A few years ago, my parents decided to buy my grandfather a brand new car GPS system. At the time, this was the hottest piece of tech out there. At the touch of your fingertips, you could get the fastest route anywhere. No more printed directions or physical maps - the possibilities were endless.
As we all sat around the couch in excitement watching him rip off the wrapping paper, our faces quickly turned to confusion. He gave it a good look and then said: “I’ll pass.” When we told him it could get him anywhere he wanted, his response was that he already knows how to get where he wants to go. When we followed up with it can get you there faster, his response was that he doesn’t like to drive fast.
Our hearts sank a bit. What we thought would revolutionize his driving habits was quickly dismissed. There was a clear divide between his reality and ours, and technology only seemed to heighten this division.
Adapting to new technology
The theme of older generations struggling to adapt to technology is all too familiar to most of us. Whether it be the sheer rejection of technology as my grandfather did or the inability to figure out how a piece of technology works, the older generation has always slightly lagged behind; In a study conducted in the European Union, 87% of people over the age of 75 have never been online and nearly 77% of seniors would require assistance in order to learn how to navigate a smartphone or tablet.
Can we blame them though?
As Millennials and Gen Zers have had the fortune of growing up digitally native, Boomers and beyond had to adapt to an ever-evolving tech landscape. Simple digital affordances that we take for granted had to be learned through trial and error, and the translation from analog devices to digital technology was not always a smooth process.
People are innately resistant to change. With the advancement of technology, this was especially true. With change comes uncertainty and giving up something you already trust. For many Boomers and beyond, it was not a mere accessibility issue that drove them away from quickly adopting tech, but fears and personally held values of how technology could impact society.
The fault is also on us, younger designers, for making the transition to online highly daunting to newcomers.
The digital divide
Now, with technology evolving faster than ever before, this inertia that older generations have held to so tightly is driving a divide between them and the digitally-savvy younger demographics. While for digitally inclined generations, technology has changed the way we interact with one another, older demographics are not as eager to jump on the bandwagon.
This dichotomy between old analog values and newer tech-influenced values has erupted into a battle between generations where sayings such as “Ok Boomers” and “Millennials are lazy” have arisen. It is not that either generation is better or worse than one another, but that technology has created different realities and standards between them.
Since technology has revolutionized the way we interact with the world, it is easy to place blame on older generations for not being willing or able to adapt. However, the fault is also on us, younger designers, for making the transition to online highly daunting to newcomers.
Valuing generation-inclusive design
While designers keep building up new interaction patterns and devices, we have yet to slow down and reflect on how we can also build backward and create a lower entry barrier for newcomers. It may not seem as exciting to design backward, but without doing so, we lose out on infinite accessibility, inclusivity, and onboarding design considerations. We also lose out on money - trillions of dollars to be exact.
Baby boomers hold 2.6 trillion dollars in buying power yet 33% of them don’t even own smartphones. That is a deficit of 850 billion dollars that designers could be taking advantage of if we created more welcoming applications for Boomers. Creating more inclusive products to adjust for older demographics should not be seen as a luxury, but as a serious business advantage that could help a company bring in millions of dollars.
Beyond the financial advantages of designing for Boomers and beyond, it also has serious design implications surrounding creating friendlier, more intuitive, and accessible products.
From a friendly-interface standpoint, our goal as designers is to ensure we build a great end-to-end experience. When certain users are unable to even begin that experience, we have created a hostile product. We as designers have an ethical obligation to create something that is welcoming and inclusive to all. Even if our product is catered toward a specific demographic, tertiary users must still be able to have access as well.
From an intuitive design standpoint, another goal of designers is to create seamless and transparent interactions that reduce cognitive load. While we may think our personal design style and following emerging trends is the best way to build the next big product, not all trends necessarily cover the best use-cases for our users.
Take a look at Neumorphism for example. While it is an extremely clean and elegant design style, it is also highly inaccessible, has low contrast, and would not scale well. Similarly, while many digital natives might understand what icons do, without supplemental text to guide older users, many of them can quickly become lost.
We as designers have an ethical obligation to create something that is welcoming and inclusive to all. Even if our product is catered toward a specific demographic, tertiary users must still be able to have access as well.
Bridging design affordances between generations
If we do not figure out how to bridge design affordances between Boomers and younger demographics then we will continue to be divided and suppress an entire generation of the limitless possibilities technology has to offer. As designers, we need to compromise between our desire for future-facing interactions and inclusive design choices. While the solution to this division is not fully clear yet, there are simple design choices we can partake in to assist older generations in becoming more digitally aware while keeping a great user experience for younger ones.
One of the ways we can create more generation-inclusive interfaces is to think about the transition from physical to digital products. Whether it be digital or analog, we as humans draw certain associations between physical objects and their meaning. For example, the folder structure on your computer mirrors the way we organize folders in the physical world.
When designing more welcoming products, think about the physical tools and mental associations older generations make, and then translate them into your digital products. Principles such as skeuomorphism and object-oriented UX can help designers conceptualize better ways to make their products more tangible to new users.
Let’s take Microsoft Word as an example. Microsoft Word uses a floppy disk icon to represent the save button as older generations can make easy mental associations to a real-world and familiar object. If you ask most children and Gen-Zers what that icon is, they most likely won’t know what a floppy disk is. However, because they grew up with the icon, they still understand what it does and can even employ shortcuts such as control S. Word has also created a more generation-inclusive interface by using multimodal forms of communication when a function may not exist in the physical world. For an icon such as “Create and Share PDF” utilizing both text and iconography in tandem gives a new user greater context and understanding.
Another way we can build for all generations is to create multiple user models in our products. There shouldn’t be one streamline user flow, as your users may come from different backgrounds and skill levels. For example, in Mario Kart users who are performing the worst tend to receive the best power ups while people who are more experienced with the game are often negatively impacted by them. This makes the game more exciting for newcomers as they are given a chance to excel, and also keeps experienced users engaged as they must compete with greater challenges in order to win. Providing support and flexibility to keep all users adequately engaged is essential in building a more inclusive product.
Personalization is also key to provide support to users of all ages. We should create a base model that is accessible to anyone and then allow more digitally savvy users to tailor their own shortcuts to fit their needs. Designers should take a more bottom-up approach and start by creating solutions for the demographic that would have the most difficulty navigating. From there we can then build more tailored and future-facing features that more digitally savvy users crave. It is about laying down a strong foundation that can support everyone, while also building a more personalized experience for specific types of users.
The best design balances focus with inclusivity. Products may be catered to specific demographics, but should still remain accessible. For example, Facebook tailors to older users by using a more text-heavy interface while TikTok is primarily made for young adults by using short videos to communicate. While both interfaces have a primary demographic, they still follow standard interaction and design patterns that could be used by tertiary users. Just because your product is catered to a specific demographic, doesn’t mean you need to exclude.
Perhaps, if we had spent more time acclimating my grandfather to his GPS instead of springing a new and daunting product on him, he would have adopted it sooner. While it's hard to slow down when so many new innovations are being created, we need to be more deliberate in how we introduce products to our users.
Boomers, we have failed you on this end, but we will work on it. As we move forward with creating the future of design, it's important we slow down and look back on unmet needs. It's time Boomers and beyond work with millenials and below to create more generation-inclusive products.