Aging Interfaces

Technology is leaving the previous generation behind. The computer barely crossed the finish line with my father who joined the information highway via WebTV. We used to joke about it, but many older users preferred it to a computer. WebTV presented the online world in a familiar format with which they had grown up. It wasn’t computer friendly with its NTSC resolution or proxied content. The basic keyboard made typing long emails difficult. However, it made sense to people who grew up with the television being the most advanced thing ever invented.

Some older users struggle to use systems designed for people with better eyesight, faster reflexes, and finer dexterity. There’s a constant struggle to grasp the interface, quickly squeeze meaning out of the content, or simply find the information needed. A few years ago my mother joined Facebook and reconnected with long lost friends, but rarely visits today. It’s too chaotic and she’s not alone in her opinion.

Facebook, Google, and others continually evolve their interface for a variety of reasons, but primarily because consumers want change and new features. Because of this need to change, these services become less useful to many who made them popular. As time marches on our greatest minds actually slip away from the Internet instead of remaining and contributing to the conversation.

Simplify, simply, simplify the device and interface

We’ve all experienced a site that confounds our every attempt at gleaning useful information. It’s flashy and filled with drop-quotes and toolbars, but attempt to find the meat and you’re left remembering an old Wendy’s commercial from the 80’s. The site could be an SEO link-trap or simply fail at good Web design. Think about the most agonizing website you frequent and imagine your parents trying to use it. The problem is only going to get worse.

In an age where the youth consume their content via mobile devices, many businesses alter their sites  to capture those eyes. Complex sites don’t format as well on a smartphone, but as we move toward an app-based access society this matters less. Some make the point these apps are nothing more than a website wrapped in a shell, but I say great! My parents “get” that they need to use the mail app to read their mail. They get they need to use the Facebook app to see Facebook. They don’t care whether it lives in a cloud or in a box with a mouse or with a fox. They just want to see it and read it, but too often they can’t. The device and the interface are overwhelming.

Less is more for the older professional

As a slowly aging technical professional, I sit here sandwiched between the young world with their tablets and smartphones and the Boomers who use an iPad but have little need for much else. If I’m guessing correctly they’ll need even less as time marches on. They want a handful of features from social media, not more. They want to send and read email, not join mailing lists. They want to see pictures of their grandkids, not subscribe to streams or hangouts. They need to find the easiest way, not the newest way. Sometimes these interfaces are studied in depth to provide a positive experience. Many times they’re not.

The Americans with Disabilities Act gave millions access to critical facilities and services. I think it’s time to do the same for computer interfaces. We need an aging specification for computer interfaces. It should assure that information is visible, allow for easy interaction, and require as few steps as possible to accomplish a task. For example, social media should offer a simplified view with prominent pictures, messaging, and friends functionality. Email interfaces would provide a more intuitive way to work with email that makes it obvious how to start an email, spell check it, and send it. As Henry David Thoreau said, “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify!” The specification shouldn’t dictate how interfaces are designed, but instead should guide designers on ways to strip down their interfaces, determine the most desired content, and be based on the latest understanding of human interfaces.

Has your business explored interfaces designed for an aging consumer base? What kind of user experience are you creating for an elder audience?
Jeff Morgan Lead Product Marketing Manager AT&T About Jeff