Reading: Don Norman on – I wrote the book on user-friendly design. What I see today horrifies me from FastCompany Business Magazine. That said, Don Norman has credentials on his own, not to be discounted through the medium of an online magazine.
Inclusive Design (design intended to help more than just one target audience), when done well, looks like a happy accident. Closed captions for those hard of hearing? Doubles perfectly in loud sports bars. Sloped curbs at intersections for the blind or elderly? Perfect for mothers with baby carriages, or travelers’ suitcases. The point is, even if you can sustain your (business, product, idea, etc.) only off of your target audience currently, we are now reaching a day and age where the percentage of elderly persons in society is growing rapidly.
“What do you mean? There are ramps everywhere, hearing aids, ‘large text modes’ on phones, and handicap accessible seats everywhere!”
I hear you, I promise. Let’s dig a little deeper so I can hopefully show you that this is a problem. Many of these anecdotes are from Norman himself (a self-proclaimed elderly man) or the people he’s around, relayed by him through this article. That said, Norman claims to still be a functioning member of society. Still able to run errands without passers-by becoming irritated at his sheer senility.
For starters, elderly people typically have less strength, dexterity (accuracy), mobility (speed), less clear vision, and fading hearing. This isn’t comprehensive or perfect for any one person, but it’s what we’ll focus on as a generalization. If we look as something as simple as groceries, it may not be obvious, but it’s possible that someone may need an over sized wrench to open a jar. Norman himself says that he and his wife choose which restaurants they prefer based on the ambient noise, as constantly loud locations will give them headaches over the course of an hour. What about something less obvious? Large-text modes on phones, in a vacuum, seem like a great idea, right? But, when a company like Apple decides to make the text on their phones a font and color that’s often neigh-invisible without being lucky and having a heavy background contrast, this mode is just a facade. (If you have an iPhone, go to your settings, really squint your eyes, and try to read the grey name of your current WiFi)
There are plenty of more examples of non-inclusive design, but I hope you get the jist. What about things designed exclusively for the elderly? That should be easy, right? Well, imagine a classic wooden walking cane from the mid 1900s. Fine, right? Well, nowadays, companies that design canes and walkers for the elderly are focused so much on function, they’ve thrown form out the window. Modern tools for the elderly are often given this aesthetic that reads ‘I’m fragile and weak and old.’ So much so that many people, against their better judgement, will forego using walkers, canes, or hearing aids for this reason.
“Are elderly people handicapped? Maybe, but so is a young, athletic parent while carrying a baby on one arm and a bag of groceries in the other,Don Norman, on high contrast or large text in phones
and perhaps trying to open their car door.”
We must not forget that when we are designing for a non-standard audience, not only should we consider their circumstances, but also remember that customers are still human beings. We’ve proven that we can design for the disabled while being inclusive to the general public (and the vice versa less so, but we’ve still seen success). We just need to not forget the basics while we are shooting off into new technology or infrastructure at lightspeed.