Technology for senior citizens

A few weeks ago, I helped my dad create a Google doc rather than creating a document on a computer locally. The process was revealing. Even the simplest questions like, “How do you save this?” required me to think of a good explanation. “It saves automatically,” was not good enough. To add to that, the benefits of sharing the document, live collaboration, etc. were all tough to explain. “How do you access this document later on? I can’t find it on the desktop.” I ended up creating a bookmark link on the browser.

This process was revealing. The most obvious things for our generation are not that obvious. To learn more, over the past three weeks, I’ve been interacting with a few of my father’s friends. Answering their questions about technology and apps has been a revealing journey. Questions like, “How does YouTube handle copyright issues?” to “How does WhatsApp make money?” have all forced me to explore answers that I would not have otherwise thought of.

As I’m having these conversations, I’ve realized something.

Technology has such amazing solutions available, yet, these solutions are not easy to get started with. Awareness and Onboarding are problems that Product Managers optimize for every day, yet, there is a sect of population that is often ignored.

All of us are going to grow old one day. As such, the need for technology to adapt will become obvious in a few years. The world is ageing and we need technology to adapt to the ageing population. India’s elderly population is expected to grow to 173 million by 2026. Some states in India will start transitioning to an ageing population by as soon as 2030s.

Globally, too, a similar phenomenon is being observed. More than 20 percent of people are expected to become senior citizens by 2030.

What are the challenges?

This population finds it hard to complete the basic tasks of life using technology. Technology is finding its way to everything from grocery to shopping to payments. As such, doing the basic jobs of life is becoming harder. Usually, seniors rely on other people to help with using new technology.

Amidst the fast pace of technology, this population wants you to explain them things slowly, wait for them to make note before moving to the next step. Rushing through technology doesn’t help.

Let’s look at some of the obvious challenges:

Changing User Interfaces (UIs) can create confusion

The product designers decided to switch to a material layout since that allows for a ‘cleaner’ interface. During the process, they decided to move one of the less-used features to a menu in a corner. Earlier, this feature was available on the home screen. What happened next?

For the most people, there was no effect in terms of usage. But for the few people who used this feature, the added dimension of the product led to so much confusion that they could no longer use the product at all.

Though I took it to an extreme with this story a little bit, but being cognizant of rapid changes to UIs can create a massive impact, even though it is for a smaller population. Losing out a few customers for better retention of others might be fine, but why hamper the experience for these few in the first place?

Once stuck to a product, switching to a new one is hard

This can be a boon for creators. When someone is familiar to a product, switching to a new one could be extremely hard, especially for seniors. For people who created e-mail addresses on Yahoo decades ago, switching to Gmail for the convenience it offers might not be compelling enough. Using the same e-mail client serves their purpose.

I’m not saying product teams shouldn’t make these changes or upgrades. But it is their responsibility to ensure that the users on previous versions get enough guidance to adapt to the new. If you want people to switch to a new technology, you need to be patient.

Too many things happening on the UI:

A popup appears asking you to avail a new discount offer. A window slides from the bottom asking you to accept the cookie policy of the company. A menu has more than thirty items listed in different sections. The search icon is hidden in the top right corner of the page. Some features need side-scrolling to be discovered.

These are all examples of places where designing for inclusivity of seniors could use some additional thought. For Product Managers and designers, the focus should be on having at most a few features on a page on mobile, and cutting down any extraneous features that could confuse the users.

Not enough onboarding guidance

Some products can seem simple to use, but unless you show people the features of your product in a guided tour, they are not likely to discover them. Keyboard shortcuts, for example, are not going to help you unless you explain to the users what they are and how to use them.

Nudging people towards the usage of features depending on their existing patterns might be helpful to avoid confusion and provide an easy-to-use product.

Text comprehension

If there’s a wall of small text, you would not expect the millennials to use your product, let alone seniors. Simplifying text as much as possible and using icons and images to explain the text should help.

This also helps foreign language speakers comprehend information on sites not in their language. It sounds simple, but simplifying text is one of the hardest challenges.

Things to keep in mind

If you’re building products for seniors, here are some things to consider:

  1. Usage growth will be slow: You can’t expect people to adopt a new technology at once. Give people some time to try out the product and get their reactions to it. Timely onboarding tips could help in helping people get their job done through the product, but don’t bombard people with onboarding material. If growth is slow, let it be.
  2. It’s better to go with existing designs: Make incremental improvements to existing design patterns rather than re-thinking design patterns. Use the standard icons to represent the common actions. Do not create a new icon for “log out” – use one that is standardized.
  3. Restrict the usage of popups and fancy menus: Though these can lead to an increase in signups or conversions, popups can disturb the user’s frame of mind. It is best to use them in a limited capacity. Do not add a popup for every action that you want to take. But if you are bound to, it please make dismissing the popup easy.
  4. Hold events and webinars to provide training: People need a lot of hand-holding when getting started on a new product. It is like a new subject in school. It is easy to provide personalized assistance to people through webinars and events if that is possible.

Conclusion

The American Disabilities Act states that all the roads in the cities in US have to adhere to certain rules to be accessible to people with disabilities. Wheel-chair ramps, blind markers etc. are common across the country.

This happened because of the government setting the policy. Why can we not do the same for the internet? What would it take for a service that could adapt any product on the internet to the needs of the elderly? Product teams would then no longer need to worry about ensuring their products are accessible.


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I’d love to get in touch with you! Please reach out on Twitter or send me an email at hemantrjoshi[at]outlook[dot]com.

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