Web Design, Thought Leaders

A UX Design Guide for Senior Citizens

August 30, 2019

by Soyun Kim

Senior Product Designer, StudioRed

Senior citizens interact with technology differently than younger generations, which means businesses should be creating UX that is also appealing to older people. We created a music app designed specifically for an elderly user and discovered important tips to help create a more intuitive design for seniors. 

Apps nowadays typically focus on attracting and keeping millennial users; however, seniors arguably have the most to gain from software’s capabilities. 

Although there are thousands of apps available to the public, most focus on attracting younger generations. However, technology adoption is growing fastest amongst seniors, as the percent of seniors who own smartphones rose from 18% in 2013 to 42% in 2017.  

Still, very few apps are being designed specifically for people over the age of 65.

With some of the issues that seniors face, whether it is declining eyesight or manual dexterity problems, we ought to give them additional attention when designing apps.

A client came to us looking to design an app for a high-end home audio system with the target demographic being mainly senior users. 

Many seniors are enthusiastic about music, especially those that are retired and enjoy quality time at home.  

The client’s app was designed for the audio enthusiast persona who might have converted their 10K albums into a digital library. 

While deciding how to organize this massive amount of music, we noticed a lack of senior UX design guidelines and learned a lot of interesting insights around senior citizens and music through our user research and testing. 

This guide on UX design for seniors is the result of those studies, and we will mainly use the music app example to show our findings.

5 Tips to Design Your UX for Senior Citizens

  1. Identify areas not addressed for senior's UX needs
  2. Reduce cognitive load by focusing on recognition over recall
  3. Reduce friction and induce “flow”
  4. Understand how seniors perceive information differently
  5. Stick with the basics and stay consistent 

1. Identify Areas Not Addressed for Seniors’ UX Needs

While researching UX for our client’s music app, one of the first things we found was that many elderly music lovers had a huge variety of music in their homes, including classical music. 

Many older classical music albums were developed before the digital age so the track title, artist, and album name do not fit into modern music style categories. 

Most apps did not address the issue of long titles in classical music. 

Many times, the tracks are indistinguishable (example: Spotify Tablet and Tidal Mobile below) because you cannot make the column wider and see the full title.

The Tidal example allows you to hover over the title of the album. However, it scrolls slowly and may take many seconds just to identify the title. 

Elgar: Variations - Spotify Music
This user experience frustrated seniors who simply wanted to know which song they were listening to. 

We studied the wrap, scale, initial and truncated methodologies of these types of music apps and came to this solution.

Elgar: Variation - Apple Music
Solution A shows only the information users need to identify the track. It’s much more successful UX for seniors but requires significant software engineering complexity. 

Solution B shows the alternative. You can simply click the title and the title expands. This expanded screen allows the user to then either play the piece, add it to the queue, or like the song. 

There may be additional clicks required, but for the senior user, the additional clicks are worth it for the read. 

This UX for seniors works much better as it is built directly around the issues they face.

Similarly, long titles were a problem for album covers as well. Since the composer was the same for the different pieces, it can be challenging for people to find the right version of the music they want. 

Here is an example of all the album titles that begin with ‘Mahler.’

All the albums that begin with the word 'Mahler'
Because you cannot read the full title, you cannot see the difference between each album besides the cover art. 

Some classical album titles are long like “BBC Music, Volume 13, Number 10: Liszt: Sonata in B minor / Schubert: "Wanderer" Fantasy / Beethoven: Sonata, op. 27 no. 1 ‘Quasi una fantasia’”

We solved this problem by allowing the field to be expanded. You can now see the full titles and artists. 

Expanded titles on music app

Another problem for senior users was that classical music is sometimes broken out in ways that the non-classic lovers aren’t used to. 

Often, symphonies are broken down into multiple parts with each part containing multiple acts. 

Symphony Break Down

Other apps, like Tidal, have used these acts as their own songs; however, this causes even more problems when trying to do things like shuffle a playlist, which would then cause the symphony to be played out of order. 

Bartók - Concerto for Orchestra

In iTunes’ case, users wanted to play the song by complete work but users could only play each individual sub-work. This forced us to design a new way to show both modern and older music styles.

Our solution is shown below: the indented songs indicate when a song is made up of multiple smaller songs and those indented sections can each be played.  

Bartók Concerto on new app for seniors

Our solution allows seniors to have more control over what is being played and the ability to listen to each longer work. 

2.  Reduce Cognitive Load By Focusing on Recognition Over Recall

Declining cognition impacts how older generations use technology

Focusing on recognition over recall applies for most cases but must be especially emphasized when your users are seniors. 

For example, elderly people may not recall an artist’s name at one moment but once they see the name they can recognize it. 

Albums Interface on App for Seniors
Our take on the filter solution, for example, helps the recognition process as well as addresses senior’s manual dexterity issues and the vast amount of information that needs to be filtered. 

The filtering system we designed helps users narrow down the thousands of songs available to them.

Alphabetically is the most popular way people organize their physical music library, and we wanted this app to replicate the real world as closely as possible. 

Still, when thousands of albums are on a phone, designers can only make a button so small. When a user has 10,000 albums to choose from, companies have to get creative with UX design. 

We designed a separate ABC scrolling filter system because of the huge amount of information that has to be filtered.

Albums Collection
To save screen real estate, our client suggested a hidden navigation bar; however, we suggested that the bottom navigation bar was best because of recognition, discoverability, familiarity, and establishing clear standards, which aids seniors by always being a clear method of navigation.

3. Reduce Friction and Induce “Flow”

Have you ever “lost yourself in the music?” 

If you have, you understand what the “flow” state is. Flow is a mental state a person goes through when they are fully immersed in an activity.

According to a study on “flow,” the suspension of time and freedom in complete absorption of an activity is one of the most enjoyable and valuable experiences a person can have. It even boosts happiness. 

With that said, it is very important to minimize disruption while our users are in the flow state.

According to user research, one of the most common impacts of the “flow state” was unintentional screen interactions. 

People over the age of 70 experience a dramatic decline in motor control

While using an app, a small decline in motor control can cause things like accidentally tapping the screen unintentionally and then an unwanted song playing. 

UX design for seniors should go out of the way to solve this issue. 

Liked Songs Menus on Different Apps

In this Spotify case, the area dedicated to playing the song is very wide, so when you click the song name the song plays. 

We dedicated a specific button for playing a song so the area that the senior may accidentally press is reduced.  

When you click the title, it expands to show more options. 

With this UX design, you can easily create a queue without unintentional screen interactions.

4. Understand How Seniors Perceive Information Differently

According to an American research book about education and technology called The Flickering Mind, older generations perceive information differently from generations that grew up with smartphones. 

The older generation has a sequential and logical mind, while the younger generation has a parallel and cognitive mind; they leap around the screen consuming multiple sources of information at once. 

However, seniors take time to observe and absorb information one by one, so they want it to be more logical. 

This explains why seniors get confused using Spotify when it comes so easily to younger generations. 

Because Spotify or other apps were developed for younger people, they focus on accessibility and how fast or easy it is to find information users are looking for. While the younger generation has no problem finding the information they need even on the go with Spotify, seniors feel lost; as though the logic wasn’t very clear for them and they needed more sequential patterns or step-by-step guidance.

Seniors need more sequential guidance on music apps
Spotify ‘s design shows the frequently used genres and moods mixed together. 

Although it is a smart UX for younger users, it can be confusing for seniors who are used to thinking in more logical sequences. 

We found that finding genres using alphabetical order was more logical for people over 65. 

5. Stick With the Basics and Stay Consistent 

Even the simplest parts of design are important to pay attention to. 

Some interactions, icons, or signs that are normal to the younger generation might not be clear to an older user. 

While seniors are trying to keep up and understand basic digital rules, we keep designing fresher interactions and unique experiences for the younger generations. 

The gap between the younger and older generations then continues to grow. 

For example, while conducting our research, we found that the light “close” arrow on the Spotify app was confusing for seniors. 

Solution for seniors scrolling through albums
Seniors did not immediately guess the arrow meant to close the page. Instead, the seniors found a normal X much more intuitive.  

The main thing you can do to combat these assumptions is to keep your signs consistent. 

Consistency reduces the learning curve and confusion because we only need to learn a few basic interactions. This pattern reduces the memory load and creates a type of logic in the users’ minds. 

Here is a Spotify example of ‘liking’ the album. When users press ‘like,’ ‘Added to your library’ shows on the bottom with small texts, but it then hides the ‘library’ navigation.

How to create an easier like button for seniors
Senior users felt lost with this sequence and didn’t know what “liking” a song had done. 

It’s better to show where your ‘playlist’ or ‘my favorites’ will be stored with consistent user experience.  

Create an Empathetic and Intuitive Design

Much of the younger generations have experienced helping their parents or grandparents with some sort of technical issue. 

To younger users, these issues may seem simple and intuitive, adding to the frustration that their elders “just don’t get it.” 

We have found that most of the time, design in technology doesn’t focus on meeting older users’ needs; rather they focus on attracting younger users

With that in mind, we can have a better, empathetic view when developing products especially when focusing on new demographics.

Of course, the basics, like font size, color, button size, and contrast should all be considered when designing and developing apps for senior users, however, there are deeper psychological and physiological studies that need to be done for better engagement and results. 

That’s why we need to take an empathetic point of view to better understand senior’s physical and/or psychological needs in technology.

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