Rethinking Digital Design for Seniors

By: Rachel Mitnick

Designers often create digital experiences with millennials in mind, but senior citizens are a key demographic that will greatly benefit from their attention.

There’s a strong pull for designers to create cutting-edge experiences for a generation that has grown up tech-savvy and hyper-social. Designing for users well versed in the latest technologies, with few cognitive limitations, who are more willing to adapt to new interaction patterns is just simply easier to do.

But when we design user experiences solely with this group in mind, we neglect the #1 consumer and fastest-growing demographic: the emerging senior.

So what can we do better to serve this new demographic?

By employing some well-known UX practices we can find lots of new opportunities. We’ll look at:

  1. Examining the data we already have
  2. Surveying at the current design landscape
  3. Identifying key pain points in their journey as they age
1. The Data and What We Already Know

Aging isn’t a state. It’s a process.

As the average life expectancy for Americans continues to increase, people are remaining in the workforce longer than ever. That means our conception of a senior as anyone 65 or older is quickly becoming obsolete.

In reality, the cognitive aging process begins for each of us at age 20, after which our ability to use a website declines by .8% a year.  As technology improves over time, the expectation for users is that digital experiences will be easier to use, even as our ability to understand and use it declines.

This is a design challenge we’ll need to pay more attention to as the number of older users is growing much more rapidly due to an aging society and a growing percentage of internet-savvy seniors.

Increased Usage and Spending

Recent studies have also shown that seniors are not only increasingly comfortable navigating the web, they’re also more comfortable spending money there.

Key areas of online spending for seniors include health, finance, travel, news, shopping, and social media.

2. A Look at the Design Landscape

Designers need to understand that emerging seniors have a completely different relationship to technology than previous generations.

The emerging senior is more likely to own and operate digital devices that are powerful and beautifully built, which means they will demand better products and services as they age.

Today, many websites still discriminate against seniors. For example, three common accessibility mistakes that websites make are:

  • Using small typefaces without including the option to enlarge them
  • Not distinguishing visually between visited and non-visited hyperlinks
  • Failing to ensure menus and other interaction objects can easily be targeted with a mouse or finger

In the realm of product design, many devices for the aging still emphasize monitoring and supervision. Companies are currently developing systems that monitor medications, movement, falls and accidents, as well as location.

In-home wireless sensor systems, automated medication dispensers, and even smart beds that track vital signs are all examples of great monitoring-driven product innovation, but it still begs the question:  What do seniors actually want as they age, and how do we respond better to the emotional experience of aging?

3. Key Pain Points in the Aging Journey

One way to  identify how we can improve design for the aging is to identify key pain points in this journey.

We know, for example, of an important pain point when an individual reaches retirement and finds their social-circle has decreased.

The increasing use and popularity of social media by seniors is helping connect people with friends and family on a daily basis. Studies are already starting to examine how social media platforms can help alleviate depression and strengthen cognition and memory by helping facilitate daily connection and conversation.

What may be missing, however, is a fundamental understanding of the unique ways seniors use and engage with these platforms.

A Unique Set of Needs

Studies show that, younger users use social media as a place to celebrate the self. They often post about their life through pictures, status updates, videos and location check-ins.

Seniors, on the other hand, use the site to connect with people who have similar interests, seek out information about healthcare and caregiving, and look at photos of family and friends.

What’s surprising is that, despite major increases in the number of seniors engaging with social media platforms, the sites themselves have failed to respond to the demographic’s unique set of needs.

As younger generations inch closer to becoming seniors themselves, we can start to imagine a future in which social media can play an even larger, more transformative role in combating some of the harshest transitional problems associated with aging.

The evolution of products like Skype might make connecting with family and caregivers more seamless, while voice-controlled operating systems could allow seniors to interact without the need to interpret and distinguish UI patterns—which can be confusing for even the most tech-fluent person.

A Focus on Independence and Connection

By combining technologies and focusing on seniors’ unique ways of engaging with popular platforms we can start to transform the process of aging itself.

As designers, we have to be able to recognize where and how current systems are failing users and be willing to fix them. It’s a mistake to avoid the topic and its challenges altogether.

To design successfully for the emerging senior and truly create products they will need and want, we must re-think our own expectations of aging and how we treat the aged as a culture.