I was discussing with my boss earlier and he mentioned that the app I am currently designing for iOS and Android will be used by elderly people. We then began to plan around the same old theory that whilst these elderly people will possess this phone they won't know how to use it. This in turn got me thinking:

  1. If they are incapable of using their device then how did they set up the device, download the app and open it?

  2. Supposing that the device was set up for them by a more tech savvy relative (because the guys in the shop won't download apps they think you'll like!) then they must have some basic knowledge to have been able to have found, opened and logged into the app.

  3. They must have bought this device because something about it appealed to them, even if the salesperson put the idea in their head that they wanted to be able to use it, then that idea won't disappear when they leave the store so they must have looked it up, asked someone or read the manual in order to achieve whatever it is that they want to do with it.

So, what I'm asking is, do we actually have any evidence to back up the commonly held theory that while older people possess these devices they don't actually know how to use them?

I'm not saying that certain things shouldn't be taken into account for elderly users, just that I want to know if there is any actual evidence that they need things dumbing down for them.

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    My mother in law
    – PlasmaHH
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 13:31
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    Define "elderly". Age in and of itself is hardly ever a good discriminator for what you really want to know: tech-savvy or not. Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 15:13
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    I've been told that there is strong evidence that IN AN EMERGENCY older folks may not be as able to retrieve more-recently-learned skills. Folks whose childhood predated private phone lines were, I was told, measurably less likely to think of reaching for a phone to request assistance. That may or may not have anything to do with unpressured day-to-day usage, admittedly, but it's an interesting data point to consider for a communications device.
    – keshlam
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 17:31
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    Not all of us need anything "dumbed down." I probably use my mobile devices at a lower level than most others and have applications on my devices even written solely by myself. I think the ideas that older people are technically ignorant causes exceptional IT professionals like myself from getting contracts despite decades of experience and proven knowledge. Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 19:29
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    I can barely use mine to do anything "smart" with (input device wise) and I just turned 30. If they included styluses as standard equipment like oldschool PDAs always did, they'd be a lot more user friendly, especially for people twice my age. Precisely touching the screen with your fingers is really impossible when your hands are shaking. Commented Apr 19, 2014 at 2:03

5 Answers 5


Smartphones are difficult to use for older people

Older people are not stupid, there are some very good reasons why they still choose basic cellphones instead of smartphones (and for those who do own a smartphone - why they don't use the full potential). Smart phone usage among Canadians

  • The screen is too small for people with vision problems. The small print is impossible to read, especially in low-contrast conditions.
  • Precise touch interaction with tiny buttons is very difficult when your hands are trembling.
  • Typing on a smartphone is hard.
  • Attention deteriorates when you get older, so it is wise to focus on one thing at the time, in a quiet place (no texting while driving).

There are plenty of alternatives available (basic phones for phonecalls; ipads and other tablets with larger screens; desktop computers with a good keyboard), so it is quite understandable that many people don't feel the need to buy or use a smartphone.

They have less experience

It takes time and experience to learn how to use a smartphone, not just for the elderly. Because elderly people in general have less experience, don't assume that they already know all the conventions (such as a two-finger pinch to zoom).

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    Thanks for the study, that's the kind of thing I was looking for. The implications of your response are that I am indeed right, as long as you take into account the obvious problems (eyesight, hand eye co-ordination) you don't need to dumb down the app. The elderly users who have a smartphone have consciously made the choice to buy and use it therefore will have taken the time to learn about it as well.
    – KitP
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 11:00
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    @KitP I'm not sure your last sentence can be assumed to be true for people of any age at this point. The intensity of the hard sell carriers are making for smart phones over the last few years means there's a long tail of people who have smart phones but mostly use them the same way they did their old feature phone and who can only fumble their way through the rest of it on the rare occasions they need more than the basics. Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 14:03
  • Which user, if any at all, uses the full potential of a smart phone? If smart phone usage is anywhere like comparable with pc usage or even "specific application usage on a PC (like MS Word), then most users use only about 10-20 percent of any products features. And that includes VCR's, smart TV's and the like. Has nothing to do with age, everything to do with interest and with the goals for which you bought something. Commented Apr 19, 2014 at 12:22
  • I'm surprised to see less experience listed as a characteristic of older people. Accumulating experience takes time, and older people have had more of it. Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 0:40
  • Worth noting how the linked study defined 'seniors' ... "which was defined as 68 and older".
    – PhillipW
    Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 21:24

Whenever I've had the opportunity to introduce or explain a new tech to an elderly person, some of the major events that have caught my attention are

  • Our obvious is not their obvious. For instance, whenever we see something on the screen that is selected or highlighted, it automatically registers as the default or current choice. I have noticed that this is not the case among elders. This might explain why they type in to a text box without clicking on it first or why they find it difficult to navigate tabbed applications. enter image description here
  • Navigation is a major issue! Wherever we see a four-arrow system, weather it is on a keyboard, joystick, controller, TV remotes, on the screen or elsewhere, we know how to use it. We even use it to open menus, move between folders, scroll the grid etc. Ever noticed how we find shortcuts by ourselves to navigate using the shortest path possible? Well, this is quite challenging for them (they only use one key to go to the end of the list, even though they could do it in one press if they use the opposite key). Now this is apparent when it comes to accessing smartphone home screen menus and such.
  • Sound cues does wonders! This is almost always the case - press of a button, closing a window, completing a task (eg: download) and anywhere applicable, sound cues can immediately give them a sense of ok more than the green check mark on the screen. Sadly, this is not used in major applications aimed for a younger audience, because they might get annoyed by it.
  • Worry of self-destruction! Even though it sounds funny and the idea of accidentally destroying our own device appears not feasible, I have found elders worrying about it. They believe, with the press of a wrong button things could go terribly wrong. This is of course something we all do as we grow older. We become less adventurous and more cautious about stability.

While there are many such issues similar to these, some easy methods that we could use to help them learn the new tech would be:

  • Briefly explain the tech before installation (without jargon).
  • Styles like metro and flat usually helps with the GUI part.
  • Tutorial videos help better than reading the manual (for anybody).
  • Big screen, responsive sound cues, High contrast, check boxes instead of lists, click-here hyperlinks etc will also help immensely.
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    Please, please do not add sound cues, or if you must make them easy to disable in one shot, without having to dig through too many preferences. I've been being annoyed by various keyboard clicks, beeps, and the like longer than some of you have been alive. At least I could cut the speaker wire in a dumb terminal keyboard without reducing its usefulness for its actual job. Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 1:00

Here's some evidence for you: my grandfather still dials the numbers he is calling manually, digit by digit. And he has a little book were he keeps all the numbers. I showed and explained to him the idea of internal phone's storage, but it just doesn't fit into his conceptual model of the phone.

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    That's believable. People get set in their ways of doing things, and resist learning new features. His old rotary dial phone didn't have a built-in phonebook, so he's never got used to using such a thing. If the smartphone offered an actual or virtual rotary dial, he might use that (!), although by now he's probably comfortable with pushing a button for each digit. Possibly he's somewhat uncomfortable with not seeing each digit as it's pressed, and fears a misdial.
    – Phil Perry
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 14:05
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    That's not evidence, it's one single anecdote that may not represent the wider population at all.
    – JonW
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 16:56
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    Here's another anecdote for you: I resisted getting a cell phone for a long time, and when I finally got a used one, a teenager offered to show me how to use it. He was surprised when I didn't need help. Just because we do things differently, in an old fashioned way, doesn't mean we can't learn. We have learned that change for change's sake is meaningless. And your grandfather is using a very stable storage medium, with both advantages and disadvantages, just as your suggested option. He may have quickly weighed pros and cons. Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 20:48
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    The book is likely to outlast the phone, how often have you had someone tell you that they could not ring you before they have lost all the numbers on their phone.
    – Ian
    Commented Apr 19, 2014 at 21:18
  • Also, do you have any idea how much of a pain it would be to transpose all the numbers from his book to his phone?
    – aslum
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 19:14

My answer pertains to older people without any sever disabilities:

Older people have gone there entire lives without ever using advanced electronics and are not used to modern ideas, e.g. hamburger icons, swiping, etc.

If you are designing something for an older generation you need make the interface as intuitive FOR THEM as you can. I would say this means a lot of things that you found in the old web, e.g. "click here".

Hallway testing is probably the best thing you can do here, find your dear sweet grandma, or just mother, and ask her what she expects certain buttons to do. Let them guide you in how the device should happen.

One thing that I keep coming across with older people and computers is that they are constantly afraid they are going to break something (by doing something in software). I'm not sure how you can help prevent that, but if your app throws an error, tell them everything is fine.

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    Hand them your iPhone/Android and tell them they should use it to call you at work. See just how (un)intuitive the interface is to someone used to working with a Plain Old Telephone. Try giving them step-by-step instructions, and see far you get before you use terminology that confuses them (e.g., "now swipe the access lock"... "steal WHAT?").
    – Phil Perry
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 14:10
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    This isn't an answer to the question. OP has asked if there is any evidence for how older people cope with smartphones. Your answer doesn't cover any of that.
    – JonW
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 17:05

I think you have to differentiate between

1 / Unable to Use


2 / Don't want to use.

PC's up to about 2005 were pesky complicated things, which required lots of user fiddling with to keep going. So anyone over a certain age (probably about 50) is going to associate smartphone = computer = complicated and unreliable.

So I think part of the issue is just getting people to try the modern smartphone which is a world away from the mid zeros PC and 'just works'.

The other issue is being 'unable to use'. The first thing which goes as you get older is eyesight - and generally people need glasses to read small print from late 40s onwards.

The other issue is any deteriation in fine motor skills. There is a graph in this article which shows how this falls off with age.

Apart from these two issues there's no real reason why someone of 80 shouldn't be able to use a smartphone, - as long as they get some initial guidance on how to use it (guidance which involves 'showing them' not just 'telling them').

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