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Gerontechnology: Removing the barriers between digital tools and aging generations

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A 2021 study by Age UK, among those aged 75+ more than two out of five (42 percent) do not use the internet. Older people around the world experience physical, psychological, social, and economic issues that hinder their ability to pick up newer technology as easily as the younger generations who grew up using it.

So, what can we do to help older generations adapt and feel confident in this fast-changing technological landscape? There are a few tools that they can employ to improve their skills in areas like using social networking platforms, learning new skills, and accessing information. Assistive features are ingredients of user-centric design and can be modified to accommodate for special needs.

In this article, we’ll be discussing some of the adjustments that companies who utilize technology can make to accommodate for older users.

What is Gerontechnology?

First we must understand what is meant by Gerontechnology. The term (coined by Jan Graafmans at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands in 1989) is a portmanteau of Gerontology (the study of aspects of aging) and technology. It concerns well-being, improving life quality, increasing vitality, and lowering morbidity with respect to aging, with the aid of innovative technology.

Gerontechnologists create technology to transform the lives of older people. Gerontechnology is presented as a type of assistive technology and universal design.

Why is digital literacy important?

Being able to use modern technology, such as smartphones or self-service kiosks, is becoming increasingly important in modern society. Many businesses implement technology without considering the audience that will be using it. If a specific audience, such as the elderly, are alienated from interacting with a brand because they are unfamiliar with the technology the brand is using, this creates a barrier, and the brand will lose that audience’s interest.

This isolation also extends across to social media. Groups such as the elderly can be cut off from interacting with others as a result of not understanding how social media works. With younger people relying heavily on social networking platforms, this further drives a wedge between generations, and causes older generations increasing loneliness as a result.

Educating older people on how to use technology can make everyday experiences such as using a self-checkout or filling in a form online a much less stressful process. This education will make the elderly more likely to interact with these technologies, so that they will eventually feel more comfortable when confronted with them. Another way to improve this comfort is to implement adjustments in the technology to cater for the specific needs that the elderly may have, in order to make their learning curve easier.

Why is Gerontechnology necessary?

Older people are an integral part of any culture, and generally populations around the world are aging. By 2030, around 20 percent of the population of the US will be over 65. As mentioned previously, older generations can feel isolated from the fast-moving technological advancements that are becoming increasingly integral to modern life. 11 percent of over 65s lack confidence when using modern electronics.

Apprehension surrounding smart devices, or a lack of digital literacy (the ability to operate and understand digital tools) can lead to the following conditions –

  • Increase in Digital Divide – The segregation between individuals who have access to the internet, computers, and technology, in contrast to individuals who do not have such access. This could be caused by economic, social, and educational privileges.
  • Computer anxiety – Coined by Maurer in 1994 as the fear and apprehension experienced by an individual while using or thinking about using a computer.
  • Technophobia – Defined as fear, aversion, or unease towards using modern technology). Lack of knowledge about the usage of digital applications can cause misconceptions regarding new media tools.
  • Violation of Digital Rights – You have a right to online privacy and freedom of expression on the internet and through digital mediums. Elderly users will be unable to express views and access online facilities.

Being aware of, and knowing how to operate new technology, and the ability to access digital platforms have become requisites for any individual in the modern world, as using electronic devices is an inevitability in our daily lives. However, Gerontechnology focuses on the importance of teaching mobile applications and user interface basics to older adults in our society. With technological advancements marching on at their current pace, it’s important to enable education for those who haven’t grown up with that technology. Without this, society is at risk of isolating large portions of this demographic, which is unfair and can be dangerous.

Aging can come with a number of physical, psychological, sociological and emotional changes. Accommodating these changing needs is necessary in a healthy ecosystem. For example, in order for companies to provide accessibility for older users, they can add settings to adjust color contrast, use large typography, provide subtitles, have the ability to adjust volume on audio, use clean interfaces, and have sensitivity to issues of loneliness/isolation. Designing for older adults can be challenging and requires extensive research of their aging abilities.

Designers for digital platforms and interfaces should apply the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0:

  • With age, the lens in the human eye loses its flexibility, a condition called “presbyopia”. In some cases, older people lose their sense of color with age. Hence, they face difficulty in identifying different shades of blue, greens, and purples altogether.
  • Similarity, they can experience difficulty in reading texts or tracking the cursor movements.
  • Many older people may also start losing their hearing, so can face problems in hearing audio instructions.

How to accommodate poor eyesight and hearing issues:

  • Do not use font size below 14pt. If able, design a system where users can change the font sizes.
  • Avoid using too many of the same shade of color. Always use AAA color contrast ratio.
  • If you are using audio, implement the option of subtitles.
  • Speak at a slow, clear, and understandable pace and use non-verbal means of communication like hand gestures and facial expressions.

How to accommodate dexterity issues:

Accommodate for people with slower reflexes and longer reaction times. Ensure you do not require the usage of devices with high precision input requirements (like pressing small buttons or responding quickly to notifications). Touch-screen interfaces should not use buttons smaller than 48pt. The call-to-action (CTA) elements should have gutter gap (surrounding area) of 48pt. The device should not require rapid input or extremely precise input and should allow for errors.

Not only can these accommodations help older people with using technology, but you could also be providing access to others who struggle with similar difficulties, such as people who are short-sighted or hard of hearing. If you would like to learn more about how to make technology accessible to older users,  visit this interactive and engaging platform that illustrates not only the extensive symbols and terminology that come with modern technology, but also a good example of how to implement Gerontechnology within design.

Samantha Mansfield, is Head of Strategy, LiveArea

Samantha Mansfield, is Head of Strategy, LiveArea.