By Khoa Pham, UX and Design Lead, K4Connect Imagine that you don’t know how to swim and someone throws you into the deep end of the pool. As you’re floundering, someone throws you a life preserver. Just as you are catching your breath, they take you out of the pool, and throw you in the ocean. That is the way technology companies treat older adults and those with varying abilities. They present them with technology that they are not familiar with, but they throw them a life preserver, by allowing them to increase font sizes so that they can read confusing words more clearly. And just as they are barely getting a grasp of the technology, they throw them in the ocean by upgrading everything.

Introducing too many changes at one time presents a usability nightmare. It’s much harder for older adults to ascend the learning curve when it’s so steep.

Unlike swimming however, where you need to make an effort to stay afloat, users also have the option to abandon the technology altogether. Users will not adopt what they are not emotionally, mentally, or physically comfortable with. So it shouldn’t be so surprising that there is a knowledge gap between a 30 year old and an 80 year old when it comes to technology. Faced with this discomfort, an older adult or a differently abled person may simply put the technology aside. The invention of the internet and the exponential advancement in technology over the past couple of decades causes this knowledge gap to grow wider and at a faster rate.

Another reason for the knowledge gap is that older adults and those with varying abilities are also more risk averse compared to younger adults. New technology represents an unknown, thus poses a greater risk. According to a study in The National Center for Biotechnology Information Archives they feel they have much more to lose if things go wrong or if they make a mistake. A younger adult has more time to fix any mistakes and many more tools at their disposal like the internet, and friends who are also comfortable with technology. If the last computer an older person was comfortable with was an original Apple Macintosh, handing them an iPhone is the equivalent of throwing them in the deep end of the pool. They’ll either swim, sink, or leave the pool entirely.

Given these circumstances, it is easy to say that older adults don’t like technology. They are not using it, therefore they don’t like it. And many people believe that, especially technology companies. Evidence suggests that belief is wrong. Those who are adopting technology are finding great value in it. And the number of older adults adopting technology is growing. Just as one example, according to this 2015 CNN Tech article, both men and women 65 and older are spending more on Apple products than younger adults.

Introducing too many changes at one time presents a usability nightmare. It’s much harder for older adults to ascend the learning curve when it’s so steep.

This growth in older adopters, coupled with legal and social pressures to provide more accessibility (which I’ll cover in-depth in a later blog) is causing technology companies to be more accommodating to this user segment. But being accommodating doesn’t always translate to being usable. Though policies and guidelines such as Americas with Disabilities Act (ADA) Compliance, Section 508 Compliance, and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, in the United States and other policies around the world make huge strides in ensuring that older adults and differently abled people are being considered, they are not a silver bullet. If done correctly and thoughtfully, they can be, but there are many ways in which tech companies miss the mark.

These guidelines have become boxes that are checked after a product has already been created. That’s why so many of these “accessible features” are usually bundled together, deep within the settings. If you bury the option to increase font size in a menu that is 5 taps away from the screen you can’t read, how are they supposed to find it in the first place? Interestingly, some companies are taking the approach too far in the other direction. While they begin with older adults in mind, they oversimplify the experience and produce patronizing and cartoonish designs. They mistakenly equate simpler user interfaces with juvenile interfaces. You would be hard pressed to tell whether their technology was designed for older adults or children.

Why do user interfaces for older adults have to look cartoonish? Example app from the Google App Store.

Technology companies also make the mistake of assuming that everyone has the same mental model, or that people implicitly know technological jargon and symbols. The strategy is akin to “I know you don’t understand what I’m saying so I’m going to shout it louder at you”. If you increase the font of a word that’s is unfamiliar, it doesn’t help you understand what it means any better.

Unfortunately this approach still makes older adults and those with varying ability last minute considerations. At K4Connect, we approach things very differently. We take those accessibility guidelines and go a the extra step by applying them to the real world situations our members encounter before we begin designing, not after the product is complete. We begin by asking how we can serve our members’ needs, not by selling products we have already created. We work at their baseline of understanding, not forcing them to come to ours. We put the focus on serving the older adult and those with varying abilities at the beginning of our process, not at the end. And we find that older adults love technology very much, when it is made with them in mind.

You can also look forward to future K4Connect Design Corner blog topics such as user interface design for older adults, an in-depth view of accessibility, top myths about older adults and technology, the problem with voice technology and more!