Best practices for building digital experiences for older users, from usability and UX expert Jeff Johnson
30% of over 65s in the US have a smartphone. That might not sound like a lot, but there are 47 million over 65s in the States. So that’s 14.1 million smartphone users who, according to Jeff Johnson, aren’t having their user needs met.
As one half of UX consultancy Wiser Usability, Jeff is a beacon of hope for these older technology users. He and Wiser Usability co-founder Kate Finn focus on helping agencies, organizations and designers make their user interfaces accessible for older users. Plus they recently brought out a book, ‘Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population‘, which lays bare the challenges of UX for older users, and introduces guidelines for creating user interfaces that work for all users, no matter what their age.
Justinmind caught up with Jeff to find out more about the UX needs of older technology users.
You’ve been in the industry since the 70s – what changes have you witnessed in that time? And what’s the single most important lesson you’ve learned about users?
No matter how much effort designers put into designing apps, websites, or digital appliances, users simply do not care about the design. They care only about accomplishing whatever goal they have – e.g., booking a hotel, finding a recipe, playing a game, getting their printer to print, finishing their tax return. They pay almost no attention to the user interface, unless it is getting in their way and hindering them in accomplishing their goal.
You and Kate Finn founded Wiser Usability to help create user interfaces for older users. What inspired you to focus on usability for users over 50? What kind of needs do those users have that a younger user doesn’t?
Older adults differ in two main ways from younger ones:
- Their knowledge and mental models for operating tools and equipment differ because they came of age in different technology eras. As technology advances, each generation grows to maturity surrounded by different technology, and each generation eventually gets “stuck” in the technology they grew up with.
- Most people over the age of 50 experience age-related declines in vision, hearing, motor control, and cognition that impacts their use of technology. These declines happen at widely different times in different people, but they do occur in most people at some point.
You guys released ‘Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population’ this year – what will people find in the book?
The book presents:
- Characteristics of older adults that can hinder their use of technology
- Guidelines for designing technology to be usable by older adults, as well as by younger people
- Real-world examples of designs that implement the guidelines, and designs that violate the guidelines
- Several case studies of projects that have been purposefully designed with older adults in mind.
What about mobile usability – does mobile offer a good experience for older users? What could app designers focus on to improve general accessibility of their products?
I have two responses:
Firstly, “mobile” isn’t a fixed concept. When the first laptops hit the market, they allowed people to compute on the go, so they were called “mobile” compared to those clunky old desktop computers. Now “mobile” means phones and tablets. In ten years, maybe phones and tablets will be considered clunky and “mobile” will mean something else – I don’t know, perhaps earring phones that you talk to.
Secondly, today’s “mobile” smartphones and tablets have both advantages and disadvantages for older adults. The disadvantage is their small screen size. Apps or content that isn’t well designed for that small screen is often too small for older adults to use because of the small size and too-small tap-targets.
Ironically, the advantage is the same thing: their small screen size. Small screens force designers to think carefully about what is important, and to present less content, fewer calls to action, one task at a time, and simpler screens. So well-designed mobile apps and websites are advantageous for older adults. That’s why we recommend that companies design mobile first, then expand the design for desktop, rather than designing desktop first and then crunching it down for mobile screens.
Read Justinmind’s tips on mobile app prototyping!
Can you tell us how you guys at Wiser Usability conduct user research projects? An example of a project you’re working on right now?
As consultants, our opportunities for conducting user research come mainly from client needs. Maybe the client is designing something and wants to have a good understanding of all their potential users. Depending on the planned product or service, we can go into the user’s work or home environments and either observe them, interview them, or both. Or perhaps the client already has a product or service and wants to ensure that it works for older adults as well as younger ones. We can conduct a usability test, with older adults only (if the client is specifically targeting them, or already knows the product works for young adults), or with people of varying ages.
How do guys at Wiser Usability use prototypes during user testing? What do you personally look for in a prototyping tool?
Most of our usability tests have been conducted with released software or websites, not with prototypes. However, I have conducted usability tests with prototypes. Sometimes the client builds the prototype and wants it usability-tested, in which case how to construct the prototype is up to them. Sometimes I create the prototype. But to do it I have not used true prototyping tools like Justinmind, mainly because I haven’t had to create highly dynamic prototypes. Instead, I have mainly used graphical tools like Omnigraffle and Powerpoint. Occasionally I have also used HTML+CSS. If I had to build a dynamic prototype, I would consider using a prototyping tool like Justinmind.
“If I had to build a dynamic prototype, I would consider using a prototyping tool like Justinmind”
You talk about the “ethical imperative” of designing user interfaces with older users in mind; can you explain that a little?
It’s both an ethical imperative and an economic one. It’s an ethical imperative because it’s unfair to exclude people from using digital technology simply because they have lived a long life. It’s just as unfair as telling people who are blind or who have wheelchairs that they can’t use a park or enter a building. It’s an economic imperative because the over-50 segment of the population is growing worldwide and is approaching 40% in the developed world. It is unwise to design in such a way as to exclude 40% of your potential market.