Q&A: How today's tech alienates the elderly

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Middlesex University academic bemoans focus on younger generations

On Silver Surfer's Day, a UK academic has blamed unnecessarily complicated user interfaces for putting older people off joining the Government-backed Race Online.

According to Mike Bradley, senior lecturer in product design and engineering at Middlesex University, efforts to be more inclusive are being undermined by software and hardware design that is exclusively targeted at younger users.

The idea of looking after your user and understanding where they start from and allowing them to improve skills before you throw the big, heavy stuff at them is probably best shown in gaming

We caught up with Bradley, who is working on projects to design simpler interfaces, to find out why the current icon-based software interfaces are alienating older users.

Q. Is modern technology really any more exclusive than earlier generations for older people?

A.The older graphical user interfaces were, compared to today, a lot simpler. There was a lot less going on, the icons were simpler – with some designed to work in black and white, they tended to be more obvious.

Also, if you look at the number of icons on each package and compare, say, Microsoft Word today to the first incarnation of Word, there's about three times as many icons. If you're a novice, that's much more difficult to get your head around.

For people like us who have grown up with computers, the change has been easy, it's incremental. But the developments have skewed most mainstream software packages towards the expert user. If you're designing an application you get feedback from customers who say – “I'd like this feature or that feature” and they stick it in, evolving it towards the needs of their current customers.

It's good business practice, but the net effect is that packages get more complex. Unless there's a recognition and a reset they will get progressively more difficult for novices to master.

Q. Is there an argument for a tiered approach - one package with several interfaces?

A. It's been talked about in the research community, the idea of progressive disclosure, where you're not going to show the full functionality to people from the off, but you allow them to discover the basic and then move onto an intermediate level.

I've not seen a good implementation of that in software yet. The idea of looking after your user and understanding where they start from and allowing them to improve skills before you throw the big, heavy stuff at them is probably best shown in gaming.

Q. Do developers of technologies such as smartphones take too much knowledge for granted?

A. They certainly do. In our research, we've been getting older people to use things like the Apple iPad and the Samsung Galaxy Tab. With both Apple and Android – they are much easier than trying to learn to use a PC, but you do get to a point where you have to understand iconography, and work quite laterally to complete tasks.

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