Usability of Voice User Interfaces for Senior Citizens
A research essay of current studies on how elderly users interact with VUIs
In its 42nd season, one of my favourite shows, Saturday Night Live, broadcasted the sketch “Amazon Echo” that deals with elderly people interacting with an adapted senior-version of the new Amazon Echo that was hilarious and eye-opening at the same time. To me, it showcased in a sarcastic way how elderly people react to new technology and how voice-recognition might be a viable interaction that does not rely on a visual interface.
Ever since watching this sketch, I kept asking myself if a Voice-User-Interface (VUI) is possibly an easier way for elderly people to interact with intelligent technology than the typical visual interface that often over-burdens elderly users with too many images, multi-touch interactions or simply unknown responses from the device.
In my theory, voice is possibly a much more natural interaction pattern for users who have not grown up with tablets, smartphones and other touch-sensitive devices.
Take, for instance, my grandmother: She lives in a somewhat remote part of the country and in order to stay in touch with her more personally, we wanted to give her an iPad with a cellular connection, so she had the option to Facetime with her family. When we proposed the idea, she shrugged us off, saying: “I have spent 80-somewhat years without these things and I´m not going to start having them around now…” When pushed on what was the problem with these kinds of devices, she basically said that she didn´t want to learn new interactions and was not seeing the benefit…
But not everyone sees it that way: A study conducted in 2017 suggested that „[…] Voice User Interfaces, VUIs, may hold potential for increasing usability for seniors. Many voice systems are efficient, intuitive and do not require the fine motor skills that older users may find challenging.“ He goes on to establish an understanding on how growing older effects abilities such as sensory, movement and memory that might make VUI a vital alternative to the traditional „hands-on interactions“. (Ziman, 2018)
The benefits of VUIs at first glance present a vital advantage for senior citizens: It is quite intuitive and relies on the speech-interactions already known and practiced every day, hence it is more efficient and up to three times faster in fulfilling a task than input from common devices such as keyboards (Ruan, Wobbrock, Liou, Ng, & Landay, 2017).
On the other hand, VUI interfaces are non-traditional and unfamiliar. It is hard to understand on what terms they work or what the systems are capable of (Yankelovich, 1996). I suppose my grandmother would agree to this statement.
In addition, one of the biggest disadvantages of VUIs is the still significantly high rate of errors: A study conducted in 2017 concluded that Google´s Assistant was the most accurate smart speaker with 68,1% of all queries answered correctly, while Amazon´s Alexa only recognized and answered 20% of all questions (Enge, 2017). Over and above general noises in the device´s environment and potential impediments of the senior user, this might make it harder to properly interact with the device and therefore being able to make full use of its features.
Despite of all technical restrictions as well as advantages, the most important questions when confronting senior users with new technology is: Are they willing to use it?
When senior citizens over the age of 70 were asked about their acceptability of “assistive technology” a study suggested that the technical acceptability of each individual depends on the “felt need” the user experience towards the technology in question ( (McCreadie & Tinker, 2005). In other words, the more the device or technology helps a user with disabilities or enriches his life, the more willing he is to engage with it.
This point was picked up by Childress in her article saying that “[…] voice-command technology can enable older adults to stay longer in their current settings”, going on that the VUI-device could serve as a companion that could help especially (but is not limited to) vision-impaired people (Childress, 2017).
Another study suggests that people over 65 years are lacking a confidence in their ability to interact with technology and might therefore experience a “computer anxiety” that results in a deficiency of willingness to interact with new technology (Charness & Boot, 2009)
Here, research indicates that VUI is a particularly efficient technology for self-proclaimed “computer novices”: When seniors were confronted with tasks that included interactions both with keyboard as well as VUI-technology. 75% of self-proclaimed “computer novices” preferred the VUI technology. In contrast, only 11% of participants that had more experience with technology preferred the VUI. Usability and efficiency of the VUI were also rated higher by the novices than by the more professional participants (Ziman, 2018).
Overall, the interviewed seniors preferred the keyboard interactions, nonetheless: Most of the participants liked the familiarity of this interface and had established a sense of habit, the study found. On the other hand, very little participants mentioned factors such as speed and trust as perceptive factors when asked about the touch-interface (Ziman, 2018).
In summary, what does this mean in terms of VUI-usability? In order to make VUI-interfaces more attractive to senior users, the devices could be more patient for so-called “Time out Cues”, meaning the time a device determines when a user has finished his query (Ziman, 2018). Another study suggests, that the learning aptitude is one of the major factors of VUI-interactions with seniors: The system should be able to adapt to the user’s skills while also teaching him how to properly interact with the technology (Scruggs, 2018).
Although Voice User Interface is a rather old technology, it has found its way into more and more homes in recent years. What I found interesting while gathering the research is that VUI-technology is apparently a viable way for senior citizens to engage with new technology and the conducted studies suggest a strong benefit towards technology-novices in that age group.
It might not need an entire new device for senior citizens as shown in the SNL skit in order to get elderly users to use VUI, but a few usability changes and adaptions may help making the transition to this new and exciting technology more inviting for “the greatest generation”. Still, I don’t think my grandmother will ever try it….