Aging

Accessible Design for an Aging Population

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by Bo Campbell & Susann Keohane

Violet Brown is the oldest living person on this planet at 117 years old.

Photo of Violet Brown, sitting in a chair looking at the camera.

Violet Brown of Jamaica is currently the world’s oldest living person.

Today, to make the list of the top 100 oldest living people, you much be aged 110 years or older. We are dawning on the age of the super-centenarian, someone who has lived to or passed their 110th birthday.

Currently, only about one in 1,000 centenarians achieve super-centenarian status. However, with the world aging at historic rates, the percentage of super-centenarians will also increase in our population. As population pyramids form new shapes with the aging demographic shift, we are at the start of a “silver” economy that will drive demands for accessible solutions targeted towards this global aging demographic.

Aging Demographic Driving Accessible Solutions

As technology advances with the introduction of new smart phones, smart appliances, and social media sites, some Elders are being left behind. For example, without proper access to devices, Elders are losing the ability to stay connected with friends and family.

Another major life transition is the loss of the ability to drive. Better access to transportation would help improve our Elder’s independence. Emerging technology like ride-share services or autonomous vehicles could be the answer to help reduce isolation and improve the quality of life.

However, to fulfill this critical need, these emerging technologies must reduce their barrier to adoption. As Laura Carstensen, Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity says, “The challenge is converting a world built by and for the young into a world that supports and engages a population that lives 100 years and beyond.”

Global Accessibility Standards are Foundational 

Aging can also be defined as a progressive functional decline, which also means that as we age we will acquire disabilities. As Irving Kenneth Zola so perfectly stated in his article entitled, “Toward the Necessary Universalizing of a Disability Policy,” “The issue of disability for individuals… is not whether but when, not so much which one, but how many, and in what combination.”

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is the best guidance for making technology useful to all users, including people with disabilities and the aging demographic. The WCAG guidelines were published in December 2008 by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the main international standards organization for the Internet. WCAG 2.0 is an internationally recognized and adopted standard and it is approved as an ISO standard.

By designing WCAG 2.0 around principles and not technology, designers and developers are asked to meet all four of the following principals for users with disabilities:

  • Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive. This means that users must be able to perceive all relevant information in your content.
  • Operable: User interface components and navigation must be operable. This means that users must be able to operate the interface successfully.
  • Understandable: Information and the operation of the user interface must be understandable. This means that users must be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the user interface.
  • Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies. Content must be accessible to all users, keeping up with advances in technology, such as mobile technology.

The W3C WAI offers an extensive literature review on how WCAG 2.0 addresses the accessibility needs of older web users: Developing Websites for Older People: How Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Applies.

WCAG 2.1 guidelines are in-development. There are three task force proposals under review to strengthen its coverage. All three proposals contain recommendations that will directly benefit the needs of the aging demographic:

Design Guidelines for an Aging Demographic

WCAG is a great foundation for accessible design but more is needed with regards to defining usability or experience and guidelines for cognitive disability. To create the best experiences for Elders, designers must rely on fundamental user-centered design thinking.Photo of an elderly man with white hair and white mustache, smiling and looking at the camera.

Designers must deeply understand Elderly users first-hand through research such as ethnography, interviews and focus groups. Through this research, we can better understand the tremendous technology gap faced by the aging demographic.

It is nearly impossible to group and generalize Elders for design as we do with children and adults. For each individual, aging is unique, gradual and personal. Everyone has their own level of ability as they age and their techniques of adaptation are as unique as the creases in their palms. Design heuristics and accessibility guidelines may not cover Elders.

Bottom line: Elders pose a unique design challenge that we must approach from multiple angles.

As designers, we need to go back to square one and really scrutinize each experience we design through a new lens. We need to eliminate assumptions at every interaction and consider that older users are less comfortable with technology and risk averse as opposed to the adventurous and fearless younger users.

A study by the Nielson Norman Group found that 45 percent of seniors showed behaviors that indicated they were uncomfortable trying new things or hesitant to explore. It is the designer’s responsibility to create an inclusive experience for Elder users who have a different view of the world.

Here are five tips to help bridge the technology gap Elders face:

  1. Don’t make any assumptions about the technology and design
  2. Question all design elements in the context of elders
  3. Give positive feedback to build confidence
  4. Keep things intuitive and clear
  5. Understand design metaphors and their origins

The Future is Personalized

Ultimately, each generation is at risk of facing similar barriers until technology can truly be personalized. We must move past the mass produced, one-size-fits-all user experiences.

Personalization will enable designers to tailor the user experiences to accommodate specific individuals and align to their needs. As David Weinberger, senior researcher at the Berkman Klein Center, stated, “Personalization is the automatic tailoring of sites and messages to the individuals viewing them, so that we can feel that somewhere there’s a piece of software that loves us for who we are.”

As we age and our physical and cognitive abilities change over time, each of us will need more than ever accessible technology designed to meet us, and adapt with us, through our lives.

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