User Experience Magazine: Volume 8, Issue 1, 2009
Volume 8, Issue 1, 2009
Feature Articles: Usability and Older Adults
We ask the question, “What do we know about older users?” and are surprised by some of the answers we get. While the anticipated answers might come out of the literature for usability, we also hear new or unexpected ideas as often as stereotypes. One answer comes from behavior: a panel moderator conducted a live survey of the age of the audience, lumping everyone over 46 into a single category. Another set of answers comes from responses – in words, photos, and drawings – to an idea marketplace session at the 2005 UPA conference. There’s still a lot to learn about the range of differences among older adults, and which of our old ideas accurately portray this growing segment of the population.
We’re all aware that the population is aging. The baby boomers – a huge cohort of the population in industrialized countries – have started reaching age 60 in the past two to three years and they will be a significant proportion of the population for many years to come.
Our expectations of aging have also changed. For example, those who have reached age 60 are still demanding a lot of themselves: They don’t necessarily want to retire, but would prefer to stay active and engaged at an optimal level. However, they and others are aware that various cognitive abilities (such as attention, memory and multi-tasking abilities) often decline with age. This risk of or actual decrease in cognition is troubling to older individuals and represents a threat to their quality of life.
Aging is accompanied by a complex set of physical and mental changes. To design products for older adults, we need to understand these changes and how they interact with the designs we create. It isn't enough to know that cognitive slowing and changes in memory ability occur for some older adults. We need to understand the mechanisms that underlie these changes if we are to design products that interface well with older adults’ cognitive abilities.
This brings us to the burgeoning field of cognitive neuroscience and the work of Dr. Gazzaley. Attention and memory abilities are crucially linked to a user’s interaction with design. Typically, we design products or components to focus attention on the core function of the product. We design the product in ways that intersect with the user’s memory and cognitive abilities so that use of the product is seamless. What changes for the older user? Do we concentrate on making the features of the design more attention grabbing, or otherwise more memorable? This might seem like a reasonable approach until we become familiar with Dr. Gazzaley’s research.
Dr. Gazzaley’s work has important implications for product design for older adults. Perhaps the strongest message coming from his work is to avoid clutter when designing for older adults. Our tendency in many design situations it to make important information explicit to the user and assume that the user will direct attention to it. We tend to think very little about the effect of unrelated information in the interface.
Conducting research with older adults poses unique challenges for user experience practitioners, both in recruiting and interacting with participants. The authors have recently completed several large field research studies with participants 75 years old and older and share the lessons learned from these studies.
To simplify recruiting, we worked with directors of senior housing centers and assisted living centers to identify potential participants. In some cases, we gave presentations at facilities to introduce the research and screen participants at the same time. We also used our normal channels for recruiting, including our personal and professional networks, paper flyers, and the Internet. We made an extra effort to explain our research and to reassure potential participants that we were not selling anything.
When interacting with older adults, we adapted our methods in several ways. We ensured that printed materials were as simply written as possible and used large, bold font to accommodate vision and cognitive changes that are common among this age group. We made sure to be on time for interviews and to be trustworthy and open. We also scheduled extra time to allow older participants time to think and to share stories with us, and we learned to probe for information to be sure to get accurate data. During the process, we found that older participants were conscientious about their participation in the field research and that they benefited from their participation beyond the monetary compensation we gave them. Also, in spite of the age-related similarities, we found this population to be as diverse as all other populations.
In the next few decades we will see unparalleled growth in the number of people becoming elderly. As we age, we experience increasing impairments that affect how we interact with computers and websites. A Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) project seeks to understand the user experiences of older people with age-related impairments, and how they overlap with the user experiences of people with disabilities.
The Web Accessibility Initiative: Ageing Education and Harmonization (WAI-AGE) Project aims to promote education and harmonization on the accessibility needs of older users and guidelines for developing websites for older users. It includes an extensive literature review to learn user requirements, and educational resources for web user experience professionals, designers, developers, and project managers, as well as for older users.
WAI-AGE has identified that the existing WAI accessibility guidelines address the majority of requirements of older people for Web use. It also identified that many older people are not using adaptive strategies to help accommodate their impairments, and that web designers and researchers are not considering the WAI guidelines when making recommendations about website design for older people. WAI will be producing new and updated educational materials to address these gaps.
The WAI-AGE project materials are intended to help web developers and researchers better understand how existing WAI accessibility guidelines/standards address the needs of older users, and how they can build on the existing guidelines further as the needs of older users are better understood. Additionally, the project is intended to help researchers target areas that still need investigation with respect to Web use by older people.
This article explains age-related impairments that impact Web use, requirements for web design that enhance the ability of older people to use the Web, how existing accessibility guidelines for people with disabilities cover the needs of older users, and future work in this area.
An interview with Terry Carson, the owner of residential facilities for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, draws out his best practices from 20 years of working with this population. The needs of people with dementia are contrasted with those of frail elders in institutional settings. They include physical spaces with easy wayfinding (for people who are easily confused), ways to protect belongings from “gatherers” (people who collect objects for comfort), and activities to hold their attention. He describes strategies that staff members use to keep people who may be confused easily, or have limited attention spans, safe and comfortable. This includes details of interior and exterior space design, a wide variety of activities built into the environment and ways to calm residents who become agitated.
To be geographically orientated is to know where you are on the Earth's surface or which way you need to go to get to a destination. You can be oriented in many different ways. You can know what city you are in, which way is north, which street to turn onto, and even your latitude and longitude to the minute or second. Thus, being geographically oriented is knowing your location and/or your heading to some level of precision and completeness within some system of reference, at a specific spatial scale. The opposite of being oriented is being disoriented—being lost. We are geographically disoriented when we are uncertain about where we are on the Earth or where we need to go to reach a destination.
Although geographic orientation concerns orientation on the Earth’s surface, some of what we know about it applies to other spaces, including the metaphorical information “spaces” of the World-Wide Web. But information spaces and our “travel” through them is not exactly like actual travel in real spaces, and being oriented or disoriented in information spaces is not entirely like being oriented or disoriented on the Earth’s surface.
Various factors help people stay oriented or get lost. Some of these are psychological characteristics such as attention and spatial thinking ability. Some are environmental characteristics such as the clarity and distinctiveness of landmarks, or the simplicity and coherence of street networks. Still others are characteristics of the information systems we use to find our way, including maps and verbal directions. By considering research on these factors from a variety of disciplines, we can improve the design of environments and navigation systems, and the way people use them to get where they are going efficiently and comfortably.
The personal computer is in many ways a rather inaptly named device. From the earliest days computers have been about sociality and community. The staples of everyday computer use, email and internet, are intimately social. As the internet evolves its uses become ever more implicated in relationships between people. Indeed, one of the most widely used piece of web jargon at present – Web 2.0 – refers to designing the web for, and developing with, intensively social uses in mind. In recent years socially oriented websites have become hot properties attracting both significant user communities and venture capital. Facebook, MySpace and many others have become must destinations on the information superhighway. For many younger users these sites define what an internet experience is all about. At the same tine the populations of the developed world have begun to experience the rapid ageing of their populations. Can an online world increasingly focused on supporting rich social experience provide realistic avenues for dealing with some of the threats and opportunities that an ageing world presents? How can we use Web 2.0 to support the sort of experiences that older people want to have on- and off-line?
Correction: The editorial for Issue 8.1, mentions "Fairy tales inspire lyrics to a song from an adult to his godfather". The lyrics by Z. Mulls were cut due to last minute production requirements. You can find the lyrics to "RUMPLESTILTZKIN: DEAD AT 95" at http://zmulls.com/lyricview?LyricNum=57.