Designing Displays for Older Adults: Chapter 1 (excerpt)

Below is the preface and excerpt of Chapter 1 from our forthcoming book.  The book is available where fine books are sold or directly from our publisher CRC Press.  Until January 31, 2011, you can get 20% off the cover price when you purchase directly from CRC Press using this link and this code: 810DE.

Preface

Price: $69.95, Cat. #: K10089, ISBN: 9781439801390, ISBN 10: 1439801398

This book is focused on the design of displays for the older user.  Why does this topic deserve a book?  Aging leads to a complex set of changes both mentally and physically that can affect technology acceptance, adoption, interaction, safety, and satisfaction.  Design with an understanding of these changes will result in better products and systems for users in all stages of the lifespan.  Conventional wisdom (possibly informed by personal experience) is that getting older leads to a decline across a broad set of skills and abilities; however, the reality is that as some capabilities decline with age others remain stable or increase.  For example, although a sixty year old man may not be able to beat his granddaughter in the computer puzzle game Tetris, the elder will invariably beat the youth in games of knowledge such as the board game Trivial Pursuit or the television quiz show Jeopardy.  Design of displays and technology can capitalize on these capabilities to ameliorate the limitations that can come with age.

As human factors professionals, we have often been frustrated at how little research makes it to practice.  This is why the target audience for this book is a usability engineer, or user interface/user experience designer who is tasked with creating an interface that might be used by older adults.  Literally hundreds of papers have been written about interface issues experienced by older adults, but how many actually influence the designs older adults use? We believe the challenge comes in part from the sheer number of articles available.  Design and usability evaluation are fast-paced activities with little time allowed for literature review.  Many professionals do not have the time to sift through thousands of papers to determine: a) which are related to the question at hand and b) whether the design or study has merit.  Another reason may be that academic papers typically target other academics and may not stress the application or design implications of their findings.  Finally, another barrier to knowledge transfer may be that academic publishing moves slower than the design and usability industry.  The time it takes for journal articles to reach the audience, from submission time, can be months to years.  As such authors may be loathe to nail down concrete design guidelines opting for the conceptual and general (but often vague and hard to implement) because their research may be published a year in the future.  This book distills decades of published aging research most relevant to the design of displays.

We believe this book offers a benefit beyond individual research studies.  The first half of the book is a primer of age-related changes in cognition, perception, and behavior.  Theory can be used to organize examples from the literature into meaningful principles that improve understanding.  Using theory backed up by evidence provides an understanding of why we see certain problems with many displays and often predicts solutions.  This understanding surpasses an individual interface and provides the practitioner with ways to plan for older users on multiple display types.  We then apply these theories in real design exercises.  In all chapters we provide specific guidelines for display examples to bridge theory and practice.

1.  ­­Introduction

Age is simply an indicator of how long one has lived, but is not a complete indicator of a specific individual’s capabilities and limitations.  One can easily imagine how a physically fit 55 year old tri-athlete could out-perform a 34 year old in a marathon, personified by Cliff Young, the sixty-one year old winner of the 1983 Sydney ultra-marathon (544 miles).  Similarly, with respect to cognitive capacity, there is wide variety in capabilities and limitations that are linked with age.  Thus the definition of “old” and “older” can be a tricky issue.  The issue is further complicated by the sheer variability in any given ability as we get older.  Generally, for younger and middle age groups, capabilities vary but this variability widens as people get older: the older adult age group (defined as those aged 65 and over) are more different from each other than people in other age groups differ from persons in their own age group.

One way to think about the older user is via their familiarity with current technologies and interface conventions.  Jakob Nielsen reported that “Between the ages of 25 and 60, the time users need to complete website tasks increases by 0.8% per year.” But does this time increase come from a rapidly changing technology or declines in the human body? Both culture and the physical aging process play a role.  Such dual causes for the same symptom exemplify why designs should be carefully analyzed as to the difficulties they produce.  It is important to know how much of a role the display plays in increased time to complete tasks versus slowed completion times due to the user’s inexperience with that type of task or any number of other variables.

Another way to think about the older user is by the appearance of perceptual and cognitive changes that we usually associate with aging.  This may include far-sightedness, the need for bifocals or reading glasses, hearing aids, and an increased reliance on notes rather than memory for everyday tasks.  An understanding of these changes and the effects they can have on display use is critical, because these changes often interact with each other.  Thus, understanding a single age-related change, such as vision, can lead to designs that adversely affect other senses and cognitions such as the high working memory requirements of audio displays or creating the need to scroll larger text, which can require precise movement.

1.1 What Do Older Adults Want from Technology?  What Do They do with Technology?

Across a wide range of everyday activities users encounter electronic technology.  Technology, for the purposes of this book, is broadly defined as any tool or artifact that helps the user accomplish a task, limited to electronic displays for the purposes of this book.  Even with this limitation, consider how ubiquitous technology is for most people.  Table 1.1 shows everyday technologies located in typical environments.

Many of these technologies are either specifically for or related to communication with others.  Mobile communication occurs commonly with all age groups, though use of mobile communication technologies can vary by age (Table 1.2).  Those over age sixty-five are less active users of the full range of advanced mobile services, but they are enthusiastic users of mobile voice communications, especially in emergency situations (Table 1.3).  The need to communicate is enabled through cell phone use and thus the product has been adopted by older adults.  Indeed, this adoption occurred in spite of the fact that many cell phones are not well designed for older users.  These design problems can partly explain the lower use in older age groups compared to younger.  When a user group is excluded from these everyday technologies by designs that do not accommodate them, both the quality of life of those users and the market share of the product companies can suffer.

Similar to cell phones, use of the internet as a tool beyond information seeking is becoming more common among older adults.  According to a 2006 Pew survey, 41% of internet users are over age sixty-five.  Online banking is a popular activity and 43% of internet users engage in some form of online banking.  However, only 27% of users aged sixty-five or older regularly banked online.  This is a fairly typical finding when relating age and technology use, but there are many potential reasons as to why.  These reasons range from usability issues with the interface to unease in accessing financial information over the web (mistrust).  These are two different reasons for avoiding online banking and one would take different paths to overcome them.  The lesson from investigating reasons for non-adoption of a technology is that it is important not to conclude that older adults avoid technology for any stereotypical reason, as avoidance is often affected by context, needs, and experience levels.  Understanding the barriers to the adoption of potentially useful services and products is crucial to overcoming the problems and increasing adoption.  Stereotypes of older users should be avoided in favor of evidence-based analyses.

1.2 Stereotypes of Older Users

A common stereotype of older adults is that they do not and will not use technology.  If this were true, there would be no need for this book: all displays and interfaces would be translated to disinterested older adults by their children and grandchildren.  However, this stereotype could not be farther from the truth.  Adults over sixty-five want to keep up with technology and take advantage of what a technological world has to offer.  About half of persons aged sixty-five to seventy-four are cell phone subscribers, and a third over seventy-five pay for service.  The Center for the Digital Future found that in 2009, 40% of persons over sixty-five in the United States were internet users.  Participants in our research studies frequently mention that understanding new technologies makes them feel connected to others and the world in general.

Use of the internet is one microcosm of older adults’ perception of technology.  Though the statistic of 40% using the internet seems impressive, it is paltry when compared to the nearly 100% of younger users who take advantage of the web on a daily basis.  A common stereotype of older users is that they are unable to learn to use complicated technological systems.  However, when older adults reject technology it tends to be due to not perceiving a benefit of the technology, not necessarily because it is too difficult or time consuming to learn.  The end result may be the same, fewer older adults use new technologies, but the reason is important.  When older adults perceive a benefit, they are willing to invest the time to learn.  However an unusable interface is more likely to tilt the scale in favor of “not worth it.”

Email provides another useful example to illustrate these points.  Email is form of communication, both business and personal.  Imagine someone having only this knowledge about email.  Would one understand that email allows instant communication? Would one know that they could send and receive pictures of the people they care about the very day the pictures were taken? Would they know that email is free?  Would they understand the asynchronous nature of email; that the person they are communicating with did not have to be available at the instant the email was sent, but that the message would be there waiting for the recipient(s), or even that the same message could be sent to more than one person at the same time?  If potential users do not know these things there is no reason to prefer email over a letter or a phone call.  It should not be assumed that “everyone” understands these benefits of email and if a person does not know of these benefits there is little reason to adopt the technology.

continued

This book is part of the Human Factors & Aging Series. The first volume in the series is Designing for Older Adults: Principles and Creative Human Factors Approaches by Fisk, Rogers, Charness, Czaja, and Sharit and is available now. Forthcoming titles are: Aging and Skill Acquisition: Designing Training Programs for Older Adults (Czaja & Sharit) and Designing Telehealth for an Aging Population (Charness, Demiris, & Krupinski).

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