Episode 46 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with Jeff Johnson. Jeff has been applying his background in psychology towards designing better human-computer interfaces for over forty years. He teaches computer science at The University of San Francisco, and has written several influential books on UI design. Among these, he co-authored with Kate Finn Desiging User Interfaces for an Aging Population, which was the focus of our conversation.
Jeff called out the irony that while older adults often have trouble using technology, they’re in a sense the segment of the population that is in most need of technological assistance. He also explained that this trouble comes primarily from two issues:
- Our physical capacities diminish as we age
- Our mental models about technologies become fixed around those that were current when we were between 10-30 years old
There are ways for designers to empathize for the former challenge. The latter, however, is harder to overcome.
As an example of becoming fixed in our mental models of how technology works, Jeff cited navigating between screens to find product functions:
When I was 15 years old, all the user interfaces I used were right there in front of me. They didn’t require any kind of a concept of navigation. I did not have to navigate to the function that I wanted to do. Whereas now, starting with, personal computers, but continuing through the web, continuing through social networking and continuing through the use of cell phones, navigation through a user interface became an important concept. It’s part of the design, right? There’s no way a cell phone with its small screen can provide all the functionality right there on the screen that you need at any given time. But the old telephones, there was no need to navigate from one function to another. You just pick up the phone and start dialing the number.
As challenging as it may be, it behooves designers to find ways to empathize with aging users. Jeff called out several ways to do this, including techniques for designers to hobble their sensory and motor capabilities and including older designers in the team.
This conversation reminded me that we all stand to benefit when we design for aging users. I hope you get as much value from our discussion as I did.