AgeTech: How UI design has had to adapt for elderly tech users

For those who’ve grown up in the digital age, UX and UI design have become intuitive. We can navigate around any site on any device.

But for many older users, parts of a user interface (UI) simply have no point of reference. This poses real challenges when developing tech for the elderly.

Let’s consider icons and symbols

For those that haven’t studied UI design let me explain the difference between icons and symbols. An icon is a representation of an object, an action, or an outcome that relates to something familiar in the real world. So, a picture of an old-fashioned SLR camera on a button that takes a picture is an icon. Most people can work out through reason alone what buttons with icons are going to do.

Symbols, however, are arbitrary and must be learned. The symbol for the number “3” has no “threeness” – you have to be taught that it represents the concept of three items. A drawing of a dollar bill is an icon, the dollar sign “$” is a symbol – it means nothing until someone tells you the meaning. 

Distinguishing between the two concepts is super important when the user may have no reason to be familiar with the symbol. In Japan the check mark (aka tick mark) and the X cross mark both mean “wrong” or “no”. The symbol for “correct” or “yes” is a circle. Yup – this one caught us out.

But things can get messier when over time an icon becomes a symbol. 

Most applications use a simplified drawing of a floppy disk to represent the “save to disk” function. That’s an icon to a middle-aged guy like me because I’ve used floppy disks, but to a Gen Z it’s a symbol. Most of them have never seen a floppy disk, they’ve just learned through exposure what the symbol means.

Now consider the “home” button that is often found on remote controls and in user interfaces. It’s a picture – so that would suggest that it’s an icon. But it’s not – because pressing the button doesn’t build you a house, teleport you to your home, or open a real estate website. It’s a symbol because it represents the abstract concept of returning to the normal “point of entry” into the system. You have to learn the concept of a home screen before a picture of a home can trigger it. My mother had no idea at all what a button with a little blue house would do if she pressed it – so of course she didn’t want to press it. 

The concept of menus

We understand the concept of menus as rows, or columns, or grids of icons where a “highlight”, which might be a box, a colour change, a 3D transformation or something else, indicates which of the current icons is currently “selected”. 

But these are arbitrary conventions. It’s not obvious why, for example, when you press an arrow key it’s the highlight that moves and not the row or column. So ask a naïve user whether to press the left or right arrow to shift the highlight to the item on its left, and they are just as likely to say “left” as “right”.

When I tried to get my mum to use a media browser connected to her TV so that she could watch her favourite shows (I Claudius, The Barchester Chronicles, Downton Abbey – great stuff) she blew my mind with some of her observations. Once I asked her to use the “up arrow”, and she peered at the remote control and said “there is no up arrow”. I said “of course there is” and pointed at it. After a moment she observed “No, that’s a forward arrow”. She was quite right of course. When you point the remote at the TV the arrows are all in the horizontal plane. And so you have left, right, forward and backward – there is no UP arrow to navigate a vertical menu!

On more than one occasion I realised my obvious frustration trying to explain to my own mother how the UI on the media player worked. It upset her enough to say “Now you’re getting cross with me, I don’t want this thing, take it away”.  

How Kraydel has evolved

We’ve worked with seniors at a Living Lab to understand the frustrations and barriers that prevent older people from using tech. 

That input has gone into designing Kraydel’s plug and play TV video calling platform. We knew that installation had to be simple and straightforward – so we built a hardware unit that seniors could install in under 2 minutes.

We knew that complex tasks such as changing HDMI channel confuse even experienced users. So we developed a TV takeover function – allowing incoming and outbound calls with the simple click of a button. We also knew that almost no one makes use of the dozens of buttons on a remote control. So we designed our own lightweight, easy to hold remote with only three large buttons to control navigation.

Like so many things in the world of design, it’s about keeping things simple. By putting users at the heart of everything we build, we hope to transform how tech delivers for the elderly.

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