Digital Age: A Study of Older Adults’ User Experiences with Technology

“Without the computer, I’d be lost. It is company for you, you know, at the stage when you’ve lost your wife and everything, so you’re on your own. It’s been a great comfort to have it. And you feel more secure because you can get in touch with people easily and don’t have to call up and bother them; you can just email them and they can respond when they feel like it.”

Harvey, 89 years old

“When you get to be so old, you stop doing things intellectually for yourself [like developing new computer skills] because you’re so afraid you’ll be wrong and that you might really get screwed up—mess up your finances or something.”

Peggy Sue, 92 years old

Older adults represent the fastest growing segment of the country’s population. In a decade, 20% of Americans will be over the age of 65. Despite the country’s shifting age demographics—and, consequently, the shifting demographics of technology users—devices aren’t typically designed for older adult users and, as a result, their age cohorts lag in technology adoption and use. It’s clear that aging Americans are expected to navigate technological complexities that they are unable to, or do not want to. To build theory, methodology, and best practices for designing technology for this critical population, I conducted two qualitative studies of older adults’ technology use in a senior living community. The ultimate purpose of this work is to provide recommendations for experience architecture, or the design of products and interfaces, with older adults in mind—an age cohort underserved by both technical communication researchers and technology producers.  

The Greatest Generation and Baby Boomers bring specific values and norms to their technology use, which determines why they adopt certain technologies and not others, as well as how they use these technologies. An example of this is the distaste for texting or mobile internet use at the dinner table—something mentioned by multiple participants during interviews. This hesitation to use technology during “family time” represents a cultural and generational value that should be considered by engineers and designers who are seeking to create digital devices or experiences for this age cohort. 

This study illuminated four major influences on older adults’ technology use, which designers and technical communicators should consider when creating experiences for this population:

  1. embodied-material factors, such as tremors or low vision/hearing, that influence older adults’ physical interactions with interfaces;
  2. cognitive-psychological factors, such as the ability to block out perceptual information unrelated to a goal, which influence decision-making and task completion;
  3. educational factors, particularly where and when members of this age cohort learned computing skills (on the job, at school or continuing education, in a community center, from relatives, etc.), which influence the mental models of users, as well as their goals and purposes for computing; and
  4. cultural-generational factors, or the “generation gap” between older adults and their younger counterparts, which form the ground for assumptions and stereotypes about older adults’ technology use and competence.

While UX literature recommends seeking to “transcend culture” with design—ignoring elements like these—I make a case for cultural consideration and, when appropriate, localization. Following universal design (UD), the concluding recommendations and best practices from this dissertation can not only improve user experiences for older adults, but for all users. These guidelines can guide research in both academia and industry, as well as the creation of technologies specifically for aging users worldwide.

Preliminary themes from this research can be read in SIGDOC ’19: Proceedings of the 37th ACM International Conference on the Design of Communication: “User experience design for older adults: experience architecture and methodology for users aged 60+.”