Making technology products inclusive for less technology-savvy users

One of the things that is often forgotten while developing new technology is that many of us* involved in start-up companies are young and inherently technology-savvy. As an inevitable result, we design user interfaces and experiences around how we already expect such interfaces to work due to our own constant use of such products.

Meanwhile there are people of all ages, walks of life and histories whose exposure to technology is significantly less than those designing the very interface that we would have them use. The result is often exclusion and isolation of such groups from things that most of us take for granted.

The demographic group that I would like to highlight, because it is a subject close to my heart, is of those aged 70 and above. Of course, there’s a vast array of familiarity, aptitude and attitude amongst seniors when it comes to the use of technology, and certainly there are examples of people in their 80’s and 90’s successfully utilizing existing computing technology interfaces – however this is not the majority case.

Research by the likes of the Pew Research Center (“Older Adults and Technology Use”), KBM Group (“Capturing the Exploding Senior Market”) and the AARP & Microsoft (“Connecting Generations”) backs up the need (and opportunity) to address this demographic properly.

How many of us have tried to introduce a technology to an older member of our family? We had all the best intentions in the world as to how it was going to improve their lives and keep them more “in-touch”, but the sad reality was that we then spent hours and hours supporting a solution that ultimately got switched off and forgotten about?

User interface / user experience (UX) is certainly a big part of that – there are far too many small controls with obscure icons – concepts that mean nothing if you haven’t continuously been exposed to technology over the last decade. Operating systems regularly prompt for whether you want to perform this update or that update, and notifications abound about things that really mean absolutely nothing to my mother!

So what’s the big difference here beyond the obvious UX improvements that need to be made? I’d like to suggest it is fundamentally in the way such devices are administered.

We self-administer our technology and devices all the time, without even realizing it. When our Apple or Samsung phones do something weird, we Google for the answer to the problem and we usually solve it by ourselves. Yes, we curse the manufacturer, we swear at the software designers, and… we fix the problem (the vast majority of the time anyway!). We self-administer.

Less technology-savvy users rely on somebody else to be “on-call” to assist with any problems – somebody trusted, somebody familiar. For seniors that is often a close family member. Many of us have acted as that “tech support” to our parents’ generation and discovered just how frustrating that can be for both them and us. For example, I got my parents an iPad so they could Skype with their grandson – but…they couldn’t slide to unlock, the camera was never switched on properly, the volume was too low, then one day they accidentally deleted the Skype app completely! It took 2 hours on the phone to fix that, and my parents already have and make some use of a computer!

My young son (5 years old) uses an iPad, but if anything goes wrong, it is immediately handed back to daddy to fix. Well it is the same concept with seniors, young children and, more broadly, in a vast array of vertical market situations, too numerous and varied to get into in this post. Let’s call this “outsourced administration”

So, if we are building technology that would benefit from being inclusive of those outside of the highly tech-savvy set, then what we really need are:

  1. Better User Experience:
    4 essential elements for effective support of less tech-savvy users

    4 essential elements for effective support of less tech-savvy users

    • A user experience that includes simplified interface modes (perhaps several levels) that allow the user to “graduate” from level to level as they become more familiar, or to stay at a level that they are comfortable with.
    • User interface elements that are easier to see and identify as things you actually press vs. indicators or other static controls (some of our modern operating systems have chosen style as priority, leaving less tech-savvy users constantly confused).
  2. Outsourced Administration:
    • The ability for the device to be administered by a trusted helper – including the ability of this person to configure the device to present the user with only the functions / applications they have been trained on or would ever likely use. Also the ability of the trusted helper to administer and control software updates and to be informed of problems with the system that simply wouldn’t make sense to the end user anyway.
    • The ability for a user to get assistance and be remotely “trained” to use the device and its software by the trusted helper, e.g.: talk to mom, and virtually “point” to things on the screen so that she learns how to use it herself and you can see what she is doing during this training.

In conclusion, while some of us in the start-up world are building applications or technologies that will only ever be used by technology-familiar users, most of us want broad inclusion of all users as that significantly expands our total addressable market size as well as enabling greater satisfaction and interaction among people of various abilities. It’s definitely worth considering the concepts of multi-level user experience and outsourced administration if our products and services are to be inclusive and appeal to the broadest possible audience.


* = With this statement I am attempting to insinuate that I am both young and technology-savvy, neither of which I can back up, but youth, after all, is a state of mind!

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