Designing for the Old

Digital Technology: How Older People Use It Differently

It’s easy to forget the existence of older people working in tech. Most tech workers are young, so it’s easy for people to forget that technology was designed for them. Consider this: By 2030, 19% of Americans will be 65. It doesn’t seem like much. It’s about the same number of Americans who have an iPhone today. Which one do you think Silicon Valley is spending more time considering?

It is unfortunate, considering all that technology has to offer seniors. Speaking Exchange is a great example. It connects retired people in the US to children learning English in Brazil. The video is a tearjerker.

Although everyone’s ageing journey is different, there are certain fundamental changes that all of us experience. These changes are not always what you would expect. You’d be surprised at how many people are happier as they age and more able to appreciate what they have.

However, ageing can make some things more difficult. Technology is one such area. Here are seven things to remember when designing technology for seniors.

(How old are you? It depends. It depends.

Vision and hearing

Presbyopia is a condition where the lens of your eye starts to harden around the age of 40. Presbyopia is a normal part of aging. It makes it more difficult to read small text and close-up text. We also become less adept at distinguishing very similar colours. Particularly, blue shades appear faded or desaturated.

Motor control

As we age, our motor skills decrease, making it more difficult to use computers differently. One example: During user testing in a retirement community, an 80-year-old woman used the mouse to use two hands. Like many older people, she had difficulty moving between one thing and another.

A mouse is more accurate than a touch in the general population. However, our user testing has shown that older people are more adept at using touch interfaces. This is consistent with research showing that finger taps decline later than other motor skills.

Use of devices

Dustin is likely to have never seen a 75-year-old using a phone. Small screens become impractical for many people due to motor control and vision changes. Smartphones are the tool of youth, and no teenager can escape their biological destiny.

Our research shows that older people describe their phones as annoying and fiddly. People who have them rarely use them and often don’t touch them for several days at a stretch. Many ignore SMSs completely.


Because they have had more time to nurture their relationships, older people tend to have different relationships from younger people. We researched how older people interact with their healthcare professionals. Many times, they have seen the same doctors for many decades. This has led to a high level of trust.

The Life Stage

I sat down with a 66-year-old woman as she signed up for her AppleID during a user testing session. She was required to answer a series of security questions. She spoke out the first question. She laughed and said, “What was your first car model?” “I don’t know!” What was my 1968 car? “What a silly question!”

Although it is natural for a 30-year-old programmer to assume that this question has meaning for all, it implicitly assumes the life stage of the user. This is a mistake you should avoid making in your design.

Technology and experience

As he was using a library interface, I was able to sit down with an older man. He said that he knew there were things that he wanted to read, but he couldn’t find a way to access them. After I showed him how to use the scrollbar, his experience was completely different. Two older participants in another session told me they had never used a search box.

When designing interfaces, it is common to work within a specific scaffolding. It’s easy to assume everyone is familiar with the scaffolding. People who weren’t raised with computers might not have used the interface elements we take as a given. Does a scrollbar allow content to be moved up or down? Does its purpose seem obvious? These are not questions designers ask often. The success of your design may depend on many aspects of the interface that you probably don’t have control over and are not even aware of.


The science of cognition is a vast topic. Ageing can change how we think in unpredictable ways. While some people can remain sharp into their 80s, others may experience a decline as early as their 60s.

Despite the variability in design, three areas are especially relevant to designing for the older: memory, attention, and decision-making. (For a comprehensive view of cognitive changes with age, this chapter is Brain Aging Models Methods and Mechanisms is a fantastic place to begin.

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