A little over 18 months ago, I was blown away by an article I’d read in Creative Review — “Suitable for all ages: why we need age neutral design”. Age-neutral design? Now there’s a phrase I’d never heard before. I urge everyone to read it. So, over the past few months, my mind’s been wurrring away, leading to this blog.
The reason I’m writing this is because I think there’s a real problem out there that designers of all stripes might be at best forgetting and at worst avoiding. Something that effects all of us and something that we’d all rather not think about… And I believe it’s time it becomes pivotal to our design thinking.
I work within the realm of needs and behaviours — not demographics so why am I writing an enormous blog about it? Shamefully I’d never given ageing much of a thought in my career but I feel it’s the same for most designers (for my generation anyway) — we thought the same;
“Old people don’t use technology”
Of course, there were some in the community always harping on about accessibility but, quite frankly, that was boring. Plus, it “totally limits creativity” so why bother?
Thing is, I could justify that way of thinking. I was born in 1982 and so my grandparents came from a different time. It was the end of a great industrial age where trains were still pulled by steam power. A time when everyone knew how to fix an engine or tie just the right knot for just the right situation.
In 1990 when Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web, my grandparents were between 65–70 years old. All four of them born into working class areas of East London. They’d lived through world war, the end of the British Empire, rationing and the end of the UK as an industrial power. Their generation had to preserve, maintain and re-use everything you had otherwise you went without. Notions off throwing something out because a new ‘version’ was available was completely ridiculous and unnecessary to them. They had seen the world through an analogue lens.
So when the digital revolution stormed into their lives in the early 2000’s — first with cameras (that used no film), then mobile phones (that had games on them) — they couldn’t understand it. To quote Shawshank Redemption, I can almost hear my carpenter Grandad say ‘The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry’. In short, my grandparents had no interest in technology — the interfaces, devices and just the very idea of it all was utterly foreign to them.
Now, I know that’s a personal story, but I feel that this idea of “old” people avoiding technology has pervaded digital design. This could be because most of the people at the top of the tech ladder started their ventures in their 20’s and 30’s. The tech workforce is generally young too. Let’s face it, it’s so much more fun to design for your mates with — not some old dude (stereotype alert) with a zimmerframe and a packet of Werthers originals .
So why should we care about age in design? Because we’re selfish!
OK OK, so selfish is bit of a hyperbolic word to use but there’s a point — bear with me. The fact is that the ‘old people don’t use technology’ thinking is completely outdated and frankly potentially damaging for us!
But wait, Paul, I hear you say — I’m only 23!
Newsflash young buck… YOU’RE. GETTING. OLD. That’s right, one day you will be old and you WILL have to be dealing with the technology you’re designing RIGHT NOW.
Ageing populations — the numbers
Now all of the above is very opinion-based so let’s temper that with some facts and figures. It’s pretty well known that the older generation (65+) is a fast growing demographic, but how much exactly?
Well, according to the UK government in 2010, there was 10million people in the 65+ bracket. By 2030, that’s going to increase to 15.5million and by 2050 it would’ve doubled in 40 years to 19million. That’s nearly a third of the current population!
And it’s not just in the UK, the UN reports that worldwide in 2015 there was 901million over 60 year olds. By 2030, this is due to grow by 56% to 1.4billion and by 2050, this is predicted to double again to 2.1billion.
These are massive increases — and we’re going to be part of those numbers. That’s right — US.
Question is — are we going to be using technology in our old age? Yes, yes we are (no-one’s gonna take my Instagram account away from me…).
The numbers back this up too. According to the Office for National Statistics, over a three month period in 2015, a third of over 75s used the internet. This statistic alone blows the ‘Old People don’t use technology’ theory completely out of the water. Plus, that was 2 years ago — I wonder what the numbers are now? Undoubtedly more.
More alarmingly, I’ve worked out that by 2050, i’ll be 68 YEARS OLD. Shockin.
So, in essence, we need to consider our FUTURE selves when we’re designing. We will be those people and if we consider the needs of the elderly now, then we’ll be doing everyone (including ourselves) a favour.
Age-Inclusive Design Thinking — my ABCD
Older people have the same needs and frustrations as the rest of us — it’s just that some of them may become amplified, morphed and/or distorted as age affects us.
So I’ve attempted to create a simple guide on how to approach this issue. The ABCD Age-Inclusive Digital Design Heuristic. I hope it will help us all start thinking about designing for our future selves as effectively as possible.
I’m going to try and break it down the best I can. But, please, this is a conversation — if you have any suggestions/opinions/experiences of your own please use the comments section below. By no means do I think I know it all — far from it. But I feel that the following is a basis from which to work from.
Before I dive in, I want to be clear that this is NOT an accessibility guide. Many aspects will touch upon the same subjects — and there certainly will be a big crossover with disability issues. I’m going to be looking at ageing from a higher-level point of view. Basically, the common issues that we all will face as we all age.
Right, let’s get to it…
A — Attitude
Have we thought of the generational attitudes towards technology?
This is difficult — all generations may have different attitudes to an array of technologies and digital products.
For example, millennials see user-generated content in a more trusting light compared to baby boomers. In fact, they limit their sharing online generally. As sharing become so ubiquitous in our online lives, this may affect the certain generations sees digital as a whole. I’m hypothesising here but I have met a number of baby boomers who are deeply distrustful of sharing anything personal online. Consequently, they appear more hesitant about using digital products to their fullest extent. This trust issue is something that pervades UX across many different persona-types, it’s never to be forgotten or taken lightly.
However, there’s also evidence saying baby boomers are more comfortable with actually using the technology compared to previous generations. As much as us young’uns expect technology to serve us (and boy, do we), that older generation will be expecting it to serve them more and more. Stuart Karten’s article, ‘The New Old: High-Tech and Design for Aging’, covers how these generations needs can include:
- Personal independence
- Autonomy and control
- Embrace vanity
- Health as a journey
- Social connections
This is all can be based on the way they’ve seen their parents age. The baby boomers want to mitigate the issues their parents did/do face — loneliness and dependency for example. They don’t want this for them — or us — so it’s incumbent on us designers to leverage these problems as opportunities. Let’s enrich our products by remembering how we don’t want to be in the future. Again, think selfishly — ask yourself “what would I want?”
Perceptions and attitudes towards digital products differs widely and as designers, we have to be proactive as well as reactive.
Thankfully, with user-centred design methodologies means that design should always be iterative. A production cycle should never end, it should evolve and change based on continual user testing. To be all buzzwordy — keep things agile.
B — Body
Does your design solution consider bodily constraints?
We all know that, as the body ages, we face many many challenges. How can we mitigate these challenges effectively? Well, if your design involves a digital UI, it’s time to follow accessibility best practice. C’mon, you knew this was coming! This has always been the bane of all designers and developers (and QAers) lives.
But it’s high time that we look to employ an Accessibility-First attitude. From user interviews, wire-framing, content strategy, UI design, user testing, development and even marketing — we have to weave accessibility into every project as early as possible.
There’s plenty of great articles out there on Accessibility — here’s a great one to start with). BUT there’s more to think about here… let’s break it down.
As anyone with glasses will tell you, this isn’t just an ageing thing. It’s up to us to remember that from the age of 30, our eyes are on a continuous decline — unfortunately, it’s only going to get worse. So what to do?
The question is, does your design solution need a user interface? In a world of screens, it’s very easy to think that every solution will be UI-based. However, it’s up to us to think outside of these parameters — to think, does this NEED a digital interface? Are there more lo-fi, but no less clever or effective, solutions for the problem you’re designing for?
However, when designing user interfaces, the usual suspects of accessibility considerations apply:
- Obvious hierarchy of page elements
- Clear, readable type
- Contrast of different colours
- Size of buttons, icons and text
- Fluid and considered use of animation
Again, get older people involved in testing and perhaps ask users not to use their glasses… If the UI is designed well, users should naturally know where to go, even if they can’t fully see it’s pixel-perfect design.
All in all, don’t avoid visual UI, but also don’t consider it your only option.
Muscles, joints and bones etc
As i can attest to, after a certain age, some injuries just wont go away. The muscles, joints and bones are weakening. In my case, every winter, my knee gives me hell because i fell on it twice in six months over 5 years ago (don’t ask me how). All I need (stereotype alert #2) is a stick and grumpy attitude and I’ll be like a proper old man. Anyways, back to the subject in hand.
Talking of ‘in-hand’, products have to be ergonomically sound and easy for our bodies to use. This may sound like something mainly for product designers but it’s something UXers should think of too. If a UI is on a phone, can it be used effectively with one finger or a thumb? Can the user type on the device’s keyboard? Would voice recognition work better?
Similarly, what about the skin? Ageing effects our skin as it produces less collagen and naturally becomes drier — how will this effect how people use touch screens?
These are just some examples, but it’s worth thinking about and considering in your design thinking.
Now, in most digital design, audio may not seem like an issue. At the moment a lot of digital products aren’t really centred around sound — it’s mainly visuals.
With the rise of AR, VR and devices like the Amazon Echo, sound design will become a lot more integral to the designs we create. There’s also screen readers, which straddle both audio and visual spheres, with their weird Radiohead-style vocal characterisations. Audio has not been something we may have considered a great deal before, but thinking in an Age-Inclusive way means we’re going to have to start in earnest.
With video, most have subtitles available and on social media subtitles auto-play more often than not. However, hard of hearing is not deafness. Certain frequencies and sounds will not be able to be heard by certain personas… How do we cater for differences in perception? Perhaps we start talking to sound designers/music producers and leverage their expertise?
It’s not going to be long until digital designers have to consider sound as carefully as we consider visuals.
C — Cognition & Motor Skills
Does your design accommodate how we’re less sharp as we age?
Our products need to be easy for the brain to understand — whatever the age of that brain might be.
Thankfully, the UX design method of testing and iteration helps anticipate micro and macro behaviours. Hopefully, this assists with the effects of memory loss but we can’t take for granted. A great Smashing Magazine article from Laurence Ivil & Paul Myles about designing for dementia highlights these key take aways:
- Users find it more difficult to read
- Attention retention can be an issue
- Perceiving sequences is difficult
- Web forms can be confusing
- Movement perception is reduced
- Difficulties with colour, brightness can result in double vision
- Sound can be distracting but music can be soothing
The most obvious solution to these issues seem to be following best practice on minimising cognitive load. For that, there’s no better place than the Nielsen Norman Group who have written so excellently on the subject.
In terms of the actual physical motor skills involved, the hardware that is used should be considered. For the majority of us, mice, keyboards, track pads etc are an everyday normality but the way our brains age will affect our ability to use them. I feel it’s key that when you undertake your design projects, your personas include device usage information. Again, as I mentioned above, is the obvious device to design for the right one to design for? This article from Ollie Campbell details that touch screen is easier for more senior people to use that mice (some users even used two hands on mice!).
All of this needs to be considered right from the start of any project but also we need our UX design to be a natural extension of human behaviour… So, again, we have to ensure that projects have older participants involved in the testing and development of our designs.
D — Diversity
Have you included older people in your UX process?
The oldest generations feel completely alienated by modern technology. I believe that attitude exists partly because us designers — the youngsters — fed into that. We’re not all to blame, but we could’ve tried to include them more and not get hung up on designing for our current selves.
So let’s reverse that. Let’s diversify the type of users we interview and test with. Let’s include the 65+ user bracket more in our design process.
What are the challenges? Well, have you ever tried to use someone over 65+ in testing? It can be difficult. Trust me, I understand.
I used my Mum (who’s 66) as a testing subject on a project and it took her 3 days to get the remote testing platform working. It wasn’t her fault per-se, the tech just wasn’t intuitive enough for her skills and experience. However, once she’d got connected, I was able to get insights and suggestions for the design that were based on a wealth of years of experience. (Don’t take this as a green-light to always use your Mum when testing — she was far too worried about giving me more work to do and I really had to push her for criticisms).
Also, this age-bracket will more than likely have experience of caring for their ageing relatives. This gives them invaluable empathy into an older person’s needs so use this experience! If it could be relevant, why not ask them about it in user interviews/testing sessions?
We should always strive to have at least a couple of users that fit in the 65–85 year old bracket. It’s time for us all to change our attitude take the harder route — for their sake and ours.
As I mentioned at the start, something bothers me about this whole topic. Demographics. As UXers, we focus on needs, behaviours and frustrations — not demographics. However, this is a section of society that could prove foolish to ignore.
Age-inclusive design is intrinsically human-centred as age is something that happens to all of us!
There’s more artistically-inclined designer who’d claim that this restrictive thinking stifles their creativity. I think that’s a cop out. My thinking about this stems directly from super-creative music legend Peter Gabriel. When asked why he restricted his drummer from using cymbals on his first few albums he said…
“The worst thing you can say to a creative person, I think, is ‘You can do anything.’ That is the kiss of death. You should say to them, “You can’t do this. You definitely can’t do that. And under no circumstances can you do that. Then they’ll start thinking in a different, more creative way.”
I thoroughly agree with that. If you’re creatively minded, you are wily enough to work round with restrictions and create something great. That’s the challenge!
So don’t despair. Designing for our future selves isn’t just about designing for ‘old’ people. It’s design that can make future digital products open to more people, easier to use and ultimately timeless.
And who doesn’t want to create something timeless?