Meetup: Designing Technology for Older Adults
In September, I attended my first Meetup – ‘Designing Technology for Older Adults.’ The speaker was Yasmin Felberbaum, a Ph.D. student at the University of Haifa. The focus of the talk was threefold: (1) the challenges of designing for older adults; (2) the design decisions that could improve products for these users; and (3) examples of well and poorly-designed products aimed at older adults. For this article, I will use Felberbaum’s research to show how these design considerations tie into our readings about user-centered design, design justice and the political economy of information. First, I will highlight the design challenges associated with older adults, and how these are undergoing a transformation. Next, I will discuss what inclusive design means in the context of Chock’s ‘Design Justice.’ Finally, I will use Felberbaum’s research to show how we can best design for an elderly population, reflecting principles championed by the Design Justice movement.
Design challenges for older adults
The event began by defining an ‘older adult’ as anyone over the age of 65 and highlighting the challenges associated with designing for this segment of the population. These fall into three main categories:
- Physical – motor changes, e.g., inability to hold a device for an extended time;
- Mental – cognitive and emotional changes, e.g., loss of loved ones may cause depression or decreased motivation;
- Educational – low levels of technology training and skills are still prevalent.
Due to population increases and improved life expectancy, estimates currently put the number of adults aged 65+ at roughly 2 billion by 2050, according to Felberbaum. However, the older adults of today are vastly different from those of the future, a point which Norman references in his ‘Being Analog’ article. As our everyday lives are becoming increasingly complex, ‘the slow evolutionary pace of life is no longer up to the scale and pace of technological change’; meaning that humans must now try to keep up with ever-increasing and oppressive amounts of knowledge. As a result, the current generation of young, digital native adults, are being shaped by different experiences with technology. They have higher expectations for technology to help them cope with so much information. The way that young adults today interact with technology is also fundamentally different. According to Benkler’s ‘The Wealth of Networks,’ our interaction with technology today is much more pervasive than it was 50 years ago. The conclusion we can draw from this is that to disregard older adults as an insignificant portion of technology consumers is seriously misguided. Not only will they become increasingly significant in size and purchasing power, but they will also be more demanding in the quality of that technology and how it serves their lives. They will be healthier and better technically educated and will fully expect to be included and designed for, much as they would have been when younger.
‘Design Justice’ as a way to overcome exclusive design processes
One of the main arguments presented by Felberbaum was that stereotypes about technology products for older adults, e.g., low adoption rates, are often a result of the exclusion of the user group from the design process. This omittance is just one example of designers overlooking users who do not conform to the stereotypical ‘imagined user […]. In the U.S., this means straight white middle-class, cisgender men, with educational privilege and high technological literacy, citizenship, native English speakers’ and, I would also add, young age. Constanza-Chock discusses recent attempts to overcome this in her Design Justice article. Design Justice champions a set of principles that, when included in the design process, should fairly and accurately represent marginalized users. It recognizes that the participation of these end users in the design process is crucial to creating products that are valuable for them. This is relevant to Felberbaum’s presentation, as she gathered her insights through the direct participation of older adults in her research process. She conducted in-depth interviews with her users, who were questioned and observed while using technology products with both inclusive and universal designs. The feedback gathered included which products users were more likely to adopt and why, what product issues they could not overlook and what they found attractive or helpful. Here is a clear example of Design Justice at work: the inclusion of the participants and recipients of the design as key contributors.
Constanza-Chock also presents the idea that designers with diverse backgrounds and experiences, especially those from marginalized communities, could help broaden perceptions of the ‘imagined user,’ resulting in fewer overlooked groups. While this is a worthy goal that should be encouraged, it may prove difficult when considering an elderly population. One of the very reasons that old adult marginalization occurs in design is because they are physically or mentally unable to participate in the process, or are retired from the workforce. Therefore, advocating that adults over 65 become designers to mitigate their exclusion may not be feasible. In these cases, applying concepts of user-centered and empathy-driven design become even more critical. These can help to supplement knowledge and experience gaps when designing for users that cannot fully participate in a process that was created precisely for their inclusion.
Best practice design for older adults
The final part of the event focused on the insights Felberbaum gathered from her research with older adults. These can be summed up as:
- The social or gamification component of a product was vital to secure adoption and continued use;
- Adoption only happens where there is a clear added value, e.g., what am I gaining by using this, that justifies introducing a new habit at a late stage of life;
- The design should be universal and not inclusive – older adults did not want to use products aimed specifically at them due to stigma or emotions in acknowledging a perceived diminished place in society;
- The lower the interaction and learnability requirement to use the product or device, the higher the adoption rate;
- Where new information is necessary to use the product, this must build on existing or prior knowledge to secure adoption;
These insights provide good examples of best practice when designing for adults over 65, and they were all elicited by communicating with the target user group. These insights also touch on one of the action’s outlined in Gehner’s article, specifically: ‘understand that charity is not dignity; dignity is inclusion.’ I think this is particularly poignant and applicable to the outcomes of Felberbaum’s research as the products that had the most success were those that did not treat older adults as a separate segment of the population that needed unique designs. The older adults interviewed wanted to feel included, empowered and just like everyone else by being able to use the same products as their children and grandchildren – universal design was overwhelmingly the preferred choice.
The event made me think critically about my relationship with technology as a future older adult. It was also significant, as an aspiring UX designer, to see an example of design justice at work providing higher quality insights. Often, as Norman points out, what we attribute as issues with users, are a result of poorly designed products. Stereotypes, such as low adoption rates among older adults, are dangerous because they similarly focus the problem on the user and not the product, making designers less inclined to change their design process. The key takeaway for me was that it doesn’t matter what user segment you are designing for – if a user-centered approach is used, adoption will occur.
- Costanza-Chock, S (2018). Design Justice: towards an intersectional feminist framework for design theory and practice, Design Research Society 2018.
- Norman, D. A. (1998). The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer is So Complex, and Information Appliances are the Solution. MIT Press. Chapter 7: Being Analog.
- Benkler, Y. (2006). “Introduction: a moment of opportunity and challenge” in The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale University Press, 1–18.
- Gehner, J. (2010). Libraries, Low-Income People, and Social Exclusion, Public Library Quarterly, 29:1, 39-47.