you ever opened an app or program, picked up a device, logged into an account or started doing something, only to forget why you did so?
Well, for those in the older generation, this can happen much more frequently. Age can sometimes bring a deterioration in the prospective memory (the ability to remember to do things later) and the working memory (combining and applying) short term information. It might be upsetting or frustrating for some, or it could just mean that they rarely finish making that purchase or using that feature.
Ease of use for the mind
The challenges that face our minds and memory can be difficult to deal with — even more so when a product is convoluted to use, or a website is difficult to navigate. Designing the experience of your product, software or website to be as simple as it can be helps answer these problems. You’ll make memory one less worry for your older customers, and delight your other customers with a smooth and slick experience.
- Don’t split tasks or processes up across different screens or pages. Keep information visible for the user to refer to if an action requires memory of a previous action or input.
- Give guidance and prompts for new features in your software or new pages on your site. These can help support struggling working memories and keep the experience smooth for any user.
- Let users set reminders and alerts. This will help users struggling with their prospective memory—or those who are just very busy—with any habitual tasks that your software, product or website assists with.
Ultimately, age-friendly design isn’t just about the demographic time bomb. It’s also about plain usability sense.
Many of the design choices that include your older users will also delight your younger users, your disabled users, and your new users. Designing for the aging population doesn’t forget younger users, but incorporates inclusive design that opens your product, software or website to more people.
The future of an aging population demands a response today. The structure of society is changing, and so too must the structure of technology if it is to remain a resource as we grow older.