Inclusive design for older adults

Older man using iPad
‘The Kindle pose’

Are you a product designer? I bet my overpriced coffee that your wonderful day job of designing digital products for humans is missing an important consideration. One that affects well over 10% of your potential users.

Old humans.

Next time you are with your parents, or grandparents, or anyone over the age of 65, retired or just plain elderly, ask them about their technology use, and try to watch how they use and interact with technology and digital products.

Study simple behaviours and figure out their pain points. What problems should we be solving? What products, services and features should we focus on?

Congratulations, you’ve just conducted valuable user research on a demographic that numbers over 11 million people in the UK

Inclusive design and accessibility is absolutely paramount in digital product design. A large part of this is helping those who need help. Understanding a greater amount of user needs. It’s not just the disabled who need digital products to be more accessible.

Where to start your focus

All product design starts with research. Inclusive design for the elderly is not based on traditional personas, which are usually a bunch of broad stereotypes bound by lazy correlations and subsequently are usually a waste of time and money. This is not about demographics, as our users are the same demographic, and consequently experience the same issues. These age-related issues transcend socioeconomics, class, race and gender. Focus on problems and challenges that are due to cognitive decline, less memory, limited mobility etc.

Meme showing how personas are not good
Demographics are tired and outdated

Research insights

Lets do some simple research on some widely accepted considerations for older users:

Physical limitations: Many elderly users may have reduced dexterity, vision impairments, or other physical limitations that make it difficult to interact with digital interfaces. Designing interfaces with larger buttons, clear contrast, and simple navigation can help mitigate these issues.

Cognitive decline: Cognitive decline can impact memory, attention, and problem-solving abilities. Interfaces should be intuitive and easy to understand, with clear instructions and feedback to assist users in completing tasks.

Technological literacy: Older adults may have less experience with technology compared to younger generations. Designing products with simplicity in mind and providing clear tutorials or guides can help bridge this gap.

Sensory impairments: Vision and hearing impairments are common among the elderly population. Designing interfaces with adjustable text size, high contrast options, and alternatives to audio cues can accommodate users with sensory impairments.

Fear of technology: Some older adults may feel intimidated or apprehensive about using technology. Providing user-friendly interfaces, empathetic support, and opportunities for hands-on learning can help alleviate these fears.

Accessibility: Ensuring that digital products are accessible to all users, regardless of age or ability, is crucial. This includes complying with accessibility standards and providing alternative means of interaction for users with disabilities.

Social isolation: Digital products can help combat social isolation among the elderly by facilitating connections with friends, family, and communities. Incorporating features such as video calling, social networking, and online support groups can foster social engagement and well-being.

Privacy and security concerns: Older adults may be more susceptible to scams or privacy breaches online. Designing products with robust privacy settings, clear data policies, and user-friendly security features can help protect elderly users from potential risks.

Contextual factors: Consideration should be given to the context in which elderly users will be interacting with digital products, such as their physical environment, access to support, and technological infrastructure. Designing products that accommodate these contextual factors can enhance usability and user satisfaction.

Respect for diversity: Recognising the diversity within the elderly population, including varying levels of health, mobility, and technological proficiency, is essential. Designing inclusive products that cater to a wide range of needs and preferences ensures that all users can benefit from digital technology.

Coronavirus — a digital shift

Older man using iPad to take a photo
Steve Jobs is turning in his grave

When Covid-19 hit the UK, there was a shift in how the elderly interacted with technology. As lockdown gripped the country it now became essential for the elderly to be able to do some tasks remotely or using a digital device. Many already had a smartphone, but I noticed a huge surge in people buying iPads and other tablet devices for their folks, and it occurred to me that a hardware choice is a great indicator of how to design for a demographic. Whether you use a tablet or not, that touch screen, big button, ‘portrait browsing with your finger’ behaviour was gaining acceptance, and we needed to design for it. The pandemic, along with the decline in the use of cash, greatly increased the need for people to use online banking.

Mobile banking

Hand holding iPhone with mobile banking app

I was fortunate to work on the very first banking apps in the UK. Back then we just wanted to make stuff simple to use, familiar, fast and convenient. The usual traditional mobile UX goodness.

The issue now is that mobile banking has contributed to the closing of almost all of the physical bank branches on the high street. For most people this was just a minor annoyance, but for my parents this was a huge challenge. Especially after mobile banking is not traditionally designed to cater for the elderly. It’s just too small, complicated and the opportunity for error is far greater. And this is money, it’s anxiety, it’s why banking apps have the least uptake amongst the elderly.

This study discusses the security concerns surrounding mobile banking applications. It highlights the fear among users regarding the security of their financial data and transactions.


And here it is. Trust is the most important factor in designing products that involve a financial transaction. which is most of them.

How to you gain trust in UX design?

Well, AirBnB are brilliant at this:

Recognition over recall

My lovely former colleague, the UX Researcher Kevin Mercer PhD replied to a post I made about inclusive design, making some great points:

“The key thing I find when working with older people who have technology barriers is the lack of consistent mental models. They seem to not use enough technology or to have not been so widely exposed to patterns that things most people see as familiar from different websites feel like brand-new experiences.

This is important because (for example) common checkout patterns in e-commerce you typically see people click through are suddenly being deeply investigated and read. It is interesting to see how often these screens have actually been lazily designed and don’t offer much affordance or make much sense once you stop to read and consider them fully.

I go back to a key usability heuristic here, “recognition over recall”. Many designs rely on learnt patterns rather than good information design.”

These types of insights from researchers are a goldmine. Traditionally we always taught UX designers to perpetuate common or learnt patterns and that users ‘don’t read the stuff’. But this doesn’t hold true for older users.


2 key principles in mobile application design are contextual labelling, and design for interruption.

As well as other distractions (the doorbell, a dog barking) a smartphone or tablet can present the following issues during use:

The phone rings

A text message or email pops up

A notification appears

A modal appears

Any of these will cause an interruption, which leads to a loss of focus and attention, which in turn leads to the user forgetting what they were doing, or where they were on that task. This is where a lot of elderly users will drop out of a user journey. Particularly those who prioritise real world interruptions over digital noise. Unless you clearly signpost every single part of a user journey, they wont know where they are.

Fine Motor Skills

Man driving car
Obvious joke is obvious

No, not that type. Fine motor skills involve the coordination of small muscles in the hands and fingers to perform precise movements. These skills are crucial for various everyday tasks, from buttoning a shirt and tying shoelaces to writing with a pen and using tools.

Fine motor skills play a significant role in cognitive development. Activities that engage fine motor skills, such as puzzles and threading beads, stimulate brain activity and promote problem-solving abilities.

The issue is that as we get older, particularly past the age of 45, these skills decline. We need to design for this decline. This does not mean ‘make the buttons bigger’ This means a reduction in complexity, and the ability to mitigate and easily correct mistakes.

Here is a great resource on movement control and mitigating issues with simple UI changes and considerations


Along with the decline in cognitive function, getting older causes memory loss. How do we design for this? well, UI wise its hard to mitigate this issue, but there is a powerful feature derived from native apps — Push notifications.

Notifications are a great reminder for users who have either dropped out of a user journey, or have forgotten how or what they were trying to achieve.

Use with care tho, a friendly nudge is fine, but don’t overdo notifications otherwise the user will get irritated and disable them.

Choice Paradox

Choice paradox is the scourge of e-commerce. The more options you present, the harder it is for the user to make a clear choice or decision. It’s counter intuitive, and this ‘paradox’ is one of the main battles betwixt UX and Marketing/Sales.

Older adults prefer significantly less choice to younger adults and even within the older adult group this preference strengthens with age.

In this study, older adults desired (overall) roughly half the number of options that younger adults preferred.

Drunk Mode

Woman drinking wine and doomscrolling

For those of us that are more spritely, there is a tried and tested way to simulate a significant impairment of fine motor skills.

Drink alcohol.

Alcohol consumption can significantly impair fine motor skills and decision making.

Yay alcohol.

I used to user test mobile app prototypes in the pub.

Use app. Drink two pints of strong beer. Use again. Rinse and repeat.

A true test of a digital service is if you can complete the task whilst drunk. Look at Uber or Deliveroo. Half the people who use those apps are impaired by some form of substance and I hope that the UX peeps that work there have regular guerrilla user testing whilst sozzled.

Hire older designers

Well it’s worth a shot, whilst I have you here…

Seriously tho the average age of design teams is getting younger, whilst the users are getting older. Representation matters.

Hiring a diverse team is not just race, religion, culture or gender, it’s also age. And age is the one thing that unites us all.

If empathy is the foundation of designing for humans, then empathising with older users is critical.


Accessibility was always a box ticking exercise for most companies, a badge to show off, when all they did was tweak a few colours and made it work better with a screen reader. The quantification of success of website accessibility was code based, and not particularly human.

Clearly label everything. Every button needs to be contextually described. ‘Click here’ is simply not acceptable. UX writing has never been more crucial.

Navigation needs to be structured. Forms need contextual error messages and a clear path to success. Provide a dark mode, customisation and voice assistance.


Onboarding is essential for older users. ‘Great UX doesn’t need a manual’ is no longer acceptable. Provide a clear pathway to instructions, and don’t rely on diagrams or icons. Everyone else can hit the skip button.


Car interiors were always designed around ergonomics and mental models. For over a century the indicators were on stalks, there was a button to change the climate control. The radio had buttons. That where the ‘radio button’ originated.

Old car radio with radio buttons
Radio buttons

Now it’s all on a touchscreen. Another touchscreen. A big one, but another one with menus and options and a non linear navigation. It’s super hard to find anything. This is an example of sacrificing user experience to maximise costs and efficiency of upgrades. It’s also really crappy experience for older people.

Good news tho, as car companies are starting to return to physical buttons and less touchscreens. Porsche is the latest company to revert to physical UX. Which makes sense as the average Porsche owner is 52. And for the SUV the average age is higher, for a Porsche Macan the median age is 64. You can’t sell an elderly driver a car with a big touchscreen.

Design for Dementia

It’s important to include those with dementia in any service design project. This is a great article on including people with dementia in user research.

Again, dementia is a human condition, it transcends every other group. If you truly want to design for all, then design for all. No exceptions

Let’s help the aged get better at using our products.

Thanks for reading!

Help the Aged was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.