Ageism and technology UX: Designing for seniors 

February 22, 2021
It's time for tech companies to turn their attention to designing solutions for a senior community that is more in need of connection than ever before.

For most of us, keeping up with the latest tech updates is exhausting, but for my 90-year-old father it is impossible. I get phone calls from him every day because I am the only one he seems to be able to reach when he tries to use his phone. He pushes so many buttons on his phone that he gets into screens that I did not know even existed. He can no longer stay connected on email because it requires two-factor authentication. (Pretty tough for someone who does not even know how to send an SMS.) I am used to receiving entire messages in the subject line because he could not figure out how to get to the message body. 

He says to himself – and to me – ‘I’m so dumb,’ ‘I can’t even make a call,’ and I to continue to assure him that it’s not him, it’s that the phone and the software were not designed with an aging father in mind. But that’s little comfort when the phone is the only lifeline he has. He said to me last week that he doesn’t even know how to call 911 if he needs help. 

It’s cliche at this point that the grandkids have to sit next to grandpa to show him how to use his phone, but there’s no particular reason it has to be that way. It’s not that seniors are incapable or daft, it’s perhaps that such devices are not even designed for them or tested by them. It seems to me that in the rush to capture the youth end of the market, most tech companies have forgotten that they have an aging market as well. Much effort is put into making the tech we use more utilitarian, more clever, more elegant for Gen Z, yet, from my own hands-on research perspective, no one is asking ‘How does this work for a senior citizen?’. 

Seniors need to connect 

Especially during COVID, seniors are increasingly isolated when they can’t make a simple call, keep their email working, or activate the History channel on their TV. This comes from a lack of creativity in research and design, and it shows an insensitivity to vulnerable users. It’s ageism, and it’s wrong. 

In my view, this is a reasonably simple problem to solve. When I started my career in the late 1980s at Bellcore, they had designed something called ‘Plain Old Mail Service’ or POMS. POMS was intentionally developed for people who had never used a computer, and it was released in senior living communities to great success. So now, 30 years on, why can’t phone manufacturers research, design, and deploy an ‘out of the box’ senior mode for their operating system?  Why can’t email providers build a simplified email interface for seniors? The answer, of course, is that they can. The market is open for tech companies to reach out to the senior community and make technology truly usable.  

I’m not going to lie to myself and think that somehow all this will magically change, but I would hope that as UX researchers we can advocate for those users and have empathy and patience to bring about a more usable world for seniors. 


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