From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

At Issue: Technology Designers and Assumptions About Older Users

There is a common assumption that learning to use computers and the Internet is an unequal struggle for older adults. When Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D., CUA, looked at recent research on the subject, she found reasons to question the belief. And indirectly, the research shows ergonomic ways to create a better fit between older users and technology.

Her article in the January issue of User Interface Design Newsletter found studies that showed a significant number of older adults use the Internet for news, shopping, entertainment, and for keeping in touch with friends and family. More than 40 million adults over 50 are online in the United States, according to the AARP, a US membership organization of more than 35 million people age 50 and older.

The review took in an article on older adults by Karen O’Hara from Miami University, published in Technical Communication Quarterly. It cited figures from the Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School showing 86 per cent of people 46-55 use the Internet. In the 56-65 age group, the figure dropped to 75 percent, and dropped again to 41 percent for the over-66 group.

Researchers saw lack of motivation or reason to use the computer as one explanation for the non users in each category. As other significant factors, they identified lack of experience with current technology, lack of access to a computer, cognitive differences, age-related declines and lack of knowledge about the value of the Web and how to use it.

One study in Dr. Weinschenk’s review showed ways ergonomic adaptations could reduce the handicap of age-related declines. In research by Leonard, et al, 13 volunteers were given a handheld device to play a card game. Ten of the participants had some level of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a visual impairment. The rest were visually healthy, age-matched controls.

The researchers concluded that age, dexterity, and learning influenced performance, but even AMD did not prevent people from using the handheld device. It caused errors and decreased speed in direct relation to the severity of disease, and differences in contrast sensitivity also had an impact on performance. Their good news is that auditory feedback improved performance for visually impaired users without disturbing other participants, and both groups in the study were able to use the stylus for input. Both observations lend themselves to ergonomic adaptations by designers.

Dr. Weinschenk’s cautions designers, especially young designers, to watch out for their assumptions and not assume that older adults, with or without visual impairments, cannot master handheld devices and other technology. The motivation of the user must be taken into account, she said, and designers should recognize that the number of older adults in the United States is growing apace with their use of the Internet.

An article in May 2005 in The Ergonomics Report