Designing Apps for Elderly Smartphone Users

April 27, 2017

Over three-quarters of Americans own smartphones, and that number is still on the rise. App developers who don't consider elderly users may be missing a crucial segment of possible consumers.

Elderly users require different elements to ensure accessibility.

You already may know that smartphone ownership is on the rise, with about 77% of Americans now possessing a smartphone.

What you may not know is that the uptick in smartphone use is not concentrated among younger generations only.

Elderly people, aged 50+, are frequent users of smartphones. In fact, nearly three quarters (74%) of 50-64 year-olds own a smartphone, while a little less than half (42%) of individuals who are 65 or older own a smartphone, according to Pew Research Center’s Mobile Fact Sheet, which is updated regularly throughout 2017.

These numbers will continue to increase, driven not only by the smartphone’s global penetration but also by the world's growing reliance on the technology, regardless of age.

Many elderly people are savvy smartphone users. They check emails directly from the device, connect with friends and relatives through mobile messaging apps, like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, play games, read books, and more.

Still, older adults face unique challenges when using smartphone apps, since physical and cognitive abilities change with age. Declines in visual, motor, proprioceptive, and central nervous system capabilities take place. Therefore, it’s important for app developers to design apps with this older client base in mind.

This article walks you through the health challenges elderly app users face and explains five factors app designers and developers should consider to ensure smartphone technology is accessible to older users.

Changes in Health Cause Challenges for Smartphone Use

As adults age, health problems and challenges inevitably arise, often making it difficult for them to interact with certain features on smartphone apps. These health issues fall in three categories: vision, hearing, and spatial coordination.

1. Changes in Vision

Losing vision clarity as a result of age makes consuming content on smartphones difficult, especially when it comes to text size and light quality.

First, people over the age of 40 are more likely to experience presbyopia, or long-sightedness, which makes reading small text challenging.

Second, color vision, or the ability to distinguish certain colors, fades with age. Color vision problems in the blue-yellow spectrum are often detected among people in their mid-70s.

Older users have more difficulty distinguishing certain colors.

Source: Colblindor

If you have tritanopia, or color vision problems in the blue-yellow spectrum, you struggle to distinguish between blue and yellow colors, a phenomenon people often refer to as color blindness.

If a smartphone app’s interface relies on colors as a guide from feature-to-feature, color-blind users may struggle to use the app.

Third, floaters, or tiny specks that aimlessly drift around in your field of vision, may appear, making smartphone users more sensitive to the light smartphones emit.

2. Hearing Loss

Age-related hearing loss, or presbycusis, is common for adults over the age of 65. In fact, one in three people in the U.S. between the ages 65 and 74 experience hearing loss, often in both ears.

As a result, elderly people may fail to hear some soft sounds that an app produces to notify users of new events, such as incoming messages, push notifications, or alarms.

3. Changes in Proprioception & Coordination

Hand-eye coordination changes as you age. A study on attentional reference frames from Washington University in St. Louis shows that elderly people’s mental representation of the space around their bodies might be degraded compared with that of young adults. So, differences in how older adults and young people plan and guide their actions may occur.

For example, young people tend to use a reference frame centered on the hand, while elderly adults tend to adopt a reference frame centered on the body. This means that it may take longer to point or tap a screen.

Tips to Make Using Mobile Apps Easier for Elderly Users

Because physical abilities change with age, it’s important that mobile app developers design smartphone apps with impending health challenges in mind.

As more elderly community members rely on smartphones for communication, information gathering, and entertainment, and as more adults begin using smartphones and mobile apps as they age, the question app developers need to consider is, “What can be done to make interactions with mobile apps easier for older users?”

Mobile app developers should consider psychological and physical characteristics of elderly people when they’re designing mobile apps. Some easy factors to consider in the design process include: contrast, labels, formatting, navigation, and cues.

1. Increase the Contrast Between Text & Background

When designing an app, make sure it has sufficient contrast.

A recent design trend involves reducing the difference in color between text on a page and the page’s background. The difference in text and background colors is called contrast. Higher contrast, for example, black text on a white background, is easier to read, while lower contrast, such as light grey text on a white background, is more difficult to read. The light grey text seemingly blends in with the white page.

The main rule of thumb is that app users should not have trouble recognizing different, but similar colors, such as shades of blue and purple.

For example, if you have to choose between a simple and patterned background for an app, opt for the simple version.

Here is an example of a patterned background:

Patterned backgrounds are harder for elderly users to navigate.

Source: Google Play

Here is an example of a simple background:

Higher contrast colors and a simpler interface make this design easier for elderly users to navigate.

Source: App Store

Older adults are more likely to struggle to see all the items clearly on a more complicated background.

If you want to approach app contrast more strategically, consider studying the color preferences of your target audience before beginning the design process. A study conducted in Korea investigated the color preferences of 500 elderly individuals and found that color often evokes an emotional response. Therefore, understanding color preferences ensures a more emotionally appealing product design.

2. Label Icons to Avoid Miscommunication

Add textual labels to icons, since older adults may not recognize the meanings of undefined symbols, making it difficult to navigate an app.

Text labels should be easy to understand and not too long. Use words and phrases that correspond to users' vocabulary.

Additionally, test the icon size on real users to avoid usability problems, such as icons that are “untappable” because they are too small.

3. Format Fonts, Icons & Interactive Elements with the User In Mind

Font size and style, spacing, and animation require careful thought and planning to avoid overcomplicating how elderly users interact with an app.

First, when it comes to font size, allow users to adjust text size. Although some researchers claim that font should be between 36 and 48 points, users may prefer larger text, especially if they struggle with deteriorating vision.

Second, font style is as important as font size for readability. Default fonts, like Roboto for Android, usually are the easiest to read.

But, if you want to stray from the default, consider the font preferences determined in a study of font size and style. The study found that older adults find larger fonts (14 point compared to 12 point) and Sans Serif font styles, such as Arial and Verdana, easier to read.

Third, make spaces between text and icons large enough, so that users can tap the correct item. This rule holds true, especially in cases when there are more than one actionable item on a page.

Fourth, avoid overusing interactive elements, like animation and moving text, because they may slow down the interaction between the user and the app.

4. Avoid Complex Navigational Elements

Mobile apps with simple designs are easier to use because they do not require complex interactions and navigation.

First, default to all-time visible navigation styles, which include a vertical sidebar and horizontal tabs.

Simpler navigation bars can aid elderly users.

Source: Google Play

Avoid using slide-out menus because they may confuse inexperienced users.

Second, add a “back” button to the main menu to give users a chance to get back to the previous action, in case they click on something by mistake and become disoriented.

Third, consider that older adults may be more skeptical about sharing personal information online. Therefore, simplify the app onboarding process as much as possible to avoid driving a user away early on.

5. Cues, Noises & Reminders

Mobile apps are appealing because of their convenience. They offer information a user needs nearly instantaneously through push notifications, reminders, and alarms. However, how an app developer integrates noise-, text-, and gesture-based cues can make it difficult for an elderly adult to use the app.

First, use sounds that elderly people can hear. One approach is to allow users to choose the sound and volume level they prefer. For example, the iPhone lets users choose sounds for incoming calls, app notifications, and messages, to name a few.

Second, consider adding reminders and cues to ensure that older adults remember to use the app. Using an app to track medications or maintain a schedule may be a new experience. Notifications and cues can help integrate the technology into everyday routine.

Third, do not neglect gestures. According to a study about gesture interfaces for elderly users, older adults use the same finger gestures as younger users when they interact with mobile apps, though they are slightly slower.

However, the velocity of gestures is not the only thing to take into account. Elderly people tend to experience difficulties associating gestures with different tasks. For example, some older adults tend to scroll up in an attempt to access the previous page instead of tapping the back button.

Therefore, avoid using overly complex gestures in your app, and instead, limit them to simple gestures, such as a tap or swipe.

Keep Elderly Consumers in Mind When Designing Mobile Apps

Human bodies undergo significant changes when people grow older and individual abilities decline with age. Elderly people start to deal with physical and psychological issues they have never faced. But these changes do not mean that elderly people should not use different devices every day.

There are many older adults who have a smartphone. They use different mobile apps to make online calls, surf the Internet, send and receive emails, track and analyze their blood pressure over time, and more.

However, not all app developers keep the physical and psychological characteristics of elderly people in mind when designing a new product. So, older users may not be able to use a great app if it is not tailored to their needs.

Here is my parting advice: use the tips mentioned in this article to create an app that elderly people will love. But if you are not a developer and you have an idea for an app, seek out a company that provides age professional software development services to create your app.


About the Author

Tatsiana Levdikova is an IT/Tech Journalist at EffectiveSoft, a custom software company that unites 250+ experts.

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