Coronavirus: why accessibility for older generations of users is an imperative of software design and development

Posted on 8th April 2020

person holding smartphone

Written by Froso Ellina, Product Design Manager, VMware Pivotal Labs

As social distancing continues to be a crucial tool in combatting the further spread of coronavirus, there has been a significant surge in demand for online products and services. While many consumers may have been accustomed to accessing their bank account, shopping for food and other products, or accessing the news online via the web or a mobile app, there is a significant proportion of society who are now doing so for the first time. 

This is especially true amongst older generations. According to Age UK, two-thirds of people aged over 75 and three out of ten aged 65 to 74 don’t use the internet. Now that social distancing has made online platforms one of the main ways in which we access products and services, the imperative to make these platforms accessible to all has become all the more pressing. 

Digital products and services must now not only be designed to accommodate for a wave of first-time users but must also consider any potential barriers that would prevent interaction with or access. As a result, all users can get the best experience possible regardless of their knowledge and experience with technology, as well as any physical impairments. 

What happens as we age? 

While the ageing process is different for everyone, we all go through some fundamental changes. It’s therefore important we understand these changes in order to empathise with them.

  • Sight – Vision starts to deteriorate from the age of 40. The lens within the eye suffers from “presbyopia”, which makes it harder to read in proximity and to read smaller text. Colour vision also declines with age, as older eyes receive only 1/3 of the light compared to younger viewers. Digital products often don’t use enough colour contrast in order to help people distinguish between shapes and text.
  • Hearing – Hearing also declines in our 30s, 40s, or 50s. As we get older, we suffer from hearing loss and it is harder to detect very high and very low-frequency sounds.
  • Memory – There are three different kinds of memory, and they’re affected differently by the ageing process: procedural memory (remembering how to do things) is generally unaffected; short-term memory can be afflicted without any impact on long-term memory, but this can still make it difficult for people to acquire new skills easily when there’s a certain amount of complexity involved; and prospective memory (remembering to do something in the future) also suffers.

Designing digital experiences to include older users

  • Typography – When adding text to a product or service, it’s important to consider both legibility and readability. Legibility is concerned with being able to recognise, interpret and comprehend letter or words; while Readability focuses on making the reading experience as comfortable as possible. Accessible type design is both legible and readable. In order to be accessible for users with ocular degeneration, digital products and services should use a font size of at least 16 pixels as a default (depending on device) and they should give people the option to increase the text size as preferred. Designers should also keep the number of fonts used at a minimum, choose a typeface that works well in various sizes and limit the length of lines of text. 
  • Navigation – When it comes to designing software, accessibility for older generations should be considered throughout the entire user journey. However, sometimes it may not be obvious how to navigate between screens or around them, as navigation buttons are not always visible and navigation models are not always consistent across the entire interface. Navigational changes or splitting tasks across multiple screens should therefore be avoided as it may cause users with a diminished memory capacity to struggle to complete a task and abandon it altogether. 
  • Error messages and communication – Older web users can have difficulty reading or understanding error messages, either because placement isn’t obvious or the wording is vague. Any error messages need to be simple and clearly spell out exactly what the problem is and how to fix it, as older people often keep a list of steps and instructions about how to use websites they need or often visit. Crucially, every error message should have a clear text message, the right placement and a good visual design. 

A new generation of digital accessibility

Coronavirus has accelerated the already growing trend of software and applications becoming the centre of how users access products and services. At the same time, we’ve already seen a number of software-driven solutions which help users with age-related impairments overcome potential barriers to accessibility. 

For example, the National Theatre’s ‘Smart Caption Glasses’ use intelligent voice-following software to display subtitles on its lenses and indicate sound cues such as thunder or the sound of rain for people with hearing loss. But in addition to making specific changes to address specific potential issues that older generations may encounter, designers of digital products and services must consider the essential human elements of ageing, such as independence, dignity and empowerment. 

Ageing is inevitable and affects everyone. The design of digital products must therefore take into account how the experience of the past will shape user interaction in the present, not only accounting for things like visual or aural impairment but users who did not grow up in the 21st century. Inclusive products work better for everyone, especially the people who need them the most, even our future selves.

The VMware Pivotal Labs view

Design needs to be human-centric in order to deliver real value to end-users. This requires regularly engaging with the widest range of potential users, gathering feedback and using the data to constantly make iterations on existing designs. Through the power of agile methodology, designers repeatedly check products and services are effectively built for purpose, as well as identify and address any assumptions or unconscious biases which manifest in the product. 

Now more than ever, the design of products that aim to connect, inform and assist will be put to the test. While we all hope for an end to the coronavirus pandemic, let’s see what we can take forward in product design to ensure inclusivity for all. 

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