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Designing For The Elderly: Ways Older People Use Digital Technology Differently

If you work in the tech industry, it’s easy to forget that older people exist. Most tech workers are really young1, so it’s easy to see why most technology is designed for young people. But consider this: By 2030, around 19% of people in the US will be over 652. Doesn’t sound like a lot? Well it happens to be about the same number of people in the US who own an iPhone today. Which of these two groups do you think Silicon Valley spends more time thinking about?

This seems unfortunate when you consider all of the things technology has to offer older people. A great example is Speaking Exchange3, an initiative that connects retirees in the US with kids who are learning English in Brazil. Check out the video below, but beware — it’s a tear-jerker.

CNA – Speaking Exchange (watch the video on YoutTube4)

While the ageing process is different for everyone, we all go through some fundamental changes. Not all of them are what you’d expect. For example, despite declining health, older people tend to be significantly happier5 and better at appreciating what they have6.

But ageing makes some things harder as well, and one of those things is using technology. If you’re designing technology for older people, below are seven key things you need to know.

(How old is old? It depends. While I’ve deliberately avoided trying to define such an amorphous group using chronological boundaries, it’s safe to assume that each of the following issues becomes increasingly significant after 65 years of age.)

Vision And Hearing Link

From the age of about 40, the lens of the eye begins to harden, causing a condition called “presbyopia.” This is a normal part of ageing that makes it increasingly difficult to read text that is small and close.

The font size a 75 chooses on his Kindle.7
Here’s a 75-year-old with his Kindle. Take a look at the font size he picks when he’s in control. Now compare it to the average font size on an iPhone. (Image: Navy Design27198.) (View large version9)

Color vision also declines with age, and we become worse at distinguishing between similar colors. In particular, shades of blue appear to be faded or desaturated.

Hearing also declines in predictable ways, and a large proportion of people over 65 have some form of hearing loss10. While audio is seldom fundamental to interaction with a product, there are obvious implications for certain types of content.

Key lessons:

  • Avoid font sizes smaller than 16 pixels (depending of course on device, viewing distance, line height etc.).
  • Let people adjust text size themselves.
  • Pay particular attention to contrast ratios11 with text.
  • Avoid blue for important interface elements.
  • Always test your product using screen readers12.
  • Provide subtitles when video or audio content is fundamental to the user experience.

Motor Control Link

Our motor skills decline with age, which makes it harder to use computers in various ways. For example, during some user testing at a retirement village, we saw an 80-year-old who always uses the mouse with two hands. Like many older people, she had a lot of trouble hitting interface targets and moving from one thing to the next.

In the general population, a mouse is more accurate13 than a finger. But in our user testing, we’ve seen older people perform better using touch interfaces. This is consistent with research that shows that finger tapping declines later14 than some other motor skills.

Key lessons:

  • Reduce the distance between interface elements that are likely to be used in sequence (such as form fields), but make sure they’re at least 2 millimeters apart.
  • Buttons on touch interfaces should be at least 9.6 millimeters diagonally15 (for example, 44 × 44 pixels on an iPad) for ages up to 70, and larger for older people.
  • Interface elements to be clicked with a mouse (such as forms and buttons) should be at least 11 millimeters diagonally.
  • Pay attention to sizing in human interface guidelines (Luke Wroblewski has a good roundup of guidelines16 for different platforms).

Device Use Link

If you want to predict the future, just look at what middle-class American teens are doing. Right now, they’re using their mobile phones for everything.

Dustin Curtis17

It’s safe to assume Dustin has never watched a 75-year-old use a mobile phone. Eventually, changes in vision and motor control make small screens impractical for everyone. Smartphones are a young person’s tool, and not even the coolest teenager can escape their biological destiny.

In our research, older people consistently described phones as “annoying” and “fiddly.” Those who own them seldom use them, often not touching them for days at a time. They often ignore SMS’ entirely.

Examples of technology used by the elderly18
Examples of technology used by the elderly (Image: Navy Design27198) (View large version20)

But older people aren’t afraid to try new technology when they see a clear benefit. For example, older people are the largest users of tablets21. This makes sense when you consider the defining difference between a tablet and a phone: screen size. The recent slump in tablet sales22 also makes sense if you accept that older people have longer upgrade cycles than younger people.

Key lessons:

  • Avoid small-screen devices (i.e. phones).
  • Don’t rely on SMS to convey important information.

Relationships Link

Older people have different relationships than young people, at least partly because they’ve had more time to cultivate them. For example, we conducted some research into how older people interact with health care professionals. In many cases, they’ve seen the same doctors for decades, leading to a very high degree of trust.

I regard it like going to see old pals.… I feel I could tell my GP almost anything.

– George, 73, on visiting his medical team

But due to health and mobility issues, the world available to the elderly is often smaller — both physically and socially. Digital technology has an obvious role to play here, by connecting people virtually when being in the same room is hard.

Key lessons:

  • Enable connection with a smaller, more important group of people (not a big, undifferentiated social network).
  • Don’t overemphasize security and privacy controls when trusted people are involved.
  • Be sensitive to issues of isolation.

Life Stage Link

During a user testing session, I sat with a 66-year-old as she signed up for an Apple ID. She was asked to complete a series of security questions. She read the first question out loud. “What was the model of your first car?” She laughed. “I have no idea! What car did I have in 1968? What a stupid question!”

It’s natural for a 30-year-old programmer to assume that this question has meaning for everyone, but it contains an implicit assumption about which life stage the user is at. Don’t make the same mistake in your design.

Key lessons:

  • Beware of content or functionality that implicitly assumes someone is young or at a certain stage in life.

Experience With Technology Link

I once sat with a man in his 80s as he used a library interface. “I know there are things down there that I want to read” he said, gesturing to the bottom of the screen, “but I can’t figure out how to get to them.” After I taught him how to use a scrollbar, his experience changed completely. In another session, two of the older participants told me that they’d never used a search field before.

Generally when you’re designing interfaces, you’re working within a certain kind of scaffolding. And it’s easy to assume that everyone knows how that scaffolding works. But people who didn’t grow up with computers might have never used the interface elements we take for granted. Is a scrollbar a good design for moving content up and down? Is its function self-evident? These aren’t questions most designers often ask. But the success of your design might depend on a thousand parts of the interface that you can’t control and probably aren’t even aware of.

Key lessons:

  • Don’t make assumptions about prior knowledge.
  • Interrogate all parts of your design for usability, even the parts you didn’t create.

Cognition Link

The science of cognition is a huge topic, and ageing changes how we think in unpredictable ways. Some people are razor-sharp in their 80s, while others decline as early as in their 60s.

Despite this variability, three areas are particularly relevant to designing for the elderly: memory, attention and decision-making. (For a more comprehensive view of cognitive change with age, chapter 1 of Brain Aging: Models, Methods, and Mechanisms23 is a great place to start.)

Memory Link

There are different kinds of memory, and they’re affected differently by the ageing process. For example, procedural memory (that is, remembering how to do things) is generally unaffected. People of all ages are able to learn new skills and reproduce them over time.

But other types of memory suffer as we age. Short-term memory and episodic memory are particularly vulnerable. And, although the causes are unclear, older people often have difficulty manipulating the contents of their working memory24. This means that they may have trouble understanding how to combine complex new concepts in a product or interface.

Prospective memory (remembering to do something in the future) also suffers25. This is particularly relevant for habitual tasks, like remembering to take medication at the right time every day.

How do people manage this decline? In our research, we’ve found that paper is king. Older people almost exclusively use calendars and diaries to supplement their memory. But well-designed technology has great potential to provide cues for these important actions.

For older people, paper is king.26
For older people, paper is king. (Image: Navy Design27198) (View large version28)

Key lessons:

  • Introduce product features gradually over time to prevent cognitive overload.
  • Avoid splitting tasks across multiple screens if they require memory of previous actions.
  • During longer tasks, give clear feedback on progress and reminders of goals.
  • Provide reminders and alerts as cues for habitual actions.

Attention Link

It’s easy to view ageing as a decline, but it’s not all bad news. In our research, we’ve observed one big advantage: Elderly people consistently excel in attention span, persistence and thoroughness. Jakob Nielsen has observed similar things, finding that 95% of seniors are “methodical”29 in their behaviors. This is significant in a world where the average person’s attention span has actually dropped below the level of a goldfish30.

It can be a great feeling to watch an older user really take the time to explore your design during a testing session. And it means that older people often find things that younger people skip right over. I often find myself admiring this way of interacting with the world. But the obvious downside of a slower pace is increased time to complete tasks.

Older people are also less adept at dividing their attention31 between multiple tasks. In a world obsessed with multitasking, this can seem like a handicap. But because multi-tasking is probably a bad idea32 in the first place, designing products that help people to focus on one thing at a time can have benefits for all age groups.

Key lessons:

  • Don’t be afraid of long-form text and deep content.
  • Allow for greater time intervals in interactions (for example, server timeouts, inactivity warnings).
  • Avoid dividing users’ attention between multiple tasks or parts of the screen.

Decision-Making Link

Young people tend to weigh a lot of options before settling on one. Older people make decisions a bit differently. They tend to emphasize prior knowledge33 (perhaps because they’ve had more time to accumulate it). And they give more weight to the opinions of experts (for example, their doctor for medical decisions).

The exact reason for this is unclear, but it may be due to other cognitive limitations that make comparing new options more difficult.

Key lessons:

  • Prioritize shortcuts to previous choices ahead of new alternatives.
  • Information framed as expert opinion may be more persuasive (but don’t abuse this bias).

Conclusion Link

A lot of people in the tech industry talk about “changing the world” and “making people’s lives better.” But bad design is excluding whole sections of the population from the benefits of technology. If you’re a designer, you can help change that. By following some simple principles, you can create more inclusive products that work better for everyone, especially the people who need them the most.

Payment for this article was donated to Alzheimer’s Australia34.

(cc, ml, al, il)

Footnotes Link

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Ollie is one of four co-founders at Navy Design, a design consultancy which specializes in digital products. He’s interested in how good design can make people healthier, happier and safer.

He writes about design on Medium and occasionally contributes to publications such as Smashing Magazine, UXMatters and Creative Review. His most recent speaking engagement was at the Medical Software Industry Association in Sydney.

Ollie has a degree in computer science and is currently completing a postgraduate diploma in psychology.

  1. 1

    There are some great tips in this article for making technology design more accessible to older populations. Some of it can even be applied to “old-school” items, like menu design. Seriously guys, itty bitty squished fonts aren’t going to make me more likely to pay $45 for a pork chop. However, if you are going to publish tips, you might consider how you are applying them. For example, you say to “Avoid blue for important interface elements” but guess what color you have chosen for links? Blue. :)

    • 2

      Dark blue is the defacto internet standard for links, you’d be hard pressed to find any accessibility experts suggesting NOT to use blue.

      Saying that, the blue chosen for links on this site fail all contrast value tests, which is amusing as the dot point mentioning contrast values links through to the contrast value checker.

      However, play to your audience – probably not a huge amount of retirees or sight-impaired people are reading Smashing Magazine every day.

      • 3

        Duncan – what, you think only young people read this technology site? Well I’m not young and I’M reading this! Who do you think developed IT, anyway? ..

      • 4

        “probably not a huge amount of retirees or sight-impaired people are reading Smashing Magazine every day.”

        Isn’t the point of this article not to assume things?

      • 5

        Get your mind a bit more open, dude! 60 – 70% of all citizens of a bloody country ARE sight-impaired. NOT just the eldery. Tsk. m(

        cu, w0lf.

    • 6

      Ah, link color. I don’t think blue is itself the problem, but dark blue that’s nearly indistinguishable from black or dark grey links is ( The turquoise used for links in Smashing Magazine, while readily distinguishable from the black text, may be too light for the white background.

      The prevalence of light grey text is right up there with light-weight fonts and small font size, as things that older adults (myself included) struggle with. Not to mention light or bright fonts on a dark background (most gamer sites, e.g.,

      And using light-colored text with bizarrely-chosen link colors or styles is just cruel (e.g.,,

    • 7


      You need to understand the audience your are writing for. In case of Smashing Magazine, its audience are people who make websites. So these are guidelines for them what to keep in mind while designing for elderly people.

      Btw, it is a great article and added a new perspective my thinking (I never thought scrollbar could be an issue understand).

    • 8

      … and it’s the world’s palest blue at that.

  2. 9

    This is fantastic. Coming from a career as a hospital nurse, where I most frequently worked with older people, and moving into web development, this not only struck a chord but rang so true. There is a huge problem with ageism — fear and distrust of age — in the United States especially, and I’m happy to see one little sliver of the community addressing how it affects the biggest platform ever: the Internet. Now, there’s no easy way of getting around usability for those with dementia-type handicaps, but at least we can be honest enough to realize: not all old people who seem confused and move slow have a problem. In fact, very few do; it’s mostly a disrespectful perception of them that handicaps them.

    Yes! The elderly are a HUGE, untapped asset, just as suggested in this article.

  3. 10

    Can’t agree enough with the motor skills:
    Years ago, my mother and I would teach computer literacy to the elderly ( the early 90’s).

    One of the things that we discovered, very consistently, was that between 55 and 65, eye-hand coordination seemed to… break. Folks younger than 55 could learn to use a mouse successfully. Folks 55 and up simply could not.

    What we found was that the new user would first look at their mouse, then look at their screen to confirm that the pointer moved to where they expected. The user would then repeat this process of looking at the mouse, and looking at the screen until they got the cursor to their destination. The elderly user, learning a mouse for the first time, could not simultaneously reconcile motions of the hand with the motions of the mouse cursor.

    For my mother and me, this was a monumental discovery that changed the way that we taught computer literacy. In older age groups, we ignored the mouse and focused on the keyboard. Printing out a list of keyboard shortcuts got the elderly crowd moving much faster than trying to teach them a mouse.

    We made that discovery when I was 13 and my mother in her early 40’s. Now, 20 years later, I see how much she struggles with using her laptop, but excels at using her phone (her eyesight is excellent). Her eye-hand coordination has deteriorated, but the advent of touch screens has allowed her to stay plugged-in. It’s crucial that we not assume that the elderly will use our applications in the same way that we will.

    One point that I think you’ve missed, though, is that the elderly do not adapt to change nearly as well. I saw it first hand in my household with Windows 8. Neither my mother, nor her sister or brother-in-law (all in their 60’s) could adapt to the interface. All three of them traded in their windows 8 laptops for windows 7. Drastic changes to the UI aren’t good for anyone, but they are especially frustrating for the elderly.

    If a UI must be changed, and you have an elderly audience, consider several iterations of gradual updates, rather than a cutover. It gives the elderly more opportunity to learn and adapt.

    • 11

      Very Good Idea!!!! Interesting why Microsoft didn’t think of that and presented the new OS interface gradually … over 7 generations of computer users?

      Nature has it’s way of fixing those issues – all the people that don’t know how to use some kind of technology will either learn or die out :)

      If your target audience is the elderly you definitely must consider the way they use their technology. Don’t forget that these people are not buying stuff online – they go to the shops ….

  4. 12

    Jonas Smithson

    February 6, 2015 4:25 am

    Your section on vision failed to even mention the most prevalent age-related plague in current Web design: gray type. (Headlines aren’t the problem, I’m talking about a column of body type.)

    You do mention contrast issues, but how did you leave out the most common one? And the reader doesn’t have to be an “elder” — visual contrast problems surface in many people starting in their forties. I have no idea why designers think gray body type is “cool” — or maybe they hold bogus ideas about “sparkly” type being a problem. (I have a background that includes typographic and readability research.) If a designer wants to reduce contrast for whatever reason, the right way to do it on a Web page is with an off-white background, not with gray type.

    • 13

      The body and heading colour of this site is grey (just a dark shade of it) and my father 70+ can read it perfectly fine. Sometimes the starkness of black on white can be too much. I’d imagine most people assume it’s black text on a white background.

  5. 14

    I teach regularly elderly people on internet, computers, applications, and agree on much of what is said here.

  6. 15

    The Tech has advanced to a level where old persons would have all that is essential. Presently there are so many different types of tech available to make their life way easier. The Wearable tech, mobile tech have been mainly focused on youngsters this days. But this is not going to be the barrier for elderly. In time this would be on top list to create advanced tech for elders.

  7. 16

    I didn’t understand why you dislike the blue color so much :)

  8. 18

    This is a really interesting perspective.

    My Dad’s mum has an iPad and regularly Skypes my cousin who lives overseas. Her use of the touch screen is quite unique, with blunt, forceful taps and swipes.

    My Mum bought a laptop and mobile phone for her mum. She never uses them.

  9. 19

    Thank you for this piece. I’m about to turn 65. I’ve used computers since I was in my 30s. I own 3 laptops, an iPad, an iPod, and an iPhone. I can still use a mouse. But I can’t read little screens. And I’m having more trouble learning how to use new features, especially as they proliferate. So I don’t use email on my phone. I can’t read it. I don’t access websites that way either for the same reason. And I have never been able to successfully send a photo from either my phone or tablet. I understand the concept. I can do it from a computer. But I can’t get it to work on mobile devices–despite following directions I looked up. Frustrating! I will no doubt continue to use all this technology into my dotage. But whether or not I’ll use new features depends on many of the factors explored here. In the meantime, I continue to use my digital camera to take pictures. I can download those to the computer just fine. Even made my mother a photobook on a trip we took–all online. She was thrilled. Confused about how I did it. But thrilled.

  10. 20

    Avoid the “hamburger” icon. Older people have no idea what it is.

    • 21

      Hamburger icon? I have no idea what you’re talking about. FWIW, I’m 66, read Smashing daily, code for fun in my retirement, was a college professor for 35 years, and have a Ph.D. But Hamburger icon? WTF

      • 22

        Me again. Oh, the three bar icon is a hamburger icon. Now I know. Thanks, Google.

      • 23

        Ollie: Fantastic article. Many excellent observations that I agree with… I trained some elder people to be comfortable with PC’s and other stuff, I enjoy explaining it and seeing them start having fun, they can really take off with some basic facts and well-designed apps. I see that most or many older and elder people now use pc’s & mobile devices regularly for communicating, news, family, reading and interests. It’s really more the personality and mentality than age. Light mobile tablet touchscreens are great for when people get arthritic hands & aging eyes need larger fonts. (High contrast text in gui links and buttons helps too). Some young people in technology seem to think it will never happen to them, and that all elders are doddering fossilized senile fools; more fool them! Many elderly people already have been using pc’s and mobiles for years. Sometimes someone just needs to learn to use new or new variant of a program or OS. Most elders I have taught who want to learn but are new at software use are usually in their 70’s & 80’s, because anyone younger has been using software gizmos since the 90’s. And they are quite sharp, especially with a laid back, egalitarian teacher. They just need a little introduction on what the software does and why, at a high level, and later they will typically have a few common sense questions after they get into it. They are not dumb because they arent moving at lightspeed & don’t know the latest 20-something slang (they have their own slang), and need reading glasses. And they actually read. And they do email, photos, social network, amazon, google, ebook, and different kinds of gaming… not to mention full spectrum of other interests. And they are a significant portion of the consumer public. So software GUI designers and media publishers should take note. There’s money in it. Good GUI design for elder visual and cognitive changes happens, very efficiently, to be more efficient for younger users. As you have wisely pointed out.

        Duncan – what, you think only young people read this technology site? Well I’m not young and I’M reading this! Who do you think developed IT, anyway? A bunch of oldsters!

        Mike – hamburger icon is the little stacked lines symbol, like you see now on mobile apps for menu. Originally created by Norm Cox for the Xerox Star which was the world’s first GUI.

  11. 24

    Awesome article and comments. I hope this is just the beginning of an ongoing conversation.

    Couple observations for future study:
    Not all older people are the same. In the US, baby boomers are old, but we (I’m one) still think of ourselves as young, and so vanity plays a part in the way we interact. But my dad (in his 80s) has the mouse issue you mention, despite having been an engineer working with computers since the 1960s.
    Also … grown men have big hands. Teens – even boys – often have teeny little dainty fingers, but I despise trying to type on a teeny keyboard made for little girls. One major reason I use only Android – they had Swype a long time ago.
    One final note: older people can spell. Spell-checker and it’s idiotic corrections drive me insane.
    I hope you keep up this work. There’s still huge growth potential among older folks.

  12. 25

    Chris Rosepapa

    February 7, 2015 7:36 pm

    Great article and so practical as to what designers can do differently to accommodate the older group of website visitors. So many of the articles online don’t address this; it’s as if the 65 plus age group isn’t online. I know that once they are empowered with technology they excel. Once my dad starting using an Mac Book he took off with his learning. He has an iPhone, Mac Book , PC, a tablet. Goes to technology classes to learn more. Who knows, at this rate he might be designing websites next.

    The older age group is also more financially stable, make important buying decisions, invest in start-up companies, mentor and more.

    I see many website that are targeted with messaging towards buyers in the 50 + age group, especially investment type of services for estate planning/ trusts, etc., however the design is targeted to a younger audience. There’s a disconnect.

    Again, great article!

  13. 26

    Really interesting,
    Great article. Will take these tips on board!

  14. 27

    We have also found that when 75+ years want to send emails with a tablet, tapping the contact by using their picture, speaking the email, and hitting send works the best. The email is sent and the family member or friend gets an attachment that they can listen to. An added benefit is that you can hear your mom or dads voices which helps you understand more about them.

    A stylus is a must because their fingers don’t have the connectivity and typing is not easy when you have tremors and it takes too long.

    Adapting the user interface to the senior is the best way to go. The older you get, the less you want to change.

  15. 28

    It’s nice to see an article about how our elders interact with technology. The things discussed here are important reminders when we start working on web projects that target elder audiences. Like Healthcare websites. Most of elder people are not fund of scrolling websites so I prefer to use eye catching buttons. Based on my experience with my parents, they don’t look at text links as something you can click on. So yeah, we can do a lot of our smashing and complicated design stuff for other websites, but keep it straight to the point when it comes to designing for elder people.

  16. 29

    Does anyone have a link to some research done concerning the following issue:

    “Color vision also declines with age, and we become worse at distinguishing between similar colors. In particular, shades of blue appear to be faded or desaturated.”

    I often see this statement, but am unable to find research backing it up.

    • 30

      “In the new study, researchers sought to understand how common the color-vision problems are among older people. They gave tests to nearly 900 people aged 58 to 102 from the Northern California enclave of Marin County, leaving out anyone who had inherited colorblindness.

      Color-vision problems in the blue-yellow spectrum affected 45 percent of people in their mid-70s, and that proportion rose to two-thirds by the time people reached their mid-90s. Few people had problems with the red-green spectrum.

      SOURCES: Marilyn Schneck, Ph.D., scientist, Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, San Francisco; Michael Crognale, Ph.D., professor and director of cognitive and brain sciences, department of psychology, University of Nevada, Reno; Stephen Dain, Ph.D., professor, School of Optometry and Vision Science, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia; March 2014 Optometry and Vision Science

    • 31

      Hi Stephanie – a lot of research was collated by WAI several years ago in “Web Accessibility for Older Users: A Literature Review” – see in particular:

  17. 32

    I am impressed, I must say. Really

  18. 33

    A really nice, though provoking piece.

    I am going to go home, hug my mum and ask her to split test my campaigns.

  19. 34

    1) Plug item in
    2) Walk to phone… call grandson

  20. 35

    The elderly demographic we have now versus the elderly demographic in the future are two, vastly different sets of people. Elderly people in the future (us!), would be better adapted to technology and change, thus, giving us a different ‘relationship’ with technology. Of course, we would always have to take account for the physical limitations that comes with old age, but I think, the future of design for the elderly in the future would be easier than today.

    • 36

      Raden, when you talk about people in the current elder demographic you’re talking about a two generations that have seen some of the most drastic technological changes in the history of mankind. They’re use to rapid technological change because it’s been a constant for the past 100 years. Gen-X, Gen-Y/Millennials are better adapted to current technology only because it’s been a constant for them. We’ll be no better adapted for future technology of the same revolutionary scale than they were.


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