Designing for seniors

XIV.4 July + August 2007
Page: 24
Digital Citation

Mobile phone design for older persons

Sri Kurniawan

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Just like computers and the Internet, mobile phones are becoming common personal items for older persons. In early 2006, 60 percent of people aged 65 to 74 years and 36 percent of people aged 75 years and over owned and used mobile phones in the UK [1]. Actually, older people have a much higher adoption rate of mobile phones than of Internet usage [2]. Many older persons use mobile phones in both leisure and work contexts.

However, while for some older persons, communicating using mobile phones seems to be an enjoyable experience, most mobile phones had not been designed with older people in mind and are usually difficult for them to use [3]. Most complaints are related to displays that are too small and difficult to see; buttons and characters that are too small, causing users to push wrong numbers frequently; functions that are too many and too complex, non-user-friendly menu arrangement; unclear instruction on how to find and use some functions; and services that are too expensive.

If the problems related to the use of mobile phones can be solved, mobile phones can potentially play an important role in maintaining quality of life for older people in many ways. They provide a sense of security and safety for elders: By carrying mobile phones, other people can reach them practically anytime and anywhere [4]. Past studies show that when asked, older people were quite vocal and creative in specifying desired innovations, such as a health-monitor function, speech activation, or a security-bracelet function that can send calls for help [5].

In a research project commissioned by the British Society of Gerontology, people 60 years old and above were actively involved in exploring issues related to their mobile phone use with the intent of translating the findings into a set of requirements for the design of a senior-friendly phone, through a combined approach of qualitative and quantitative methods (content analysis of expert interviews and focus group discussions, as well as statistical analysis of an online questionnaire designed in collaboration with the focus group) to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of these issues.

back to top  The Issues

Through a combination of the investigation into usage patterns, problems and concerns, perceived benefits, and desired and unwanted features, we uncovered the following issues:

  • The most-called person: partners.
  • The three important benefits of having mobile phones for older persons are: 1. They know they can always call somebody when they are in trouble; 2. They feel more confident to go out by themselves; 3. They feel safer when they are alone.
  • The three most-desired functions are address book, diary, and alarm clock (arguably, these functions share a common characteristic of being memory aids).
  • The top three functions considered unnecessary are music player, camera, and videophone (these are entertainment-related functions, which many older persons would not associate with a communication device).
  • The three most difficult aspects of using mobile phones are learning to use, navigating menus, and choosing the right option.

back to top  The Design

Shifting through the problems with the current design of the phones used by the study participants and the participants' opinions on the various aspect of physical design, a set of requirements for the physical design elements that were perceived to be senior-friendly are:

  • Buttons: Square large metallic buttons.
    Reason: Metallic buttons clicked when pressed, thereby providing an auditory confirmation that the number associated with those buttons had been dialed successfully, useful for older persons with reduced vision (which might cause viewing the numbers on the small screen of mobile phones difficult). They preferred metallic buttons to rubbery buttons, as metallic buttons "give the impression of a serious piece of equipment."
  • Display: One that can display large text and whose screen backlight does not turn off when idling.
    Reason: Older persons require extra cognitive processing time when dialing a number or writing text, and the default automatic backlight dimming is too fast for most of them.
  • Shape: Flip phone with antenna.
    Reason: A flip phone is easier to pick up and end calls, and it has a comfortable length and angle when opened; an antenna helps when picking up the phone in a crowded handbag.
  • Color: Bright or silver.
    Reason: Easier to spot in a crowded handbag. However, some older persons disliked brightly colored phones for fear of being too visible, hence attracting mobile phone thieves.
  • Size: Bulky, can be grabbed and held comfortably. The participants provided an example of the phone model that was too small, which was "the new Nokia that only has this new rotary dialer," essentially, the 7380 model.
    Reason: Joint stiffness makes it difficult to grab and hold small devices.
  • Hardwired functions (these are the functions that should be "hardwired" to particular buttons): one-button locking function to prevent accidental dialing, panic button for emergencies, and a button to place a caller/number into a blacklist.
    Unfortunately, although any active mobile phone can be used to dial 999 (the emergency number in the U.K.), even when there is no credit left or the contract has expired, very few mobile phones allocate a button for emergency dialing. Most models that support hardwired emergency numbers are mobile phones for children (e.g., LG1000 Migo phone).

Using the criteria proposed by the participants (except the hardwired functions, which unfortunately do not yet come standard in many commercial models), an extensive search in shops and online commenced. The model that most closely matches these criteria is an LG8380, a flip phone with antenna and square metallic buttons that clicked when pressed.

back to top  What Do We Learn About Mobile Phones and Older Persons?

From this study, it is apparent that for older persons, mobile phones are perceived as memory aids to mediate aging-related memory decline and for providing a sense of safety and security. As such, functions that do not support these aims are perceived as unnecessary. It is also the memory decline (or in general, cognitive decline) that causes problem for older persons in using and learning to use mobile phones.

The study also revealed the preferred physical design of mobile phones for older persons. The model that most closely matches the proposed criteria is quite a modern and popular design that is served by most mobile phone providers. Product designers take noteĀ—it is clear from this study that mobile phone design for older persons is not necessarily limited to or based on old-style, out-of-date models, supporting only very basic calling functions.

back to top  References

1. Goodman, J., S. Brewster, and P. Gray. "Older people, mobile devices and navigation." In HCI and the Older Population. 13-14. Edited by J. Goodman and S. Brewster. Workshop at the HCI 2004, Leeds, UK: Sep 2004.

2. Mikkonen, M., S. Väyrynen, V. Ikonen, and M.O. Heikkila, M.O. "User and Concept Studies as Tools in Developing Mobile Communication Services for the Elderly." Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 6 (2002): 113-124.

3. Kurniawan, S., M. Mahmud, and Y. Nugroho "A Study of the Use of Mobile Phones by Older Persons". CHI `06 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2006, 989-994.

4. Ofcom's Media Literacy Publications and Research. "Media Literacy Audit: Report on Media Literacy Amongst Older People." March 2006.

5. Pedersen P.E., and R Ling "Modifying Adoption Research For Mobile Internet Service Adoption: Cross-Disciplinary Interactions." Proceedings of the 36th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 2003, 1-10.

back to top  Author

Sri Kurniawan
University of Manchester

About the Author

Sri Hastuti Kurniawan is a lecturer in HCI at the School of Informatics, the University of Manchester. Her previous appointment was at the Institute of Gerontology, Wayne State University. Sri's research interests include HCI and usability studies with older persons and people with disabilities, and designing and evaluating assistive technology for these user groups. She is the editor of two recently published books, Human Computer Interaction Research in Web Design and Evaluation and Advances in Universal Web Design and Evaluation: Research, Trends and Opportunities.

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