Designing a mobile interface for older people

Not so “smart” phones

Most phones currently on the market have a touch screen. The touch-based interface can be confusing for many people. The only possible way how to interact with the phone is to use virtual on-screen buttons and gestures on the display. These interfaces are mostly not optimized for people with vision or fine motor skills problems.

While fonts can be enlarged on some phones, this does not solve all potential problems. The interface remains complicated, the settings is complex and individual screens do not look consistent. Icons have a tiny text and the small keyboard is uncomfortable to use.

We have performed a research to discover how older people use their phones and have identified their capabilities and limitations, introduced key design recommendations and as a result, have created a new simplified mobile interface.

Our granny doesn’t feel old

The first idea came about from talking to our granny. She had trouble using her phone. She was unable to read SMS messages from us, or find out who called her. We had to write down all instructions on paper telling her how to use the phone.

We even bought her a simple senior-oriented phone. It had large buttons and the text was very easy to read, but she wasn’t happy with it. She is active, likes travelling, taking photos and talking to friends. She definitely doesn’t feel old.

Android launcher as a solution

We investigated a number of possible solutions. Android is a great platform; the entire phone user interface can be replaced by an alternative launcher. We found a couple of simplified launchers, for example the BIG Launcher, Necta or Phonotto, but none of them were ideal.

Most of the above alternatives do not provide a large keyboard. The main screen is typically composed of a grid of icons. Viewing photos or sending messages requires launching an external app that is generally not optimized and does not have the same consistent design as the launcher. Switching between these apps is confusing.

What do older people really want?

We wanted to identify the best phone interface design possible. What do older people really want? How do they use their phones, what they like and what they dislike?

We interviewed five people above the age of 60. We then gathered 118 survey answers in cooperation with the Czech Technical University in Prague. We have also analyzed external articles, the references for which can be found in this Master’s thesis.

Impairments of older people

Some individual abilities decline with age. The most significant of these is vision; older eyes receive only a 1/3 of the light compared to younger viewers. The eye lens develops a slightly yellowish color and it becomes more difficult for people to distinguish between shades of blue and purple.

The eye loses its ability to focus quickly or to react to rapidly-changing brightness. Older people cannot see thin lines and cannot focus on edges. It is therefore difficult for them to distinguish between similar icons.

Hearing can also get worse with age; older ears generally cannot detect very high and very low frequency sounds. All phone notifications should be louder, at least 10 dB above the background noise; 90 dB is the recommended sound value for seniors with age-related hearing loss (70 dB is the normal value for younger people).

Technology yes, but with a real benefit

Familiarity with technology usually decreases with age. Older people avoid technology when the product is too complicated for them, or when they do not trust it. The common stereotype is that the elderly do not want to use modern technology at all. This is not the case; they want to understand modern inventions and keep up to others. They can learn even a complicated technology, but they need to see the real benefit for them.

Modern technology has two problems: everything is smaller and devices have too many integrated features. Many interfaces require very precise movements. People over the age 65 need about 50 to 100% more time to complete a task than adults younger than 30. Most of this time relates to making a decision; the real movement time is similar to that of younger people.

When the interface is complicated, many people become confused and tend to blame themselves for this rather than the application. They often do not understand functions according to how it has been labeled, for example, how does a Calendar work in a phone or what are Conversations? Older people want to use only a limited number of phone features; the rest of the phone’s capabilities should be hidden.

Survey results

Almost 3/4 of people above the age of 50 needed to wear prescription glasses. 48% would appreciate a larger font on their phone (more than 70% of people with classic feature phones have this problem). 80% of people above the age of 50 years thought that their phone had more features than they would ever utilize.

Dana and David

We found two distinct types of people: Dana is an older pensioner who has only a few people in her phone’s contact list. She wants to be notified very loudly when she receives a SMS or incoming call. Dana wants one dedicated button on a phone to call help, the phone should also be able to read out loud what is written on the display. Dana is concerned that she might delete something from her phone by mistake.

David is a more proactive individual. He wants to personalize his phone, set an image on a background or change the ringtone. He regularly adds new people to his phone’s contact list. He stated that his phone should be discrete and that SMS notifications should be quiet and unobtrusive. Once in a while, he wants to send an email from the phone, or search the internet.

What about me?

Interestingly, it is not only senior citizens who want to have an easy-to-use, fully-featured phone. A large percentage of normal, ordinary people still use classic phones with hardware buttons. They are afraid of touch-screen devices or they simply do not like them.

We have met an executive officer of one company. He had a slightly worse eyesight and he wore prescription glasses. He had to use a small 4-inch iPhone as a proof of his “social status”, but he hated that phone. He could not read the small text, he was also making lots of spelling mistakes using the keyboard. However, he could not just buy an old feature phone with hardware buttons; he needed to look modern and reliable at the office.

How to create a great interface

We have discovered that the ideal touch-screen phone interface should be very simple and easy to use. Basic navigation buttons (hardware or virtual) should be visible at all times and the navigation model should be consistent across the entire interface. The structure of screens should be shallow; each complicated screen should have a descriptive label with meaningful instructions clearly displayed.

All titles and labels should be large and easy to read. All items and navigation elements should be visible all the times; slide-out menus should be avoided. Icons shown on the interface should have text labels — people want to be very confident about what a button will do before they click on it. Users generally do not understand the meanings of icons when they are not accompanied by text.

Text labels should be short, easily understandable and must not be abbreviated. They should be written in a recognizable language; for example “today”, or “yesterday” will be clearer than a numeric date value. Only a limited number of items should be located in the menu (up to 7–8 items). Longer lists of items should be split into groups.

A high-contrast interface is very important. No complicated images should be shown on the screen’s background. A dark background with a white text overlay will be better for older people with slower eye accommodation. On the other hand, a white background with black text will look better in direct sunlight.


As the images show, we have designed a new interface called KoalaPhone, based on our research findings. It has been designed for anyone who wants a simple phone with a large keyboard. It is very user-friendly for people who want to browse photos, use their phone camera and other smart features, but do not want to fight with their phone.

KoalaPhone looks like a classic feature phone with buttons. All items, buttons and notifications have been enlarged. Messages can be typed on a large phone keypad, using the qwerty keyboard or by the voice recognition feature. An alarm clock, photo gallery and several other apps have also been enlarged, touch-optimized and integrated into one consistent design.

You can download KoalaPhone as a free app on a Google Play (7-day trial), or buy the full version for $5.99 USD. We are really looking to hearing your feedback and how do you like it.

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