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Not there yet -- today's design processes and tech are not designed for all

Design still needs to include older adults. One might say that there’s nothing left to say about this topic – it’s been said in multiple and sometimes overlapping and confusing ways. You can read about inclusive design, sometimes called design-for-all, accessible design, and universal design.  None of these concepts are specific to designing for inclusion of aging adults. And we know that older adults, some not online, are an afterthought when new emergency processes are created.  At a recent event, recommendations from design experts were discussed and considered in the context of aging adults.  But is the distinction between approaches, in fact, based on history and legal compliance? What should (really, this time!) change?

  • Consider accessible design – where does it fit in the design world? Too often it is an afterthought or follows a completely different path based on regulations like the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.  For example, note the definition differences between accessible design (serving people with disabilities), universal design (products that are easy to use), and usable design (based on an agreed-to or promoted standard of usability).  But what about design for simplicity?  Samsung's Easy Mode is a setting on any Galaxy phone -- shrinking the number of icons on a screen, lengthening the touch-and-hold delay for those with shaky fingers, altering the contrast color and creating people shortcuts.  In addition to Easy Mode, Samsung has the same collection of accessibility features, found via the Accessibility settings.
  • Boost interest in inclusive design (versus ‘accessible’) concepts. The British Standards Institute defines inclusive design as: “The design of mainstream products and/or services that are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible ... without the need for special adaptation or specialized design." Contrast this approach with the separation of ‘accessibility’ settings on devices that are distinct from general settings on mobile phones. Look at the list of accessibility options on an iPhone – and see if a few of those like AssistiveTouch or Voice Control could be of use to some older people.  And observe the role (or lack thereof) for older people in user testing, or as one participant last week noted, "No design for me without me!"
  • Fix the nightmare of transitions to new designs. The processes for shifting to ‘state-of-the-art’ designs are the opposite of ‘inclusive’.  Think back to design changes that have happened over the years that were disruptive and alienating for many. Consider the complexity of TV remote control devices and the requirement for multiples of them. Observe how  'smart' thermostats outsmart the user. Note the trauma of changes from knobs to digital interfaces – like the car radio volume control – or the introduction of BMW’s iDrive that sent its mostly older buyers into a state of rage. Or the change to impenetrable touch screens on smartphones and tablets.
  • The tech advances but the people don’t.  It’s clear that many barriers stand between older adults and the benefits of technology (such as smartphones and their apps), including ‘inaccessible interfaces and software, lack of instructions or guidance, design that does not accommodate physical or sensory impairments and lack of knowledge.’ Whew. Design principles are out there, but a quick look at apps and websites shows that they are not universally adopted. Eventually we may discover that voice interfaces will replace the other methods of interactions, including accessibility settings and beyond.  If you can whisper the search inquiry for articles about accessibility, speaking may be our best accessibility improvement ever.


Found this blog today and see that it is concerned with same topics that concern me. Then tried to post a comment. After multiple trials figured it out and got a test into the queue.

I am old (70) and speak Standard English. What is needed on this site to "Post' or 'Send' or 'Submit' is to press 'Save'. How would an English speaker know this? I do not need to save any of my comments for my own reference. I do not need or want to clutter your inbox with 'saved' items. Some users figure these things out 'intuitively'. Some people easily learn dozens of languages. Some people open any device and instantly find guideposts, pattern, active fields.

Some of us struggle decade after decade and never get any closer.

Right now I am one of those who had to surrender the 3G phone and get a smartphone. Which is an alien life form that lives in my pocket. It has functions beyond measure. Can do millions of things. I want to be able to answer the phone when it rings. I want to place phone calls. In my dreams I would like to hear the voicemails callers have left for me. These basic functions are closed to me. Everyone who knows anything about geriatrics or mental health knows that old people isolate. The digital world is isolating me severely. I need help and need it desperately. Can the blog host possibly direct me?

This is being typed on a Mac Air. I have had a computer in the house since 1984. I have been married to a very senior computer professional. All I can do is browse and email. And those functions ball up frequently, stop working until someone else clears the clutter. Thousands of hours of classes, tutors, reading, study. Somewhere underneath the skin of this computer there is order and system. There is vocabulary, grammar, syntax. All we mortals ever find is buggy opaque software, dead ends, glitches. It would not be possible to create these things if there was not an organizing principle somewhere. Sometimes tiny glimpses of such a thing glimmer on the edges of the screen. And then it goes away and the system crashes.

I need to make a phone call. Help

Quite insightful! 

Well thank you for the compliments. 

If this house were on fire I would not attempt to call 911. That could take ten minutes. Instead I would get on my bike and go to the nearest fire station. It is perhaps a quarter mile away and downhill. Then would have to explain to the firemen why I appeared in person rather than phoning. They might or might not believe me.

I am very serious. Due to smartphone I do not have 911 access. Think of smartphone as life threatening. These are not abstract issues.

The current status of emergency service location tracking. Worth a read.



Thank you for advancing real "Inclusive" design - agree it would be best introduced in the classroom across all disciplines.

Laurie, This is a very nicely organized set of helpful pointers with insightful commentary. Thank you!

Hi Laurie, you and I go back awhile! I was once refered to an "an early adopter" and facilitator. But I know I am not a "Digital Native." I find so much of the current technology (apps and portals) tedious. Said to my sister recently we are all being funneled into "clickers!" Click and this, click on that! Follow the sceen message(s) that are in "TXT type language that probably makes sense to the "Digital Native'" but not to the :DigitaI immigrant! Recently, as a client, the customer service person on the phone told me he couldn't help me if I could not follow his directions. When I got a woman CS person on the line I told her that I could troubleshoot the problem with her if she could/would listen to me. She did and it worked! And on it goes..................seniors are definitely overlooked in making the shift the new technology direction and what I call "the portal communication world."


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