Accessible Design is Inclusive Design
Seniors are globally the fastest-growing population. The over-60 demographic is expected to nearly double by the year 2050. Seniors are also the fastest-growing demographic of technology-adopters. According to Pew Research Centre, almost 60% of adults over 60 are currently using the internet, compared to 90% of all adults. 73% of respondents said that when they encounter a new device or technology, they need help to know how to use it. 91% of seniors who use technology said that they use it to keep in touch with friends and family.
My initial idea was to create a digital product for seniors to assist in some small and positive way with their mental health and wellbeing. However, I soon found that far fewer seniors were technologically proficient or comfortable than I had initially anticipated. And further research showed that this was through no real fault of their own, but a technological environment designed against them. So I learned that if I did design a digital product for mental wellbeing, it most likely wouldn’t even be discovered or used by its target users. So I set out to do some more research.
Conducting User Research on an Ageing Demographic
When interviewing seniors, and professionals who frequently work with seniors, I came across numerous statements like these:
“My husband and I share a phone. I only use it when one of my children calls me. I sometimes use my tablet for reading the news or to play videos for my grandchildren. My son showed me how.”
“I haven’t used a computer in so long I think I’ve forgotten how. And now I’m scared to look stupid. So rather than look stupid, I just don’t try.”
“By the time I’ve figured out how to use my smartphone, a new one has come out and I’m out of date again. So what’s the point in trying to keep up?”
This qualitative data backed up what I was already finding out about the senior population: their motivations and priorities for using technology were usually very different to younger users (connection and family focus), as were their needs and frustrations when using technology.
While analysing the competitors I found that there were a lot of solutions for seniors and technology, including technology classes, assistance services and specially designed, simplified phones and tablets. However, the issue with these types of solutions is that they are very “othering”, allotting seniors their own space in the realm of design and technology, while everyone else carries on using the technology which has been designed against seniors in the first place. The competitor’s solutions aren’t inclusive.
Meredith the Fun-Loving Grandma
A charming 80-year-old fox, Meredith has three children and six grandchildren, who all live out of town. She’s a retired schoolteacher who lives in a townhouse with her husband, who is a retired mechanic.
Meredith loves gardening and reading, as well as puzzles and word games. Her favourite application on her mobile phone is Words With Friends. She also loves when her children and grandchildren come to visit her.
Meredith’s needs are to feel more comfortable and more confident using technology. She also needs to feel more connected to her family.
Her frustrations are that she is far-sighted and forgets things a little bit easier than she used to. She doesn’t like to not understand how something works — it makes her feel dependent and excluded. And she can tend to get lonely and out of touch when she doesn’t see her family in a long time.
So last Christmas, her adult children (one son and two daughters) pooled together to buy her a tablet and make her life a little bit “simpler”. Well, it’s been about 6 months, and her eldest daughter has come to visit with her two teenage sons. While visiting, they ask how it’s going with her new tablet. Meredith is a bit embarrassed, because she hasn’t really tried using it much. The day’s emotions look something like this page torn out of my notebook:
Meredith and her emotional roller coaster of a day led me to this How Might We statement, which would then inform all decisions regarding my solution:
How might we help Meredith have a positive and easy-to-learn experience with technology and feel more in touch with her family and friends?
The MVP solution I came up with is an online learning platform in the form of an iPad application for progressively learning how to use new technologies and devices. I wanted to prioritise the following features:
- Video tutorials and step-by-step instructions
- Practice simulation within the safe and forgiving environment of the app
- A screen-sharing and remote access feature for friends or family to help
The low-fidelity paper prototype looked like this:
I wanted to ensure that there weren’t an overwhelming volume of options, and the icons that existed were internet standards so that the entire experience within the app was a technology-learning environment.
Designing the interface
I picked the colour palette based on colours I thought would be playful and optimistic, and also colours that would be easily distinguishable when put through the most common types of colour blindness filters.
I also created a style guide meant to reflect the feelings from the moodboard. Quicksand is a simple but playful, easy-to-read sans-serif font which brings a friendly vibe to the application. The buttons and icons are simple and clear. There is high contrast between elements for easy visibility.
I was unable to test it on its target users within the given timeframe of the project, but I was able to test it on my peers. I figured if the user flow was unclear to them, then it would be unclear to my target users too.
My main concerns for this design is that I don’t want the user to feel patronised or infantilised, either through the UI and colours, or through the content. So for the future, here are a few things I think could make this project more user-centric:
- Usability and desirability testing on the target users, as well as the family and friends who would be accessing it remotely for them.
- The possibility of deciding on a starting level: accessibility for those who have almost no technology experience, and convenient usability and an appropriate level for those who are more comfortable with technology.
- A gamified system: friends, leaderboards, messages and achievements.
- Multi-device capability.
While this is an application designed with seniors specifically in mind, the design practices I tried to employ for accessibility benefit all users.
My hope is to avoid solutions like phones and tablets which are designed “just for seniors”, as this still seems to isolate the elderly from the world of technology. I want to introduce a forgiving environment that can gradually incorporate seniors into the “real world” of technology and the internet. I know I will one day be in Meredith’s shoes, and I only hope that designers and developers continue to create solutions which are accessible to everyone.