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Baby Boomers Are Aging–And Designers Need To Adapt

As Americans age, interface and product design itself will transform.

Baby Boomers Are Aging–And Designers Need To Adapt
[Photo: Willowpix/Getty Images]

The U.S. Census projects that there will be approximately 83.7 million adults over the age of 65 in the U.S. by the year 2050–double the number in 2012. With the explosion of the elderly population, designers are facing a challenge–and an opportunity–to deliberately design products that accommodate the changes that come with age.

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Targeting this generation is nothing new. For decades, baby boomers have been a focus for companies and marketers thanks to their sheer size as a demographic. Now that they’re aging, the business case for continuing to cater to the generation remains just as strong. This means design that accounts for aging bodies and minds; as they get older, people face challenges like increased difficulty with multitasking, remembering new behaviors, and controlling fine-motor function. The benefits for designing to these challenges are obvious, but when you create a product that’s easier to use for people of different abilities, you often end up creating something that’s better for all users–a core tenet of inclusive design.

new study published in the journal Ergonomics in Design focuses on just how designers should approach creating products–from app interfaces to wearables–for the elderly. The study, co-authored by doctoral student Joanna E. Lewis and associate professor of psychology Mark B. Neider at the University of Central Florida, highlights research on how people’s cognitive, physical, and sensory capabilities change as they age. Here are four principles to help designers adapt to the demographic shift.

[Photo: Cristian Newman/Unsplash]

Cut The Multitasking, And The Complexity

According to the paper, a large body of research shows that cognitive executive function–meaning the set of brain processes that control behavior–can slow down and deteriorate when people age. That means that devices that require users to either constantly remember information or multitask aren’t ideal for older users.

Instead, the device itself should perform that work for the user, alleviating the necessity of remembering the past and future steps needed to complete a task. If there’s a time frame to complete a task, try to expand it or eliminate it altogether. The fewer things a person has to do to accomplish a task, the better.

One example of good design that takes older adults’ slower executive function into account: A system called Cook’s Collage, developed in the early aughts at Georgia Tech’s Everyday Computing Lab, aims to help elderly cooks remember the last several steps they took while making a meal so they don’t lose their place amid distractions. A prototype device used four cameras hidden in the kitchen to track ingredients, each of which had sensors, and then displayed photos of the cook adding ingredients on a screen mounted above the counter. (The technology at the time wasn’t advanced enough to detect motion and interpret images independently, so researchers had to manually take pictures when an ingredient was added.)

Providing a means of easily viewing past actions on a device–like a wearable that not only reminds the user to take their medication, but can also be referenced later in the day if they’ve forgotten whether they took it already–is a simple way for designers to add accessibility to their products.

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ElliQ, designed by Yves Béhar. [Photo: Intuition Robotics]

The More Cues, The Better

Research also shows that older adults can have trouble with memory–though not all types. While implicit memory, or the ability to remember learned or memorized tasks like picking up the telephone, is usually less affected by aging, studies have shown that other kinds of memory can suffer over time. Particularly, remembering specific pieces of information, like a person’s name or the time of an appointment, can decline with age.

That means that older people generally have a more difficult time remembering how to perform tasks that aren’t yet learned or memorized. So while navigating an app interface might seem intuitive for a young designer with a sharper memory, it may not be clear at all for an older person. Designers should provide more cues and instructions within interfaces. That also means being more explicit. For instance, if your wearable is designed to remind the user to take their medication, it should be clear that they should take it when the device beeps.

Take the Yves Béhar-designed personal companion robot, ElliQ, that was designed with this in mind. Rather than requiring the elderly person to know how to use it, the robot actually asks them questions and gives them recommendations for what to do or say. For instance, its sensors can recognize if its owner has been sitting in a chair with the television on for six hours–causing the robot to ask the person if they’d like to go for a walk.

But keep in mind: Just because there’s more information doesn’t mean there should be unnecessary information. The fewer distractions, the easier it will be for older people to use an interface effectively.

[Photo: Stefan_Alfonso/iStock]

Make Buttons Bigger And More Obvious

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 50% of adults age 65 suffer from arthritis. And that’s not the only disease that can cause motor skills to deteriorate: Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and Huntington’s disease can also make precise movements more difficult. That means that wearable interfaces–like those of smart watches–need to have significantly larger buttons, with interfaces that don’t require such fine motor skills to navigate.

Since older adults also tend to suffer from vision loss, making buttons and interfaces bigger and simpler can help make wearables more accessible. The paper cites one book from 2009, which has a very specific guideline for designers to follow: the size of a four-letter word should be the length of your thumb when when your arm is extended straight in front of you. While that may seem incompatible with today’s typical wearable devices, it’s a helpful measuring stick for accessibility.

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The elderly also tend to have less effective peripheral vision. So not only should buttons be larger, but notifications and navigation cues should be front and center, rather than off to the side.

[Photo: Søren Astrup Jørgensen/Unsplash]

Choices, Choices, Choices

Not all elderly adults suffer from the loss of motor skills, memory, vision, and executive function–some may need bigger buttons to successfully navigate an interface, while others may require more instruction. The best way to ensure that anyone can use a device–and that its design doesn’t actually stop anyone from using it–is to provide options. For those that may be hard of hearing, provide customizable volumes so that sounds can be adjusted to fit into the user’s optimal range of frequencies. When text sizes are small, allow for increased sizes or for text-to-speech conversion.

While all of these research-backed tips are vital for designers to keep in mind when designing wearables and interfaces aimed at the boomer population, they’re also good advice for creating products that are more inclusive for everyone. While big buttons might be great for an elderly person with Parkinson’s, they could also be a boon for someone who has just broken their wrist. Text-to-speech capabilities are beneficial to an older person with poor eyesight, to a blind person, or even just a busy younger person on the go.

By designing devices that have more inclusive capabilities, designers don’t just make their products more accessible to some–they make them better for everyone.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.

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