Accessible Design: Designing for the Elderly

Becky Pierson
Apr 3, 2018

This is Part 1 in the Spire Digital Accessible Design Series, which will include groups that are often left out and not considered. Our goal is to make accessible design a part of designers’ best practices, every day.

As product designers, it is our job to advocate for end users no matter what we’re hearing from stakeholders or product influencers. This means every time we open our laptops we have to check our biases at the door, forget our friends and family and focus solely on the product at hand and the big, diverse world we’re releasing it to. We have to always be thinking about accessible design. Designing for everyone sometimes means standing up for differently abled individuals and pushing back on a sexier design or a client vision for the look and feel of their product. One of my mentors always told me the worst designers design for themselves. It is our job to design the most pleasant, enjoyable experience possible – for all people.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to design an application for seniors that includes a large spectrum of ability and tech adoption. What I have learned so far is just the tip of the iceberg:

Best practices:

  • Short-term memory and episodic memory are particularly vulnerable so when possible, introduce product features gradually over time instead of all at once
  • Don’t divide screens into multiple actions – one focus at once will have better results
  • Give clear feedback on progress and completion
  • Provide reminders and alerts as cues for habitual actions
  • Use subtitles for any voice/video
  • Use breadcrumbs or make it clear how to get back to the home page
  • No text overlaid on images or graphics
  • Simple plain backgrounds are better to avoid distraction
  • Be explicit: make the purpose of the product clear

Avoid assumptions:

  • Second guess everything you ever knew about UI design before
  • Seniors may not understand things like scrolling or search functionality
  • The elderly may not recognize common abbreviations or acronyms (especially those with dementia)
  • The elderly have much longer attention spans than younger people so long-form text and deep content is ok as long as they don’t have to divide their attention
  • Icons and symbols are less clear, especially the hamburger menu. When using icons and symbols always pair them with text

Fonts:

  • Let people adjust text size themselves, if possible
  • Font 16px minimum
  • Sans serifs are the best typefaces to use
  • Roboto, Helvetica, Arial, Futura, Avant Garde, Verdana
  • Avoid using multiple fonts
  • Avoid using condensed fonts
  • Use type weight to make a clear hierarchy (bold v regular)

Colors:

  • Avoid blue for important interface elements
  • Don’t use color to convey a message
  • Red & green are the hardest colors to differentiate for color blindness
  • High contrast is best, especially within color value (navy & light blue or black & white)
  • Check your designs by using online visual impairment simulators and converting designs to grayscale to make sure they are still legible

Choosing a device:

  • Avoid small-screen devices, older people are the largest users of tablets.
  • Seniors perform better using touch interfaces (finger tapping declines later than some other motor skills)

Where to start?

We’re trained to design for one, two or three personas, but within those groups there will always be people who have disabilities. It’s our job to make those personas inclusive and lead us toward designing a more accessible product. We can start by avoiding user interface assumptions for each product, and choosing colors and fonts that will be legible and clear for people with visual impairments.

Lastly, and probably most importantly, before releasing these designs into the wild we have to check our work with usability testing that has an inclusive test pool. Be sure to run your designs past people with disabilities and different age groups. This is the only way to truly make sure your products are designed thoughtfully and successfully – for everyone.

To learn more check out these resources:

https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2015/02/designing-digital-technology-for-the-elderly/
https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2016/05/designing-a-dementia-friendly-website/
https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2014/10/color-contrast-tips-and-tools-for-accessibility/
http://www.afb.org/prodBrowseCatResults.aspx?CatID=49
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_Content_Accessibility_Guidelines
https://webaim.org/resources/contrastchecker/