UX for the Elderly: Emotional Safety

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou

Empowering seniors is difficult. They did not learn the language of technology as we did when they were young. On the contrary, many of our elders grew up with badly designed devices, where not following the manual step by step could lead to unwanted, almost irreparable results and a feeling of failure. It is no wonder, then, that our elders lack the curiosity and exploration mindset to cope with our modern-day flashy user interfaces. But how can good UX design make their digital life easier?

Mahsa Yavari from The UX Blog has interviewed several seniors about their digital experiences, and their answers give a unique insight into the perception of the elderly. One senior explained that she ‘doesn’t know how to interact with technology’, while she felt that ‘it is still expected that she knows these things’. Another asked for explanations about cookies and hashtags, stating that ‘everything is in an alien language’ and asked herself the question of how she could be sure that the person, company or institution on the other side of the Web could be trusted.

It’s a fair question which seems to be a particularly relevant one for seniors – the article further states that ‘cautious clicking is a behavioural trait that correlates with lack of trust; seniors are afraid that one wrong click could have huge consequences or could damage their device’. Add to that the notion that many seniors don’t know what kind of measurements are in place to prevent these situations or how to avoid them with what millennials would call ‘common sense’, and the digital world becomes a scary place indeed.

It’s slightly scary to a millenial when Facebook places an ad on their timeline about something they’ve only talked or texted about – imagine how terrified that would make a senior feel.

Trust and emotional safety then become key factors to incorporate in any kind of UX design. To make the elderly feel emotionally safe when interacting with our designs, we need to have them in control – and make them feel in control, as well.

One way to go about it is to clearly explain yourself when asking for any kind of personal information. Be honest and upfront about it (which is a tactic I’d endorse for use with all age groups, by the way, and for millennials in particular). Why do you need this information you’re asking for, and how will you use it? Can you give them a say in how their data will be used?

Another way to have your seniors in control emotionally is not using fancy algorithms they don’t understand. It’s slightly scary to a millennial when Facebook places an ad on their timeline about something they’ve only talked or texted about – imagine how terrified that would make a senior feel. Again, being open about what you’re doing is key here; include reasoning about why they are seeing a piece of eerily accurately suggested content, or leave out the algorithms altogether. Just take care not to present them with a black box.

Using familiar language is a tactic to create a feeling of familiarity and engagement – or rather, avoid the feeling of interacting with something ‘alien’. The elderly are not stupid – on the contrary, their attention span is much longer than that of a millennial, allowing them to read and interpret long pieces of text really well, but buzzwords and concepts born in and belonging to the digital universe are fundamentally lost on them. Be grounded and use your words wisely, and it won’t be a problem to make yourself understood to the senior user group.

Avoid the feeling of interacting with something ‘alien’. Buzzwords seem fancy, but they are fundamentally lost on the elderly. Seek to contribute to their sense of belonging in the digital world instead.

Of course, avoiding friction and frustration in interaction with your design is also an important part of UX for the elderly, but many of the concepts used there don’t have an exact correlation with emotional safety. These topics cover physical accessibility, for example, but I’ve reserved them for a later blog. For now, it’s enough to simply note that interactions which do not frustrate seniors – or even better, interactions that actively help them accomplish their task – greatly contribute to their sense of belonging in the digital world, especially when so many experiences can be so frustrating to them.

Accommodating our user experiences to the elderly is a challenge, especially when our point of view seems to differ so much from theirs, but it is a challenge worth facing. We all have something to gain from the honesty and clarity seniors expect from the Web. (Take millennials, for example, they have been craving honest online brands for years!) And if we make our applications accessible to even more users on the way, why shouldn’t we?

Enjoy this information, use it to your advantage, and see you in the next post!


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