Tech and older adults

The stereotype of grandchildren helping grandparents with their phone or remote controller is often perpetuated by older people themselves. Skill in using phones and websites depends on the reasons for using them. Younger people can have different interests from older adults meaning they use different apps and software. This doesn’t mean tech and older adults don’t belong together.

“Grandma cannot use her phone because it was not designed for her. Ubiquitous mass-market tools should not present obvious and avoidable hurdles to everyday users.” Robert Schumacher.

A smartphone with graphics depicting a design problem being fixed.

The stereotype is not based in evidence, and it might not be the tech that’s the barrier – poor vision or hand dexterity can also cause problems with using phones and computers.

It’s about mental models

According to Schumacher, the main difference between younger and older generations is when their mental models of how things work was formed. He explains how these mental models can widen any gap in understanding in how things work:

“Every generation has its own mental models of the world. In Tom Standage’s (1998) fascinating book The Victorian Internet, he provides several examples of how emerging technology scrambled everyone’s way of thinking. Take the introduction of the telegraph. In one example, a mother brought a bowl of sauerkraut to the telegraph office, insisting that they send it (across the wire) to her son on the battlefront. This mother, with good intentions, mixed up the atoms and the bits, which perhaps is understandable if you do not have a suitable mental model.”

A telegraph pole with rows of wires attached.

Using this story we can see that many older adults will have mental models and beliefs of how things work. But they don’t align with the design models and systems. People who began working with computers and DOS systems in the 1980s have grown up with the evolution of technology. Their mental model has adjusted with each new development. But not everyone worked in an office with a computer.

Barriers for everyone

CAPTCHA requires good visual acuity, and multi-factor authentication (MFA) requires people to juggle more than one device and accounts. And access to healthcare is moving online with MFA requirements.

Electronic ticketing now requires a mobile app. The assumption is that the process is intuitive despite the many steps in the process. Downloading the app, getting the tickets by email, transferring to the app, retrieving and scanning the app at the gate. And access to a streaming service often requires a QR code – something else to learn.

Schumacher’s article discusses more on this topic and how to remedy the situation. More testing with older adults is essential. Their mental models aren’t the same as the developer’s – what’s intuitive for a seasoned tech user is not intuitive for everyone. However, it doesn’t mean older people are averse to using technology or too “stuck in their ways” to learn.

The title of the article is, Gran Got Tech: Inclusivity and Older Adults, published in the Journal of User Experience.

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