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Designing software to include older people in the digital world

The Covid-19 coronavirus crisis has accentuated the importance of including older people in the digital world. How can software firms design products to include generations that came to maturity before the internet?

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Even before the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, it made sense to design software to work well for older people. Longer lifespans have greatly increased the number of elderly people worldwide – and this is a trend that is continuing. The United Nations expects that by 2050, those aged 65 and above will outnumber the under-25s in Europe and northern America.

But many older people do not use computers. In the UK, only 76% of those aged at least 65 group had used the internet in the past three months, and just 61% daily or almost daily, according to 2019 data from the Office for National Statistics.

By comparison, the ONS found that 99% of 16-44 year olds were online daily or near-daily. Its figures for women aged at least 75 and living alone were even lower, with just 41% using the internet in the past three months.

As coronavirus appears to get more dangerous with age, many older people have chosen or been told to stay at home in self-isolation and may well have to do so longer than others.

Online has become the recommended method for accessing healthcare, government services, shopping, banking and communications. But this means that the age group that has the most need to remotely access services currently has the least expertise in so doing.

Organisations can help their customers by providing advice and training on using technology, with telecoms provider BT already offering a range of online courses on using technology.

In addition, from 16 April 2020 BT has been using ITV advertising breaks to broadcast short technology lessons presented by Angellica Bell, Clare Balding, Rylan Clark-Neal, Fearne Cotton and David Walliams. These cover topics such as accessing GP, prescription and NHS advice services online, money and online safety, and using communications services including WhatsApp.

“We recognise a lot of older people will not be jumping on the internet right now,” says Kerensa Jennings, BT’s group director of digital impact, hence the use of television advertising.

She adds that support needs to be offered sympathetically: “Older people are just like you and me, but older. When trying to assist an older person with technology, a sense of respect is really important.”

Lower barriers through design

But while helping older people to scale technology barriers is welcome, an even better option is to lower those barriers.

“I’d advise software developers to radically simplify,” says Jennings. “I love things that are beautiful and gorgeous, but they have to be functional.”

This means designing software with highly contrasting colours, such as black and white, or similar options such as BT’s white and dark purple, and minimising the number of buttons.

As a television producer, Jennings worked with older presenters including David Frost and David Dimbleby, both of whom she says remained brilliant but required larger writing on teleprompters. For software, it is easier to use larger fonts if there is less text to display, and thinking of younger viewers rather than older ones can help.

“The principle when you’re writing for television is to write for a bright and curious nine year old,” Jennings says. This means trying to avoid jargon and acronyms, and explaining them if they are unavoidable.

It also means shortening sentences – she recommends chopping them in two until this becomes impossible. “The brain can process small packages of information more effectively,” she adds.

The same is true for many of the changes software developers can make to help the aged. Although 65 is commonly used as a starting point for ‘older’, our senses start to become less acute decades earlier, with vision declining from our forties and hearing from our thirties.

“If you design for older people, you’re making inclusive choices for design and accessibility for everyone,” says Froso Ellina, product design manager at software development consultant VMware Pivotal Labs.

On text, Ellina says that as well as using high colour contrasts and larger sizes, the choice of typography is important. A small number of simple fonts – with sans-serif ones such as Arial often the more accessible choice – can increase readability.

Subtitling online videos means they can be used by those with poor hearing or no ability to hear, but also makes these work for those who are in a location where they can’t use audio.

Older people can also find it harder to use touch screens due to declining motor skills. Ellina says that one centimetre is a good minimum length for a target area such as a button or link, and it makes sense to leave plenty of space between them.

Retain familiarity

Short-term memory tends to decline with age, which has implications for how software is updated. “We have noticed that older people make more notes on how to use software,” says Ellina. “If we make big changes, they will not be able to use it unless someone shows them how.”

The better option is to make small changes often, which as well as being a tenet of agile software development, allows users to retain familiarity, particularly if such changes affect site navigation.

There are visual ways to help too, including using different colours for links that users have and have not visited. Webforms are easier to use when labels do not vanish when users start filling them in, and where error messages spell out what users need to change.

More generally, Ellina says that organisations should involve older people in user testing. For internal business applications, this should be part of involving a broad range of staff in choosing, testing and configuring new software, not least because this is good for the business: “When you are choosing software, you need to consider productivity, not just price,” she says.

Strive for accessibility

Organisations that work hard to make their software accessible to those with disabilities are at an advantage in serving older people, according to Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion for technology charity AbilityNet.

“There’s an overlap between older workers, older people in general and impairments and disability,” he says, adding that diversity in those supporting and developing technology helps, although “they are usually young, fit men”.

In the UK, organisations have legal responsibilities to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to workplaces, including technology, to allow disabled people to work.

AbilityNet and workplace diversity adviser Clear Company run Clear Talents, an online tool that employees can use to generate reports on what adjustments they might need that employers can then use to comply with the law on this issue.

Techniques that help those with visual impairments, such as text alternatives for images and checking that pages can be read effectively by screen readers, can also benefit older users. But more generally, Christopherson says that software developers can benefit from using ‘personas’, a small group of fictional individuals designed to represent the full range of users.

These make it easier for developers to consider older and disabled people, as well as others with particular needs, as real individuals. He adds that it also makes sense to include a wide range of actual customers as part of testing and to consider accessibility at an early stage.

“Typically, people look at accessibility at the 11th hour, just before they press the go-live button,” he says.

Some older people may be put off online services by having to enter card details, a clunky process when compared with paying in person. There are alternatives, according to Lu Zurawski, practice lead for retail banking at US payment systems provider ACI Worldwide.

Read more about digital inclusion

Goods ordered online that are then physically delivered provide the opportunity for payment to be taken in person, by card with a payment reader, through a QR code, mobile device or (when social distancing is no longer necessary) cash.

Zurawski adds that another option, offered by Chinese payment provider Alipay, is a family account that allows access to several people.

It can also be worth considering alternative user interfaces for older people including voice. Crowd-testing service Applause recently trailed a voice capture system for a UK broadcaster which sees older people as a key demographic group – it tested this with people up to the age of 90.

“They adapt to it very easily,” says UK director Richard Downs, compared with using a computer keyboard or a mobile app, although voice seems best-suited for relatively simple commands. “It’s not really a full conversation.”

Consider computer literacy

Daniela Aramu, head of user experience for UK-based employee engagement software company Thomsons Online Benefits, says that its older users have different interests to younger ones, who don’t tend to show much interest in pensions or medical insurance: “Mostly, they feel invincible.”

But rather than designing specifically for older employees, she says it makes more sense to consider levels of computer literacy.

“We find that is a better prediction of how they behave when learning to use new software. If they are comfortable with technology, they will be more willing to explore, more willing to click a button to see what happens,” she says. “We’ve found that age has little to do with that.”

Some older staff have been using computers for decades and had to use text-based interfaces such as Dos, meaning they may be more computer-literate than younger users.

“It’s true that when you get older, you tend to reuse information rather than relearn,” Aramu adds. “But even when you’re younger, reusing is easier than relearning.”

In its Darwin software, Thomson aims to show users what they have already decided so they don’t have to remember it, and similarly aims to design services that work for everyone, including older people and those with visual impairments.

“It’s just best practice to make the experience as easy as possible for the vast majority of the population,” Aramu says, while also including the likes of keyboard shortcuts for super-users.

In a previous job for a telecoms provider, Aramu was involved in designing a special telephone for older people with simpler, larger buttons, but the project came to grief.

“When we tried to start marketing the phone, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative,” she says, showing how things obviously designed for the old may be rejected. The better option is to design and adjust software to make it work better for older people – which often means it will work better for everyone.

Design principles for digital inclusion of older people

  • Simplify visual design.
  • Use highly contrasting colours.
  • Cut the number of buttons.
  • Rewrite text in shorter sentences and minimise jargon.
  • Use larger, fewer, easy-to-read fonts.
  • Subtitle videos.
  • Make changes incrementally, particularly to navigation.
  • Test software with older people.
  • Consider ‘personas’ to represent a diverse range of users.
  • Voice may provide a useful interface.
  • Something designed explicitly for old people may be rejected.

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