Current digital design practices are at risk of excluding the elderly, says Scott Snashfold

This article is part of our feature on the future of healthcare, you can check out Issue 2 of Magpie here.

“There’s an app for that.” That catchy little slogan, almost 10 years old now, was our introduction to what more the iPhone could do over and above calling, listening to music and surfing the web. Part of why the slogan worked is that it implied that there was a digital alternative you could dabble with, for work, play and everything else.

However, today it feels like that choice is gone – when it comes to many aspects of customer service across a wide range of industries, an app appears to be our only option.

Superficially, that’s great. Because pretty much everything we need to run our lives has moved to a digital platform, it in theory means that things will keep getting faster, and better. And the small device in our pockets, through which we access these services most of the time, is so intuitive to use that it doesn’t even come with an instruction manual – we all know how to use one.

Is that really the case? For a younger demographic, probably yes. They will have been there at the start of the app revolution, have got used to new digital behaviours quickly – seemingly born tech-ready. But is this true of older generations?

My contention here is that for older people, using and navigating ‘digital’ experiences doesn’t come as second nature. They are, in the main, designed for and by relative youngsters. We design apps and websites based on what we think is super clear and simple, and it is then judged by those who think likewise.

But what about those who aren’t even close to being digital natives, who haven’t grown up with daily digital experiences?

All the persona development and user experience research and testing in the world, doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who don’t find it a struggle to transfer money with their banking app, or to book a doctor’s appointment through their GP’s website. There are still many people for whom sending or opening an email isn’t common or easy.

Intuition vs memorisation.

Of course, I find using my iPhone an intuitive and easy way to control many aspects of my daily life, and this will be true for many people too. But I have also witnessed older people (my grandparents for two) who don’t find the iPhone intuitive, and instead have to follow a regimented process they have memorised to access a select number of apps; the rest of the device remains uncharted territory.

Why is this? It could be that younger people are just naturally more comfortable with new technology, and so have taken to this world with aplomb.

Or is it because digital experiences are designed exclusively by a younger generation, and without serious regard for the needs of older generations? And if this is the case, can we really afford to do this when we know the elderly population is going to skyrocket in number?

Of course there are specific apps and websites targeted at certain age groups. But my concern is with those apps that are, in theory, meant to be universal – ones in the banking or healthcare sectors for example. Can a digital innovation really be classed as such if it does not work for – or blatantly disregards – a certain demographic?

How important an issue is this? We could just shrug our shoulders and claim it’s not worth worrying about. We could argue that this current cohort of elderly people are not actually going to use digital healthcare services, but as younger generations will this frees up resources that can be redirected towards older people.

But we also know that digital innovation can often also be code for reducing employment in industries, and trying to make digital interactions default.

Designing to be inclusive.

All of this, to my mind, suggests we have to take a much more inclusive approach to digital design. We need to work a lot harder at involving and considering elderly demographics in our research phases, establishing practices and principles that take their current and future needs into account, and not assume that just because something is intuitive for a 30-year old does it will be for someone double that age.

We will all get old at some point. None of us will want to find ourselves isolated from the technology we will need to rely on to live normal life. Right now, too many of the governing assumptions behind digital are skewed towards the young. We need to change this, or risk leaving the elderly behind.

Photo by malcolm lightbody on Unsplash