The challenge of digital adoption for senior citizens is to provide user experiences that are hassle free and with immediate benefits. Image from the U.S. National Archives via Flickr.

The challenge of digital adoption for senior citizens is to provide user experiences that are hassle-free and for which the benefits are immediate. Image from the U.S. National Archives via Flickr.

After I got married last year, I emailed our wedding photos to my brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews and assorted in-laws. Then I heard from my 92-year-old mother who wanted to know, “When are you going to bring the pictures around?”

Once again, she was left out simply because she’s not a computer user. And given that her TV remote control is already a source of numerous calls on my family tech-support line, I can’t imagine her getting along with a tablet or laptop – not because she lacks the ability to learn (her marbles are all accounted for), but because she simply feels she has better things to do with her time.

The demographic challenge

She’s far from alone. Yes, seniors are the fastest-growing population of internet users, not to mention the fastest-growing segment of the population, period. But there are a significant number of seniors who simply don’t want to climb the learning curve to reach the benefits of being able to communicate online.

I should probably just visit my mom more often, but there is a much larger issue at play here. Access to the internet is not just about photos and emails. For our aging population, it is becoming critical to their care and well-being.

That’s because the U.S. health-care system simply cannot withstand the wave of aging boomers that is going to cause a doubling in the population of seniors over the next 25 years. We will no longer be able to put seniors into hospital or extended care; they will have to age gracefully at home.

Effective delivery of self-care information and monitoring over the internet will be a critical factor in achieving this.

Large type, clear displays, durability and an accessible aesthetic are some key UX design considerations for seniors.

Large type and displays, durability and simplicity are some key UX considerations when designing devices and software for seniors.

Climbing the learning curve

Unfortunately, if you approach the average fiercely independent senior with some kind of in-home health-care technology, most will reject it out of hand, insisting that they don’t need anything like that. It’s seen as a sign of frailty and weakness to admit needing that kind of help.

The challenge is one of engagement: How can we engage technology-skeptical seniors in the digital world so that they can benefit from the self-care information and assistance it can provide?

The answer is to ensure that the immediate benefits outweigh the effort required to use the technology.  The benefits side of this equation is easy – seniors are very happy to share photos, email and text messages with family – and some even see the advantages of using technology to help manage their own health care.

It’s the other side of the equation that has proved challenging – how to design something that doesn’t require climbing a massive learning curve to get the benefits. As my mom would say, “I don’t have to ‘log on’ to open letters, and I don’t have to enter a password to answer the phone.”

Let’s be clear here: This is not about “dumbing down” computers to make them “so simple even old people can use them,” although intuitive design and practical solutions like larger buttons and text can go a long way.

This is about designing something where the benefits are much greater and more obvious than the effort required for seniors like my mom to get out of her comfort zone.