Elderly people and disabled people have different accessibility requirements

Written By: Peter Abrahams
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When I write about accessibility I always make it clear that the issue is becoming more important because of the growing number of old people in the population. As the population ages there are more people with failing sight, loss of hearing, limited dexterity and reduced mental acuity. Hence if we provide accessible solutions for people with disabilities we will be helping the elderly.

I was talking to the Director of Accessibility at a major hardware vendor, and he said that accessibility is getting more interest from corporations because they understand the importance of the silver surfer market and how it is influenced by accessibility. He carried on to point out that we all understand the impact of accessibility on the elderly because we are all directly affected; we may be old already or know family and friends who are old. This is different to many people’s understanding of disabilities; everyone can sympathise with people with disabilities but cannot either empathise or really understand the issues.

So my thinking has been that we understand how to make ICT accessible to people with disabilities, the elderly just reinforce the case for doing it, but I had not thought that the elderly have unique accessibility issues.

Several recent conversations have made me realise that this thinking is incomplete. A typical discussion was with Carol, a senior executive in a software vendor, who is also an expert in usability research. We had been discussing accessibility testing and I mentioned the elderly. She told me that her mother asked the family for a computer for her birthday; she has never used a computer before but wants to send emails and see photos of the family. Carol said that it is going to be a challenge because it needs to be very easy for her mother to use. Her mother is not disabled so the standard accessibility features will not help much. The problem is that the user interface is unnecessarily complex and far from easy to use. Carol’s mother is far from unique; in fact I would suggest that she is typical of a large percentage of the older population.

The old person may be living alone, or with their family or in a retirement home, but wherever they live they will have limited access to one-on-one help to get started. The question is what should the human computer interface (HCI) for an older person look like? We can start to answer that question by suggesting what is wrong with the typical HCI and by understanding how older people might want to interact with a computer.

I have just been reading about situational leadership and the four different styles of leadership: directing, coaching, supporting and delegating. I believe there is an analogy where the computer system replaces the manager and the user is the member of staff. We can see that a novice user needs to be directed whereas the standard desktop environment is a delegated model. Depending on what the old person wants to do they may be happy to remain in the directed approach where other users may well want to move around the maturity curve.

In my initial search of the web I have not found any research into the question above. There are some examples of training courses and assistance but they all assume that the standard HCI is suitable for the elderly. I cannot believe that is true so I am hoping one of my readers will point me at some research into this area. I have talked to a few people and come up with the following thoughts, in no specific order:

  • The standard keyboard has too many keys and that is confusing. The layout and size of keys could also be improved.
  • A standard mouse is difficult to use and the relationship between its movement and what happens on the screen is not self-evident.
  • The biggest problem is with the layout of the screen. The desktop contains a series of tools for the user to pick and choose from, but what a novice needs is a menu of tasks they can perform and then detailed instruction on how to perform the task (a directing approach). The first screen the user sees should be a short menu for example:
    • You have some mail would you like to open it?
    • Would you like to send a friend a message?
    • Would you like to see your photos?
    • It is Monday do you want to order some food at Tescos?
    • Etc?
  • The system will have been set up with a preferred input mechanism (voice input, keyboard number, mouse click, touch screen…) and the user will pick the task they want to do.
  • This idea of ‘what do you want to do’ would continue. For example if the user had decided to read the mail they would be shown just the list of emails in the in-box and asked which one they would like to read. When they have read it they would be asked what they would like to do with it: leave it in the in-tray, delete it, reply to it or file it.
  • Multiple windows and things disappearing behind other windows is confusing and potentially worrying for the novice user. So in the directive mode only one window should be displayed at a time and one set of task options displayed.
  • Users will want to move up the maturity curve so it must be possible to move from the directive interface to a coaching interface, then a supportive, and finally the standard delegated interface without having to change the computer its software or systems.

I hope this article will encourage my readers to:

  • Bring to my attention research in this area or even products that address my requirements.
  • Start research into the requirements of an HCI for the elderly.
  • Develop products and services to meet this growing need.