Usability factors to consider when developing Apps for Senior Citizen Population
Senior citizens are increasingly becoming aware of technology around them and are exploring the tremendous opportunities offered on the Internet by using laptops, mobile phones, and tablet devices such as the iPad. Should app developers consider special needs of elderly population while designing apps?
Primary use of mobile devices in elderly population is to keep in touch with family, as well as for emergency purposes. Phone companies have jumped on the opportunity to provide specialized mobile phones that are geared to special needs of the senior citizen population. For example, Verizon offers a product line of cellphones that has features such as large displays, hearing aid compatibility, volume amplification, dedicated emergency buttons, and a larger form factor for easier handling of the device. Tablets and smartphones are also being used by the elderly population to access apps that provide information about health and medical conditions (such as the WebMD app).
Market penetration of smartphones for senior citizens has not been as high as basic cellphones. This may be because of a higher learning curve in using smartphones and apps. For app developers the senior citizen demographic must not be overlooked. For an app to be popular with senior citizens, it must be easy to use and also have other qualities and features that appeal to seniors. Usability plays an important role helping the elderly user navigate the app, but more importantly providing the self-efficacy (i.e. confidence) in using other apps. More research is needed, maybe by looking at traditional usability literature on technology-based devices, to be able to identify key factors that are important when developing apps for senior citizens. There is a need to identify issues faced by elderly users who have chosen to use mobile devices and smartphones, and provide guidelines on app development for the older population.
The closest technology device to a smartphone that may have been used by an elderly user is the remote control. The analogy between a remote control and a smartphone is limited to carrying out simple function by pressing the button which results in an action. Other features on smartphones such as multi-touch gestures that include swiping, dual finger scrolling, pinching, etc. may be difficult to master by senior users because of lack of fine motor skills. Designers and Technologists often ignore needs of the elderly population during design and development of apps. This is because the market for apps is usually the younger generation that has grown up with technology and feels at ease using smaller mobile devices. The elderly population has gradually been introduced to smartphones and mobile devices by their children and grand children usually while sharing photos and videos. According to Nielsen, there are roughly as many iPhone users 55 years and older as there are in the 13-24 age group. But the elderly population is slowly (pun not intended :)) stepping out of their comfort zone and exploring social applications of mobile apps. One such example is the Online Dating for Senior Citizens app available from Apple AppStore.
Older users may have technology anxiety when it comes to using mobile devices. For senior citizens who have embraced technology use (such as using iPads), positive attitude towards technology adoption can be a result of having a good support system (family members) who are able demonstrate the potential and effective use of technology, specially the benefits of using a particular app. Other limitations to technology adoption in elder population may occur due to physical disability (such as vision problems), technology anxiety (it looks too complex), or social issues (lack of a support system). These factors can be overcome if apps are designed with the user in mind.
Based on information presented above, the following guidelines emerge for apps that are developed for senior citizens.
• Use minimalist design to prevent cognitive overload in elderly population
• Provide large icons that are easy to interpret for function and interaction logic.
• Avoid the use of irrelevant information on the screen.
• Since color discrimination ability declines with age, designers should maximize contrast and avoid use of excessively bright colors.
• Clear instructions on how to use the app (preferably text based) should be provided, including help screens which should be prominently displayed.
• Use a simple navigation structure (such as back, forward buttons, or Menu buttons).
• Provide only those features in an app that the elderly user will need to accomplish the task.
• Provide feedback when an action is taken. This may include a subtle animation or sound when a button on screen is pressed, or a color change on a menu item when it is selected.
• Limit the use of multi-touch gestures (swipes) within the app.
• Provide a sense of accomplishment when certain tasks are completed. This promotes self-efficacy.
Following the guidelines above can result in an app that is not only functional, but one which also elicits in senior citizens a feeling of confidence and satisfaction of having met a specific goal while using the app.
Can you think of other items that should be added to the above list? Your comments on the topic of designing apps for elderly users are welcome.