Skip to navigation
Latest News

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


By Stewart Mitchell

Posted on 20 May 2011 at 16:46

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.

1 2
Subscribe to PC Pro magazine. We'll give you 3 issues for £1 plus a free gift - click here
User comments

It isn't just the elderly or inexperienced that suffer. Anyone who has tried to program a Logitech Harmony will have encountered one of the worst designed pieces of software ever produced (excellent remotes, though). It should be used as an object lesson in how not to design a user interface.

And simplifying things isn't always the answer. The new 'bare' interfaces used by some browsers mean you have to spend an age finding where a certain function is hidden if it's available at all. Not too bad if you use the software all the time but it must be awful for occasional users,

By qpw3141 on 20 May 2011

Informix Smartsuite had great progressive disclosure

Years ago, back in the early 80's, Informix Smartsuite had a great three level menu system. You could set it on easy for beginners (or back then, secretaries) and then move the menus towards fuller function sets as the user improved. It worked very well, but sadly didn't translate to the GUI world. Surprising how many really good DOS programs there were.

I think it's true that developers have added many things needlessly to their programs, just because they can. A bit like digital watch makers who had spare chip capacity so added things people just didn't need, just because they could.

I would guess with Word that 80% of the users don't use 80% of the functionality. I expect there will be a huge overlap in commonly used features too, maybe 80% of usage will be for the same features, with only 20% varying from user to user.

By SwissMac on 20 May 2011

It's not necessarily the complexity...

But the sense our older generations have of not touching things they don't understand. Put a youngster in front of a new interface and they'll begin experimentation immediately because their experience tells them the consequences of failure with digital systems are limited.

People that were raised in a world limited to complex mechamisms learned tinkering could have costly effects. I can't even count the number of times I've watched my older family members struggle with simple tasks because they refuse to examine the options at's typically obvious they saw the interface element that would have helped, but didn't know what it would do.

By haewood on 20 May 2011

User Friendly (NOT)

The user environment is overloaded by advertisements and bloat ware that is trying to give the user a "better" eye-candy-platform.

What happens, of course is the brain tries to dismiss the ad-fog and in error gets rid of some of the important stuff too.

Many a time I have tried to refer a web page error, or make a complaint, but the manner is either hidden away some place obscure or does not exist at all.

I believe it is done deliberately so there are fewer complaints or because feedback is impossible; NONE.

This can be self-detrimental to the company when the error is serious.
Not being user friendly at all also incurs customer loss.

By lenmontieth on 20 May 2011

On the other hand, there's also an amount of concern about the dangers of the "game boy generation" where the consequences of doing something wrong are so minimal that you take excessive risks.

By steviesteveo12 on 21 May 2011

Popularist nonsense

Today's tech works fine for the "elderly". Both my parents (70) have PC's and use them all the time. My father has had a digital camera of one sort or another for years and they now have a WiFi enabled photo frame. My father-in-law (64) uses Skype to webcam chat with his brother (84) in Canada once a week. Does this sound alienated?
The mentally lazy and deliberately "stupid" are the only ones excluded. People who still hold with such arguments as "a lawnmower isn't women's work" or "I don't understand mobile phones" or "I'm too old to use email". These are excuses. You CAN teach an old dog new tricks. You just can't make an UNWILLING dog do anything.

By cheysuli on 23 May 2011


I think you're absolutely right. You can lead a horse to water but you cant make it drink!

By HolisticLA on 23 May 2011

are the main problems here.
If they can learn to drive a car or learn how to book a cruise to Barbados for their retirement then they can learn how to use a PC!

By HolisticLA on 23 May 2011


Your are correct ~ my dad would not use email or really turn on a computer untill he found ebay....

Also people (mainly older people)see no need or want understanding computers.

if people see no need they will not just have a look or use etc


By mprltd on 23 May 2011

Ageist Nonsense!!

I'm fast approaching the notional "age-related tech cut off point" I must say that it ain't old people who need help, its the young turks who make bad software UIs.

Many firms advertise "intuitive" User Interfaces (and not just on Computer Software). At the risk of pedantry "intuitiveness" is culturally and historically determined. Icons are NOT culturally neutral.

This is (sort of) the old argument asbout "IQ" and "Intelligence". After years of writing-off smart people it's been discovered that IQ tests aren't neutral, and favour \ discriminate against various groups depending on how they're constructed. Just like Opinion Poll \ Referendum questions which can be tailored to produce whatever result you want.

If you have to resort to RTFM in order to get something working, its rubbish! Its not your fault, you aren't stupid etc.

Old people (like I nearly am) are not stupid either, nor are we technophobic. Of course there are people in their eigthies and older who probably can't be bothered my Mum who developed dementia was one. Bt there are also many old fogies who can be bothered

As mprltd suggests above if the technology is useful, people of all ages learn to use it.

By wittgenfrog on 23 May 2011


i've shown my Nan how to send an email and she still doesnt get it (it seems like she doesnt want to)
please define useful, because in my book the ability to use email opens a new world for anyone that wants to use it, just like the ability to send a letter back in the old days!

By HolisticLA on 23 May 2011

Technology Designed for all

Please see new AARP report 'Connected Living for Social Aging: Designing Technology for All'

By Laurie_Orlov on 1 Jun 2011

Voice control seems to work

We design robots to help the elderly age in place, and our testing shows that it is simple to tell the robot: "Go to the kitchen"

Of course that means there is a lot going on behind the interface to make it work.

By JimGunderson on 2 Jun 2011

Tech Can Alienate Everyone

I'm in my early 40s, so I've been around tech a bit now. Consumer tech is only good if MOST (which is the increasing elderly) of the people can use it. If they see that "The Elders" are having difficulty with a piece of tech, they should address the issue. For instance, if you want someone to access the alarm function, make an on screen buttom that looks like the face of an old school "Alarm Clock". PS: We're all going to be 'old' one day if we stay around long enough, so it would be wise to treat them like we would like the younger ones to treat US (that means you in your tweenties)when we get that age one day.

By DeeTee on 7 Sep 2011

Leave a comment

You need to Login or Register to comment.



Most Commented News Stories
Latest Blog Posts Subscribe to our RSS Feeds
Latest ReviewsSubscribe to our RSS Feeds
Latest Real World Computing


Sponsored Links

Your email:

Your password:

remember me


Hitwise Top 10 Website 2010

PCPro-Computing in the Real World Printed from

Register to receive our regular email newsletter at

The newsletter contains links to our latest PC news, product reviews, features and how-to guides, plus special offers and competitions.