Why we should design for our 73-year-old self

As an extension to the post on Oliver Sacks’ frustration about how the world is increasingly less inclusive towards the elderly — here is Don Norman, the father of user experience and usability himself, decrying on everyday design that are hostile to older users:

The number of active, healthy oldsters is large – and increasing. We are not a niche market. And businesses should take note: We are good customers often with more free time and discretionary income than younger people. Despite our increasing numbers the world seems to be designed against the elderly. Everyday household goods require knives and pliers to open. Containers with screw tops require more strength than my wife or I can muster. (We solve this by using a plumber’s wrench to turn the caps.) Companies insist on printing critical instructions in tiny fonts with very low contrast. Labels cannot be read without flashlights and magnifying lenses. And when companies do design things specifically for the elderly, they tend to be ugly devices that shout out to the world “I’m old and can’t function!”

Older users are often more experienced and better decision-makers. However, the only thing holding them back is that they face notable physical changes, and these anecdotes on these changes should be considered when designers want to design products and experiences inclusive to the elderly:

Vision deteriorates. The lens of our eyes harden, making focusing more difficult. I used to be able to read tiny text by holding it close to my eyes, but my inability to focus at close distances defeats that activity. Floaters and debris start accumulating inside the eye, which scatters the light on its way to the retina, reducing contrast and making it more difficult to see small, low-contrast objects. For the increasing number of people who have cataract surgery, the eye’s lenses have ben replaced with plastic, which usually have a fixed focus. (Artificial lenses that can be focused are under development.) A flashlight has become an essential item, whether the one built into many phones or carried separately, because illumination makes tiny type easier to read although even then, a magnifying glass might be useful.

Hearing decreases. High frequencies are first to go, which also tends to impair directional sensitivity, which in turn makes it more difficult to attend to someone in a crowded, noisy environment. Loud restaurants are torture. So, more and more, my wife and I select restaurants by their noise level rather than by their food quality. At home while watching TV, whether shows, streaming events, or movies, we always turn on the captions, which often block critical parts of the image. Even worse, when a film shows someone speaking in a foreign language, the film often translates the words, but so too does the closed captioning, and the two are placed on top of one another, making both attempts to help the viewer completely unhelpful.

Norman also noted that not only bad designs in terms of functionalities are abound, it’s that also they are aesthetically unpleasant:

Then there’s the aesthetic problem. When products are developed for the elderly, they tend to be ugly and an unwanted signal of fragility. As a result, people who need walkers or canes often resist. Once upon a time, a cane was stylish: Today it is seen as a medical device. Why can’t we have walkers and canes for everyday use, to help us in everyday life, to carry our packages, provide a way to sit when we are tired, or viewing some event, and yes, to maintain our balance? Make them items of pride, stylish enough that everyone will want one.

Norman ended by saying that all ailments impacting the elderly, are applicable for in all ages, and in general, all varieties of abilities. Closed captioning? Curbs? Noise-canceling headphones? Higher contrast lettering in phones and devices? Perhaps also dark mode? Almost anything that will help the elderly population, and inclusive of other disabilities, will end up helping everyone — which is why we should start to design for our 73-year-old selves.

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