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Designing for the old

Pointers for designing digital interfaces for the elderly people

Two elderly people holding hands.

If you are a youngblood and during the pandemic lockdown, you got on a video call with your parents or grandparents, you might have noticed that they are not as swift as you are. For some reason, they never seem to position themselves as perfectly as you can. However, this is a nonconsequential example of how the world is skewed against the elderly. An elder person crossing a zebra crossing with a walking stick is a serious one. They must cross the road before the signal turns red.

We have many such examples of how the environment that we are in is more conducive to younger people than for elderly but I shall keep that topic for some other time. Today I want to focus on things one should bear in mind while designing digital interfaces that can be more accommodative of the elderlies.

If we breakdown any digital design into its constituents, we will find they are primarily made up of the following:

  • Typography helps us to understand the information on an interface
  • Colour helps us to subconsciously and consciously make the right associations
  • Controls that understand our input to the device
  • Interaction is a process that lets us know that our inputs to the device are understood by providing feedback

Depending on the user group, we can design digital products by emphasising and de-emphasising the right combination of the constituents mentioned above. This becomes all the more important when you are designing something for the elderly. We need to keep in mind some of the constraints while designing products for them. They might be hard of hearing or they might have one of many visual impairments or their motor skills might not be as fast or a combination of these. Well if we make products for the elderly, can it work for other age groups? Certainly it can but your product might not be as ‘delightful’ as some might say.

Why do we need to design things differently for the elderly? You can of course change the accessibility setting to match elders’ liking on devices but using techniques like text-to-speech can be a slow and a tedious process if you want to get your work done quickly. I want to point out aspects that I think should be kept in mind when designing for the elderly.

Typography and copy

While it is difficult to always predict where a user will look in order to get their work done, we can certainly guide their visual flow. The following picture demonstrates that clearly.

Texts are arranged in a manner to show visual hierarchy.
This post from Indian Type Foundry makes my point clear.

There are three ways how the hierarchy of information can become more distinct.

a) A clear heading binds contents

(First) Title of the screen of the app is topmost. (Second) The title is big and clear making all the contents its children. (Third) The name of the designer is the title and is followed by their other details.

b) Distinction between contents that look alike using a consistent stylised heading

(First) Image of the flight board has distinct heading. (Second) The titles of articles on Medium are easily differentiable.

c) Using space to separate contents help increase scanning of information easier

(First) Spacing out comments makes it easier to go one after another on Instagram. (Second) Nike makes its website’s sections very distinct from one another by introducing enough spacing between them.

There are a few other tips one can follow:

Use short, succinct sentences.
It is needless to specify that short, meaningful text will win over lengthy text. One should always try to format longer text by breaking them into smaller groups.

Use language familiar to the elderly.
The copy is the only way the product talks to a human user. It’s also a useful tool to provide a personality to the product. We should recognise and communicate in the language that the elderly are comfortable with.

Go for large-sized text.
With visual impairments, reading smaller sized text is more difficult. We generally have titles that are bigger in size but the body text usually stays small. Imagine reading 4 paras of text as small as the MacBook serial key that’s behind your laptop. It’s not going to be easy.

Colour and importance of contrast

Colours have the ability to evoke emotions. We must be aware of how it might have an effect on someone subconsciously. Colours can be leveraged to communicate patterns that may lead to recognition of workflow or elements on the interface and how they behave. A simple example could be using one colour for call-to-action buttons. This enables a user to quickly understand what a click of button results in. Other than establishing patterns, colour is a powerful tool to differentiate between contents and make information readable.

While designing for old people, make sure to:

Use high colour-contrast elements and typography.
2.2 billion of the planet’s population has visual impairment. The variety in impairment of the product’s user base should inform us of the colour choices that we make. Contrast checker is a technique to understand how easily your content can be readable by people in the old age.

(First) The colour palette and the picture evoke a calm emotion. (Second) The use of the same blue colour for call-to-action button and other interactive elements help the user to distinguish what they can interact with and what they can read.
A low contrast call-to-action button will make it harder for people with visual impairments to locate the CTA.

Interactive controls

Be it a button, dropdown, slider, input text field or anything else.

Make controls very evident so the eldery user knows that they can press/click them.
Earlier, skeuomorphism in controls used to bring a certain degree of familiarity as the mental model and behaviour model were aligned. Our choice of style for controls has evolved to a flatter, more minimalist design and the wider audience has shown its acceptance. But is it a safe assumption to make that even the elder people appreciate the new OS upgrade on their phones? I don’t have an answer to that question but it certainly should be investigated.

Positioning of the control is a very important factor
This can be a deal breaker, after all you can only interact with the controls if you can see them on your screen. One should be able to locate it instantly when one wants to use it. For example, the CTA should ideally be within the reach of the thumb on mobile apps.

Radio player controls.
Music apps uses same music player bar that one can find on physical radio. All the controls are relatable.
(First) Checkout button follows right after card details is entered. (Second) A lot of options that are accommodated, compromising the size of all the interactive components.

The size of the interactive controls matter.
When you accommodate text, input-steppers, button, a collection of controls in a small space, the size of each component takes a hit — they shrink down making it more difficult to read and interact with. Prioritise the more important functions and eliminate the good-to-have ones to declutter the screen.

Add context to controls.
Providing contextual information could specify the type of input a user should provide to a control. For example, while online shopping, a simple “Buy” button might not inform the user whether they will be immediately taken to the Checkout process or if the product will merely be added to cart, while they continue shopping — but a “Buy Now” button clearly indicates the former.

Feedback following interactions

Recall one of your friends who is always busy with their phone while you talk to them. Even if they insist that they are giving you all their attention, you aren’t really sure if they understood everything you told them. They responded very little to whatever you said and seemed uninterested. Now your friend has a mind of their own to choose how they behave. But imagine if your applications on your digital devices start acting in such a way. You will be unsure if they understood what you inputted. While working with elders, we should be extra careful about providing clear feedback to the user to assure them that the input was understood and their command will be acted upon. We must also keep in mind the length of feedback provided and the magnitude it’s provided in, be it auditory or visual. Do you expect an old person to undo an important email about their pension plan within 5 seconds? They may need a longer feedback time to register their input.

Sliding the volume up and down on MacBook.
Sliding the volume on MacBook provides a real-time visual feedback and a delayed auditory feedback.

You might not always be around to help an old person cross a street, but you might just make their digital journeys easier to understand.



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