When incorporating accessibility guidelines into our user experience (UX) designs, we tend to focus on the 15% of global occupants with disabilities, particularly those with visual impairments. By being inclusive of this user segment, we may improve the user experience for other users too.
This is great and inclusive; however, we rarely consider designing for users in their old age, even from the user research phase of a project.
In the coming years, elderly users will constitute approximately 20% of the global population. These users are not to be ignored due to the economic position that they occupy. Older users have digital buying power and should be dignified in their day-to-day digital experience.
When designing for older adults, eyesight and hearing are not the only areas of accessibility to take into consideration. We also need to cater for cognitive ageing and the ethics surrounding this. This article aims to consider likely user experience factors around cognitive ageing in both the physical and digital spheres.
What is cognitive ageing?
It is firstly important to note that cognitive ageing is not the same as Alzheimer’s disease, nor is it related to any other disease. Where Alzheimer’s involves significant neuron loss, cognitive ageing does not, although, to some capacity, it can involve slower neuronal functioning.
Cognitive ageing is a natural phenomenon that occurs as our brains change and “age” towards the advanced years of our lives and does not happen to the same effect with every person. This carries both negative and positive effects.
Negative effects of cognitive ageing include slower neural processing speed, slower retrieval of memory (tip-of-tongue moments), worsening of selective and divided attention, difficulties around producing written and spoken language and understanding (including auditory difficulties), a decline around executive functioning (such as problem-solving and abstract thought) and, lastly, changes in emotional processing (being prone to positivity bias and avoiding unpleasant situations).
Whereas, positive results of cognitive ageing includes having established wisdom, a sense of self-security and stableness of identity and a strong sense of will and values.
Ways to reduce degradation with cognitive ageing
Negative effects can be reduced through implementing certain lifestyle choices. Proven ways to positively impact neural functioning into old age are:
- Engaging in physical activity
- Reducing cardiovascular risk factors
- Careful management of the use of possibly detrimental medication
How can we optimise environments for ageing users by putting into practice factors that can improve cognitive function into old age?
The experience of medicine intake can be improved by considering the printed design of the packaging as well as digital tools that aid the management of consumption and an understanding of side effects or regulations.
Municipalities and governing bodies including all citizens are responsible for the accessibility of public parks and built environments. By making the outdoors safe and accessible, we encourage people who would usually get no physical exercise to go out for walks and enjoy their environment. This plays a very important role in the mental, physical and communal health of a neighbourhood or city.
Things to consider are the levelling and creation of pedestrian walkways, bicycle paths, railings on staircases, wheelchair access in all places, beatification through the maintenance of gardens and facilities and the encouragement of safety through well-lit paths and public security services.
Accessibility considerations for a digital experience
First of all, we need to consider whether the users for our products include the older segment of the population and set out time to conduct user research among this segment. We need to include them from the beginning in all our design decisions from the empathy phase all the way through to the final UI design implementation.
As some people age, their sense of independence declines as they start to struggle to perform daily tasks such as driving, following recipes and making financially informed decisions. This makes them more vulnerable and susceptible to scams and fraud when it comes to making important financial decisions such as participating in retirement schemes, and dealing with contractual information or bills in a digital or telephonic realm.
- Check your UX writing. Use clear, objective, and educational language without being condescending.
- Consider selective use of micro-interactions over animations.
- Have a UI that caters for error tolerance.
- Make use of the “Metaphor of Material” (Material design methods) to provide physical-world analogies on digital platforms.
- All other accessibility standards:
- Avoid blue as a primary colour: it appears faded to people who have weak eyesight due to a lower colour contrast.
- Don’t purely use colour as a differentiator, especially red and green. Make use of other affordances as semantic indicators such as icons or drop shadows when designing buttons.
Other unexpected tech considerations
Where younger users are motivated through gamification mechanics, older users value outcome and effectiveness a lot more. Making sure that the product is accessible provides enough motivation for elderly users and anything more provides complications and is excessive.
Closer social ties are much more valuable to older users than caring about social image or friends-of-friends. Through UX design, we should aim to make smaller social network ties more meaningful in their experience.
Where younger users find onboarding redundant, older users with a lesser grip on technological functionality might find onboarding very helpful. The experience should be thorough while being kept as simple as possible for the user to complete their task.
Privacy and transparency around data usage
Older users are wary of sharing important and personal information such as banking details. Any application that requires sensitive information should make its data usage policies very clear and should be transparent to win older adult users’ trust.
Food for thought
Those tip-of-tongue moments happen to all of us and will increase as we age. This is because memory is not linear and retrievable like folders, it is, in fact, quite chaotic. If we design to improve cognitive function instead of design to overwhelm it, by incorporating time to reflect and having control over the choices we make, we are therefore on the right track to improve accessibility for all.
Institute of Medicine. 2015. Cognitive Aging: Progress in Understanding and Opportunities for Action. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
UX accessibility for elderly — 12 principles by Szymon Trzepla, UX Planet
UX Study: Designing for older people by John Anagnostou, UX Planet
Age Before Beauty — A Guide to Interface Design for Older Adults by Sergey Polyuk
6 Ways that Memory & Thinking Change with Normal Aging (& What to Do About This) by Leslie Kernisan, Better Health While Aging