Why do the elderly often find tech so hard to use?

When we describe Kraydel there are always a few people who don’t “get it”.

They’ll question the need for another device when there are already tablets and smartphones that support video calling, and messaging. They’ll refer to an elderly person they know, who despite being in their 70’s or 80’s, is happily “FaceTiming” with grandchildren every week using their iPad. Of course, there are silver surfers and that’s great, but for most elderly people there are simply too many barriers to using the devices that Millennials to Gen-Z can use without even thinking. Over 50% of people over the age of 75 have never used the internet and never will.  Let’s look at some of the barriers:

Physical

Eyesight

Eyesight declines with age. Reduced visual acuity, perhaps aggravated by cataracts, means that the small screen on a phone offers a poor video calling experience, and a very fiddly interface.

Hearing

Hearing also declines with age and while modern phones can have impressive volume, it’s not going to be as loud and clear as the TV or the radio.

Manual dexterity

Holding a phone steady for an extended period so that both called and calling parties have a good and stable view is hard for anyone, let alone a frail elderly person. A large format tablet is better for viewing but that extra screen comes at the cost of greater weight and more problems with either holding the device, or finding somewhere to put it where the screen and camera are correctly positioned.

Additional physical problems are also common – tremors can make it almost impossible to hold the phone steady, and to accurately press the on-screen buttons. Lack of moisture in the skin can make touch-screens non-responsive.

Mental models

Those of us that use tech every day take for granted the paradigms that allow us to navigate the interfaces. Exposure at an early age while our brains are still ‘very plastic’ has made us intimately familiar with a whole range of concepts and mental models that allow us to navigate familiar and unfamiliar applications with very little effort.

We take for granted the idea of navigating down through levels in a menu, and then back up again, and we know how to find and read the breadcrumb trail in the navigation bar of a window to get our bearings.

We have done a lot of experimenting with elderly volunteers, and those without any previous experience of digital user interfaces will do things that strike you as odd. That is until you start to think about how much the rest of us are exploiting deeply embedded conventions.

Embarrassment and pride

Nobody likes to look or feel stupid. The elderly have to put up with a growing list of indignities. But that doesn’t mean they are happier than the rest of us to feel confused. Nor do they want to be the cause of pity, frustration or amusement to others. The fear of looking silly or embarrassing yourself is a huge barrier to trying something new and at first glance most UIs are confusing and intimidating.

If someone you want to use your system can’t use the interface you’ve designed then it’s your fault not theirs. You need to go back to the design stage and work with them to find out the invalid assumptions you’ve made. At Kraydel we’ve been lucky enough to be able to co-design the UI with elderly volunteers from a living lab in Brighton and it has made a huge difference.

So we knew from early on that the Kraydel interface had to be intuitive and user friendly. It had to remove barriers to use, not build them.

Cognitive decline

Even those that can master a digital user interface may find it harder over time to remember how it works. Particularly if they don’t use it for a few days. And for those with dementia, each day can be a clean sheet with no recollection of being shown the device and using it happily for hours the day before. If the learning curve is short and gentle then we can delay the point at which the technology becomes inaccessible.

Some people tell us that the need for Kraydel will go away over the next 30 years because elderly people will be fully able to use laptops etc. It is true that there will be a greater proportion of elderly people with the right mental models to use digital devices. But not all of us will retain that capability throughout our later lives. So having the ability to tune the UI complexity to match the cognitive abilities of elderly people will be very important.

How do we remove the barriers to tech?

There is one device already in the home which offers a large picture and good sound quality. For those with hearing difficulties, it’s probably already hooked up to a headset or other assistive technology. It sits still, it’s got a comfy chair in front of it, and it’s in the cosiest room in the house.

That’s a great starting point for any device offering social engagement, video calling (sofa-to-sofa) and living assistance. The next step is to remove all requirement for familiarity with the conventions and symbols of conventional UIs, and reduce the interface to the conversation you would have with someone if you were doing it for them: “Do you want to do X?, no – ok do you want do Y?”

And that’s why we’ve built Kraydel the way we have.

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