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The Tech User Experience for Older Adults Needs A Reboot

Is the user experience deteriorating? Tech user experience experts focus on everyone except older adults. But there’s a problem:  from AARP’s tech trends survey from 2024 and their 2023 guidance from AARP on inclusive design practices, it’s clear and as the AARP report notes, “No one prefers badly designed, over-complicated products.”  Despite preferences, surveys show that today’s user experience for older adults is more problematic than ever. All are confronted with buggy software and frequent bug fix releases, such a problem on iPhones that an embarrassed Apple redirected software work towards fixing. And Google is no better with Pixel phones

Smartphone and smartwatch adoption highlight UI inconsistencies. Broad older adult adoption of smartphones has inadvertently introduced more, not fewer barriers to achieving digital competence. As the screen size shrank in comparison to PCs, Macs, and iPads, the differences between user interfaces became more obvious. Developers have adjusted features to utilize more icons and fewer words, creating confusion. And the same app on a PC, iPhone and Apple Watch are strikingly different, assuming the app interface is even visible on the watch.

Older adults are pushed online into a standards-free world.  The patient portals are now required for access to personal health data and to minimize clipboard use – and has spawned a raft of advice about their creation.  However, the lack of standards in creation has resulted in multiple styles and formats for different physician practices (with the clipboard still alive and well). Add the sign-on process that may be difficult on a PC and perhaps impossible on a smartphone. To verify that you are you, an authentication processes require 2 devices to log in – one of which is a phone – cumbersome enough to invite satire in the Wall Street Journal.   

Convenience and portability today compete with clarity and usability.  There is no turning back the clock – older adults will own smartphones.  They need them to function outside the home – and they will learn enough to do those required tasks on whatever apps are required. GPS directions, chat with a grandchild, book a restaurant.  You may have observed a couple in which one of them is more proficient and assigned those tasks. But even the proficient will be frustrated by forced change. They will delay the upgrade to a new phone because of the hassle factor. They will wish for a simpler time, when they sat in front of a (relatively) large screen.  They used relatively few apps and the login processes were simple and passwords were short and easily reused.

Simpler days are gone for good – what is the fix?  Are there innovations on the horizon that will improve the tech user experience?  Should there be more user training, obvious and available when a new device is purchased or an upgrade is completed?  Should AI software detect when a user is having difficulty and chime in with suggestions?  Should improvements be focused on older adults – or is this really a Design for Everyone opportunity?  Are tech developers so insulated from users, they don’t see the deterioration of experience as it happened?  

[This is the first of blog posts that will drive a new report in 2024 about improving tech user experience for older adults.]

[See Market Overview Technology for Aging 2024]


A lot of "mainstream" products are adapted for older adults after launch once the marketshare opportunity is recognized rather than designed with them involved from the beginning. Products designed specifically for older adults are often less interoperable with "mainstream" tech and can fail to respect the agency of older adults. I think the key here is involving older users in design from the beginning on both mainstream and senior specific products. I'm hopeful there will be a blend of both approaches in the near future.

Those born in 1940 are now 84. The iPhone launched in 2007. Browsers like Netscape or IE have been around since 1994. The current cohort of seniors certainly have had plenty of experience with GUIs, Amazon, BlackBerry, Palm Pilots, Apple products, PCs, laptops, smart TVs, Netflix, etc. The term AgeTech is a misnomer and an insult to the 1940 generation and the Boomers who are coming up next. In the near future all the aging population will be tech savvy. The frog has boiled

I think we’re in this unfortunate place for those aging folks that have had little technology exposure. I believe user interfaces will change drastically with NLP and AI advancement which will potentially benefit the tech challenged but only if those new capabilities are embedded in time for people to exploit. I believe the issue is not just relevant to aging populations but anyone who is lacking or lagging technology expertise as a result of access. Those of us fortunate enough to “age with technology” have been exposed to software defects and glitchy behaviors (not to excuse it, just to say it’s become our normal). Bottom line is I think the ship has sailed on requiring special focus on aging populations unless to technology in question is specifically being marketed to that demographic.

It sure is! I know multiple very senior citizens who can't operate a "Smart phone" beyond as a phone, other than--some times--being able to send and receive SMS and MMS messages and access their e-mail. Don't get me started on passwords: they are the bane of technology's existence for senior citizens. And customer service? When they have poor hearing and cannot understand an East Indian kid who neither knows how to enunciate words nor slow down their talking?

All of these issues PLUS the push by tech companies to push for features/functionality that is not always necessary or useful for every segment of the population.

Scammer "innovation" is a heartbreaking concept - and I agree that it is outpacing other types of technology innovation. To me, it seems that it boils down to a degradation of our social norms. We are all becoming so cynical and I have to work hard to stay positive and hopeful.

Accessibility is an area that salespeople can introduce to select prospects that are really appreciated and create an opportunity to build their relationship.

When it comes to tech design, I may hold an extreme POV. I believe that most designers feel contempt for and resentment of older adults on several psychological levels. Therefore they not only don't care if their technology is usable by older adults (or the disabled, motor or sight disabled of any age) but also WANT to exclude them from their snazzy stuff because they're just too hip for Grandpa. One of the worst areas is transferring from one platform to another, or saving your phone apps and files to another. It's a lot more complicated than it used to be.


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