Opinion: Designing for an ageing population

As the elderly population grows in size  –  it’s expected to double by 2050 – there’s a huge focus on creating products and services to help people stay healthy and live in their homes longer.

Technology companies and health insurers are racing to create products that meet these needs. There are smart home sensors to keep people living independently, telehealth services for video chat with care givers, and an endless amount of connected devices that make it easy to record blood pressure, weight or just about anything.

The Australian government is focusing its efforts here too. The Health Care Homes program aims to give people living with chronic diseases one central place in their community to get help, whilst the broader move to consumer directed care models mean people will have more choice over the products and services they want to use.

All this means that there’ll be tons of products and lots of choice. And people will choose the products that work best for them. Here are a few things to consider when designing a new product for the elderly …

3 things to get right

1. Get to know the people you’re designing for

Most of us creating new technology fall into the younger, tech savvy group so there’s often a natural gap in understanding how older people experience it. It’s hard to relate to something like poor vision or mobility when yours is perfect. The only way to bridge this gap is with face-to-face research.

During a project called HealthBook, we visited elderly people in their homes and sat down with a cuppa to find out how they use technology and think about their health. We quickly learned some things that set the direction for the project, things that you wouldn’t learn sitting in an office designing software :  paper is still a big part of their life and won’t be replaced overnight, mobiles and smaller devices were often too hard to use, and strong relationships are crucial to staying healthy.

2. Consider vision, hearing and motor skills

Eyesight begins to deteriorate in our 40s. It becomes harder to read up close and see the difference between similar colour shades. In some recent research, Bob showed us the font size he chose for his Kindle, which explained why he found mobile phones “too fiddly”. We need to design text that’s easy to read and understand, with larger, legible type or icons. Pay particular attention to contrast ratios for text.

Motor control also declines with age which can make it harder to use a mouse. An 80-year-old woman in user testing used the mouse with both hands. It’s a good reason to keep navigation and interaction as simple as possible.

3. Help strengthen relationships

Older people have different relationships than younger people, at least partly because they’ve had more time to cultivate them. For example, we conducted some research in how older people interacted with healthcare professionals. In many cases, they’ve seen the same doctors for decades, leading to a very high degree of trust. “I regard it like going to see old pals … I feel I could tell my GP almost anything.” — George, 73, on visiting his medical team.

But due to health and mobility issues, the world available to the elderly can often be smaller ,  both physically and socially. Digital technology has an obvious role to play here, by connecting people virtually when being in the same room is hard.

Enable connection with a smaller, more important group of people (not a big, unimportant social network). Don’t overemphasise security and privacy controls when dealing with trusted people.

Making products that older people want to use isn’t hard, it just requires us to involve them in the process.

Brett Warren is a co-founder and designer at Navy Design, a design consultancy focused on digital health projects.

Posted in Aged Care

Tags: Navy Design

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