Great software design is determined by the end user, not the designer. Too often UI/UX designers take a high design approach when creating a solution to a problem. The end result looks beautiful but is horribly misaligned to the problem. In the case of some senior living softwares we’ve seen, they could use a little higher approach to their design practices. I get that senior living residents are 80 years old, but that doesn’t mean the your software needs to look and act that same age.
Having spent the entirety of my career in design and visual art professions, here is my basic design approach when it comes to creating software that an aging population will actually use and love.
Just a heads up, at Senior Sign we build an e-signature tool for senior living communities. A lot of the examples in this article will focus on the approach we have taken when designing and building our own software.
Start by mapping out the entire experience. I like to think through the process from end-to-end, listing every feature and functionality. For example, I started our latest version of Senior Sign by asking myself, “What is every step the resident will take in order to complete their move-in packet?” Here’s the first pass that outlined the steps in the process.
From there, I broke each individual step down into its own end-to-end experience. For physician forms, I had to think through the different ways physician forms would be sent and collected. That dictated the elements I should include on the page. Before adding layout, structure or color, write it down.
Now that we have a basic process to design, we’ll need to determine where these elements will live. There’s a hierarchy to design. If you have tabs on a page as well as a side menu, which one takes precedence? In most cases, a top down, left to right approach is most easily understood. But be sure you don’t have subelements living outside of their parent element. For example, if you use tabs on a page be sure and nest the page title below the tabs. This way, when your users cycle through tabs you can change the page title to match. When outlining the latest release of Senior Sign, I started with the core page structure breaking it down into the smallest elements. Every time I outlined a different substructure, I created a new page template to be cloned throughout the software. The final result was 12 page types that covered every interaction across 4 user types and a vast array of scenarios. Now, when we think of expanding functionality or features, we have a base plan to work from.
Software is visual, so we should take an approach that will be beautiful and functional for eyeballs of all ages. Consider your baseline font size to be 16pt. Any smaller than that and you’ll lose people. If you don’t believe me, open your mom’s cell phone and look at her font size for text messages. On that same note, it’s a good idea to pick a more legible font and stick with it throughout your designs. Too much variety in fonts and you may confuse people. Minimizing font variety has the added benefit of faster development times as well.
I can’t talk about eyesight without mentioning colors. Avoid high-contrast colors like pure black and pure white. Bright colors and rounded edges will actually make it more legible for your users. Some may not like it as a styling choice, but I even round a lot of the corners on boxes and buttons to make the software feel safer. Technology can be scary for people, I try to make it feel friendly.
Establishing trust and communicating security are absolutely essential when designing for the elderly. If something on a website seems a little off, I’m less likely to enter or share personal information, and I do this for a living. A custom design goes a long way in establishing trust with your users. If I see stock photos (lots of white backgrounds with familiar models and cheesy smiles), or if the logo and branding don’t match the rest of the software, my spidey-sense is heightened.
Here are some of the security items our team implemented with Senior Sign. We list the community name in the header. The invite email comes from the community, usually the Director of Sales & Marketing. We mention the resident and the manager by name whenever we can. We look to piggyback on the relationship already established between resident and community.
I have found that regardless of user age or demographic, it’s better to over-inform. Don’t assume your users know or understand basic elements like hamburger menus, swiping up, double tapping, or anything of the like. Instead, look for ways in which your users already interact with technology. Then, mimic those interactions. For example, I’m exploring the use of QR codes (those black and white checkered squares) in our software. Thanks to Covid-19 and the digital restaurant menu, most people are familiar with getting out their phone and scanning a QR code to launch a website. Before, this interaction would have required too much education on our part.
Our users are familiar with using paper and pen so we designed a document signer where the user goes page by page. Each field is filled in-line, within the document. Every signature happens on the page where it is requested. But the advantage comes with auto-populating information across every document to save time and energy. Additionally, in-line signature is the legally-binding method to electronically sign a document.
When working with aging adults, I like to offer a multiplicity of ways to get support. We offer help articles with step-by-step instructions for each user type (employees, company executives, community managers, and residents and families). We offer videos of those same articles and instructions. We offer live chat right inside of the Senior Sign so users can get their questions answered without searching. We also offer product tours that highlight sections of the screen and walk through each step right on the page. And now, I’m exploring the best way to provide real-time help when filling and signing documents (I’ll save that for a different post).
One of my favorite design quotes is from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Everything from structure through colors and fonts to icons should distill your design down to a handful of page types, elements, and layouts. Anywhere you can simplify is a good thing. Simplification should even be applied when first starting. As you outline the whole experience, ask yourself, “What are the core elements or functionalities I need to build in order to alleviate the problem we’re trying to solve?”
In closing, this wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive process for designing software. Rather, it was meant as food for thought if you’re looking to build or even purchase software to be used by seniors. Hopefully it gave you a few ideas of things to consider.