Accessibility Design: How to Master Interface Design for Older Adults

Ellen Gregory


If you’re a designer, you probably know the sign of a successful design is creating the ultimate UX and UI experience. Whether it’s a product, an app, or a website, you’re always designing and developing with your user in mind. An often understated task as a designer is the importance of designing with all types of end-users in mind, which means thinking about accessible design every step of the process. Accessibility design is measured by a user’s ability to use products/services, rather than usability, which is the extent to which they can attain goals. Exceptional user experience is achieved when great usability and accessibility are both present.

When it comes to design, it’s essential to make it accessible to the needs of all potential users. Although accessibility design is different from usability, it has a direct impact on the user experience and is an essential component of designing a great user experience.

Designing a site, app, product, ect. that successfully achieves accessibility design is easier said than done. When designers are working closely on a project, they may be too close to recognize what needs to be improved, or if it truly meets accessibility design standards. A challenge or solution could be right in front of your eyes, but you might not be able to pinpoint it or even recognize it. 

The crux of accessibility design is ensuring your design meets its intended purpose, provides an enjoyable experience, and it’s user-friendly — for all people. Make accessible design a part of your design process by implementing the recommended best practices.

accessibility design best practices
Implement accessibility design best practices for the elderly. 


Assumptions and accessibility design

An important aspect of design is producing work that makes your user’s life better. However,  tailoring designs to suit a specific user can unintentionally exclude large sections of the population. How many services or products have you encountered that missed the mark because it didn’t solve the user’s problem?  This is where we can truly appreciate the importance of making well-informed decisions based on user feedback, not assumptions.

The best way to avoid the trap of making assumptions is by having a deep interest in developing and understanding all types of end-users. With it, you are pulling together the most desirable solution from a human point of view within the confines of what is technologically feasible and economically viable. By combining creative and critical thinking, information and ideas are organized in a way that ensures decisions are made, situations are improved, and problems are solved. 

Create more inclusive products that work better for all types of users and avoid making assumptions about your user’s needs, challenges, behaviors, wants, etc. It’s important to avoid spending a lot of time and resources on perfecting a design, and to focus on collecting feedback from your users to slowly improve it through a series of trial and errors. With accessibility design, collect data that:

  • captures the specific mindset and needs of your end-user 
  • identifies and defines the problem to form ideal solutions 
  • creates opportunities based on the needs of your end-user
  • improves innovative solutions through a series of quick, low-fidelity prototypes 
  • provides insight into your end-users’ biggest challenges

When your accessibility design process accurately reflects the needs and wants of the end-user, it results in better products, services, and internal processes. Designers are typically trained to create two or three personas. With accessibility design, we focus on more inclusive personas that help lead designers toward designing more accessible products, services, apps, etc. 

accessibility design inclusive personas
Focus on inclusive personas that help lead to more accessible designs.


Accessibility design for older adults

Let’s consider one of the largest sections of the population that may be an end-user of a product, app, or website that you’re designing: the elderly. Your goal with accessibility design is to create a positive experience while fulfilling all users’ needs. 

Most older adults don’t require a ton of compensation to comfortably interact with a design, but a little will go a long way in creating accessible designs for all users, regardless of age or any physical or cognitive impairments.

As we age, we begin to experience physiological and cognitive change. These changes vary from person to person, but it’s important to compensate for and consider how these changes will impact how a user interacts with your design. UX and UI designers need to understand these changes in order to effectively master interface design for older adults. 

accessibility design for older adults
Master accessibility design for older adults.


Take the following into consideration when implementing accessibility design practices for the elderly:

Memory

Not all older adults experience a decline in memory or in the speed at which they absorb and process information. It may take some users longer to process information and take appropriate action. Presenting users with complex tasks that require quick intake, decision-making skills, or a lengthy list of things to remember will hinder design accessibility. App notifications and prompts are a great way to compensate for any decline in your user’s ability to retain and recall information.

Introduce characteristics gradually and clearly to prevent cognitive overload. Using a minimalist design will improve attention by avoiding distractions and focusing on one task or parts of the screen at a time. Similarly, provide clear feedback, cues, and guidance by reminding users of the end goal and where they are throughout the process. 

Attention & Engagement

In a world where we’re inundated with tons of information, the average person’s attention span has been significantly shortened. However, research has shown that older adults have a higher attention span, persistence, and thoroughness. Including long-form text with more in-depth information is advisable, but include the option to skip it at a faster rate for other users to ensure higher engagement among all users. 

The biggest thing when considering a varying attention span and engagement is to ensure more time is allowed, but not necessary, for each interaction. Avoid fast timeouts, and include inactivity warnings. While younger users may skip over things, older adults will spend time thoroughly exploring your design, which is extremely beneficial during testing sessions.

complex elements hinder design accessibility
Introduce characteristics gradually and clearly to prevent cognitive overload.


Motivation

Unlike the younger generations, older adults haven’t integrated technology as seamlessly into their lives and interact with technology differently. 

If an application isn’t deemed as useful, they’re likely to ignore it, regardless of notifications and gamification elements. If an app or website is useful, they’ll respond to notifications and feel motivated. The key to consistency is designing something that is useful and easy to use.

Familiarity & experience with technology

Many older adults are comfortable with technology and only require considerations based on physiological and cognitive changes. However, there is a pocket of the population that is inexperienced with technology that needs to be taken into consideration when designing for accessibility.

Make it as quick, clear, and simple to get from the entry point to where they perform their task. Keep the “return” function and the “home” navigation accessible as a safe point on the interface. Simplify the navigation process, minimize sublevels in navigation, keep menus to a single function, and focus on the task at hand by limiting exposure to additional functions. This starts with a proper onboarding process that clearly introduces users to functions they might be unfamiliar with. 

accessibility design simplicity
Accessibility design makes it quick, clear, and simple to get from point A to point B


Visual considerations

Visual cues are vital for achieving interactions, so they need to be clear, easy to decipher, and simple to interact with. 

But it goes beyond just making sure visual cues are clear. Every part of the interaction needs to be kept easy to understand and complete. This is especially true as the target demographic age increases since motor skills tend to decline with age, making things like complex gestures more challenging.

1. Color & Fonts

Choose colors and fonts that will be legible and clear for people with visual impairments or older adults. The best typeface is Sans serifs: Roboto, Helvetica, Arial, Futura, Avant Garde, or Verdana with a minimum 16px font size. Create a clear hierarchy by using type weight in headings and body text. If possible, include the option to adjust text size, and avoid using multiple fonts or using condensed fonts. For colors, review designs by using online visual impairment simulators and converting designs to grayscale to ensure optimal legibility. Avoid using blue for key interface elements, and keep in mind that red and green are the hardest colors to differentiate for color blindness. For the best results, use high contrast and use black to convey key messages throughout.

2. Devices

With inevitable changes in vision and motor control, small screens can become very impractical for older adults. The elderly seldom use their smartphones and will likely opt for their computer or tablet. In fact, research has found that older people are the largest users of tablets. Keep in mind how an app or site may be displayed on their preferred device. Older adults also perform better with touch interfaces because finger tapping typically declines later than other motor skills. 

3. Gestures

Gestures can become more of a hindrance, than a seamless part of your design if they’re unfamiliar with touchscreen technology, or the icons are too small. 

Improve accessibility design by increasing the size of apps and websites to go beyond the typical “recommended” size or distance specified. Consider these recommended sizes as the absolute bare minimum when targeting elderly users.

Interaction patterns in older adults are quite different from younger generations, and need to be taken into consideration when designing for accessibility. This includes typing with one hand, clicking through seamlessly, and pressing smaller icons.

The crux to successful accessibility design gestures is ensuring they are simple to perform. Avoid complex gestures that require more than two fingers and opt for simple, natural motions such as horizontal, vertical, or diagonal movements instead. Gestures with quick movements, difficult positioning, or multiple gestures often cause frustration in older adults, even if they’re tech-savvy.

accessibility design visual cues 
Visual cues need to be clear, easy to decipher, and simple to interact with.

Feedback/conclusion/CloudApp

Since everything we design should always be designed with a user’s experience in mind, it’s essential to get feedback from their hands-on experience. Whatever you choose, just ensure it makes the most sense for your users. It’s crucial to remember that the best results come from directly interacting with your users, and gaining insight from them. Get feedback from them, observe how they interact with your interface, learn from their hands-on experience, and view the results from an objective standpoint. Ask your users, and yourself, questions about their decisions, thoughts, and feelings. Your users are your most valuable teachers, so pay close attention to their actions and reactions. 

Usability testing allows designers to take a step back in order to measure the success or pain points real users experience. This technique focuses on what the users do, and not just what the users say. There are endless ways where CloudApp can enhance your team’s development. It can be easily integrated with several other platforms and offers a variety of features for the ultimate tool to help streamline the process. CloudApp features allow you to create, annotate, and share screenshots, GIFs, video snippets, and screen recordings with others. 

CloudApp is compatible with Macs and PC. Install the CloudApp Mac App, Windows App, iOS app, or our Chrome Plugin today.


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