When age isn’t just a number

Ageing

The demographic landscape of our cities is changing as our cities grow and the population ages. The number of people in the UK aged 85 or more is expected to be more than double in the next 25 years.

What is “old“ anyway? Age isn't just a number, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90. It’s very hard to define what age is “old” because ageing is a continuous process as part of the normal life cycle that we will all experience.

What will be “ageing” for us? The new generation that is getting older will be a generation that fights back against ageing, and that has already started demanding radical changes to the existing model of society. If we want to enjoy the benefits of living longer we need to create new design solutions that respond to that challenge. Government and businesses will look to create innovations that need to tackle a demographic shift has never happened before.

Impairments of older people

First of all, we need to understand the impairments of older people in order to empathise with them and come up with the right products and services.

By getting older almost all of our senses start being affected. First of all, our vision starts to decrease from about the age of 40. The lens suffers from “presbyopia” and this makes it harder for us to read close up and to read small fonts. Older eyes receive only a 1/3 of the light compared to younger viewers and as a result, it becomes harder for people to distinguish different colours and icons.

Similar to sight, most people having hearing problems in their  30’s, 40’s, or 50’s and as they get older they suffer from hearing loss and generally they cannot detect very high and very low-frequency sounds.

Memory loss is another function of ageing. Short-term memory can be affected without any impact on long-term memory. This can make it difficult for people to complete new tasks when there’s a certain amount of complexity involved.

Lack of mobility is an important impairment that makes older people captivate in their own homes. One of the most popular physical products that help elderly people in moving and balance is the walking stick but it is seen as a symbol of ageing. The problem is that it is currently characterized by a clinical, medical and institutional aesthetic that stigmatizes ageing people in society. Good design can transform those products into desirable products that people actually use and it can help to remove the stigma associated with mobility aids.

Designers have a responsibility to use all the advances in practice and technology available to them to redesign products, systems, and services that will enhance the experience of ageing.

“Design can enable us or disable us.” -Pattie Moore
 

Another example of how the lack of mobility affects older people’s life, it’s smart technology that has just started transforming homes in order to help seniors age in place. Making homes places for successful healthcare delivery and places to work will require greater attention to housing infrastructure, design and technological changes in the future.

While it is important to stay physically active in old age, it is also important to maintain healthy mental and social activity. Nowadays, robotics have been used to develop emotionally intelligent companions and there are examples of Artificial Intelligence helping us to stay connected with family and keep thinking and learning as we age. Connectivity between generations is crucial in allowing people to interact socially and help them reduce the feeling of loneliness.

“Age does not protect you from love, but love, to some extent, protects you from age.” -Jeanne Moreau

Simple things to do when you are designing for seniors

Many of today’s elderly have some experience with technology but also many do not have or they are slowly getting there. There are some simple steps that we need to think about when we start designing digital products for older people. Most of the ideas below have already been considered and used when we design products with accessibility in mind and they are easy and relatively inexpensive to implement.

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Increase the font size

Websites often use tiny fonts that make it difficult for people to read the relevant information. Websites that target seniors should use a font size of at least 16 pixels as a default (depending on device) and they should give people the option to increase the textsize as preferred.

Hypertext links and buttons

Hypertext links are important to use large text so that they can easily be seen and clicked. We need to be sure that there is plenty of white space between the links and avoid clustering them too tightly. The same design rules apply to buttons, as the bigger they are the easier they are to interact. Buttons on touch interfaces should be at least 9.6 millimeters diagonally (for example, 44 × 44 pixels on an iPad) for ages up to 70, and larger for older people.

Make messages clear

You might also want to take a look at the questions you ask and the tone of voice you use; are they relevant to an older audience? Beware of content or functionality that implicitly assumes someone is at a certain stage in life. Older web users can have difficulty reading or understanding error messages, either because the wording is vague or the message placement isn’t obvious. Make sure the message is simple and clearly spells out exactly what the problem is and how to fix it. Provide subtitles when video or audio content is fundamental to the user experience and always test your product using screen readers.

Avoid major navigation changes

Sometimes it may not be obvious how to navigate between screens or around them if you target a different audience. In particular, you need to spend some time to explain how the interface works with simple language. Websites redesigns or rebranding are necessary to improve site usability and make sure your business stays up-to-date.

Use of colours

Seniors easily lose track of where they’ve been when sites fail to use different colours to distinguish between visited and unvisited links. You need to be sure that the contrast ratio is enough in order to distinguish text and shapes.

Simplify forms

It has been noticed that seniors have a harder time using search engines and forms. In general, it’s a good idea to use large text fields and give specific instructions on what information is required to be filled.

Conclusion

By following these simple principles, you can create more inclusive products that work better for everyone, especially the people who need them the most. Designers instead of seeing aging as a problem need to imagine themselves as older citizens and redesign many aspects of society. Designing for an aging population no longer means only thinking about safety. We need to design innovative solutions to help older people participate in work places, interact with digital products, get around the city, and convince a youth-centered society that they still have a lot to offer.