Ok, Boomers, we failed you

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Technology doesn’t come as second nature to all of us. Here’s a look at how we can craft generation-inclusive digital products.

7 min read

Typographical visual reading, "Ok, Boomers, we failed you"

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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.

A senior couple interacting with technology at home

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.

Three young women interacting with their mobile phones outdoors

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 a diverse range of users. 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.