People: fast forward

XIII.6 November + December 2006
Page: 48
Digital Citation


Aaron Marcus

What do seniors want and need from human-computer interaction and communication? What are the long-term effects on them with mobile/computing devices? How late in their lives can and should we expose them to the latest technology?

In the late 1980s or early ‘90s, Apple introduced its own Gray Panthers initiative by which it put into seniors’ hands Apple Macintosh computers and modems. This equipment gift enabled seniors across the US to communicate with others over the Internet. At that time, it was a significant advance for many elderly users. I recall my late mother using a computer provided by this program, which was her first computer experience. In the early 1980s, I hired a woman in her late 60s to be my office manager. She had never used computers, but rapidly became a Macintosh fan and worked effectively until her retirement some years later.

Elderly users around the world today are connected in ways that were previously unavailable. They are connected to their offspring and caretakers, as well as their peers: sharing photos, life stories, carrying on with professional lives well beyond traditional retirement ages, and more. What are the implications for the user interfaces of products and services for the elderly, which are being developed at an increasing rate?

This increase in attention to the elderly is no accident. Statistics show that approximately half of Japan’s population will be over 60 by about 2030. Japan leads other nations in becoming a society of seniors. The rate of conversion is uneven among nations, with India and China less affected. What will be the outcome of this shift among the current billion users and the next billion users? Clearly, changes in national economies, politics, society, education—as well as user-interface design—will result.

Even in 2002, as I discussed in an earlier essay, a universal design conference in Yokohama sponsored by many Japanese major corporations reported on innovations that target the elderly, such as mobile phones with large displays that are easier to read and use [10]. As well as the Japanese, some European countries have invested more time and energy into exploring devices and user-interface design solutions that target the elderly. As an example, Constantine Stephanidis [7] in Crete has emphasized universal access to computers and published a guidelines collection by Maguire [6] for kiosk design user interfaces that emphasizes designing for the elderly.

Though many sources of analysis exist for the impact of media and technology on seniors, not all CHI professionals are aware of them. But you don’t need to be a member of AARP (the American Association for the Advancement of Retired People) in the US to start finding out. User-interface design for older users seems fertile ground for many studies, much product/service innovation, and socio-technological change. Perhaps as many of our CHI professionals reach their golden years, these issues will loom larger in our collective consciousness. Many researchers worldwide have already engaged in specific studies, as citations in the HCI Bibliography and other digital library resources indicate, but much more could be and should be done. Now is a perfect time to dive again into issues that, collectively, could become a major theme of a future CHI conference or publication, as it was a secondary theme of the recent UPA 2006 conference devoted to storytelling and a focus of the Aging by Design conference, 23-24, October 2006, at Bentley College, in Massachusetts (, which was co-sponsored by AARP.

In the US, according to Kelly Greene in the Wall Street Journal [4], senior-savvy business developers are searching for new Web portals, content, and other offerings to capture the $2 trillion in annual spending power of the 78 million people born from 1946 to 1964. The oldest boomers turn 60 this year (I’m already 63 and over the hill). MySpace has grown quickly and phenomenally to become one of the most visited sites on the Web, but the over-50 users are "minuscule," as Jeff Taylor, founder of, points out in Ms. Greene’s article. He is starting, a MySpace for the 50-plus crowd. Veteran game developer Bernie deKoven, aka "Dr. Fun," has commented on games specifically for the elderly in an article by Ellen Yan [11]. These suggest but a few of the myriad opportunities for exploring not just content issues, but user-experience issues targeting the elderly.

Among other topics of interest to CHI professionals, one might consider the following:

  • How early can seniors better "grasp" and access mobile devices physically, cognitively, and emotionally? For what purposes would they and should they be used and/or enjoyed? Safety? Learning? Communication? "Networking" with their peers as well as their families and caregivers? What are the developmental as well as the cultural, gender, and age-cohort challenges? Already in Europe, at least one manufacturer has begun offering a "simple" mobile phone stripped of the sophisticated bells and whistles so that those who wish can make use of the basic functions of the device unencumbered with extra menus and buttons.
  • Are there entirely new metaphors, mental models, navigation schema, interaction techniques, and appearance characteristics that would be much better for seniors, even if not very usable, useful, or appealing for adults or children? Is there an appropriate developmental path from adult to senior versions?
  • How should seniors be "user-tested?" How do the techniques for younger adults, with whom most user testers are familiar, need to be adjusted? For example, use in assisted-living or senior-care centers may be more of an important environmental factor in determining users’ capabilities and behavior.
  • How can seniors worldwide efficiently and effectively be incorporated into a participatory design process, as now happens with younger game teams and Web search/portal development teams? Will this process evolve naturally as seniors form user communities and communicate among their peers, separate from younger adults and children?
  • Some seniors have begun to lose hearing, vision, memory, attention, physical, and other abilities that "normal" UI solutions take for granted. How do these changes affect multitasking, which is a preferred mode of work and play for many younger adults and children?
  • What are the larger social, ethical, cultural, and aesthetic implications of the long-term use at increasingly late ages of devices such as camera phones, headsets, instant messaging, etc. Are suitably designed computer-based telecommunication systems able actually to diminish the onset of some forms of dementia, or to help keep seniors more physically active?
  • Some seniors live increasingly isolated from friends, family, and the outside world. Will virtual worlds, virtual memory gardens, access to constant video, music, or other stimuli help them better enjoy what time they have left? Would this be desirable?
  • How will family, education, work, and play change for our oldest users? Are we, in fact, simply encouraging them to join in a final grand addiction, until time runs out, determined to show them what is "best" and "right" for their own "good"?

Some of these issues are variants of those I cited for an earlier essay regarding children. Questions about CHI and the beginnings and ends of life are perhaps linked more closely than one might imagine. The CHI community will unquestionably change its level of awareness and commitment to seniors as more of us become those very users. The baby boom of the last century in the US plods onward in time inexorably to produce the senior boom of this century. CHI could do more by focusing more attention on these issues, and might be able to join with many senior-oriented organizations such as AARP in the US to engage in research, to run joint workshops, and to otherwise cooperate and disseminate information of interest to a wide body of stakeholders. Those stakeholders include you, inevitably.

As we all grow older, the time to begin thinking about user interfaces for the elderly becomes an issue to which all can relate. Perhaps that portends a boom time for SeniorCHI. We shall soon see.


1. California State University/Northridge (CSUN) Center for Disabilities,; conference proceedings,

2. DeKoven, Bernie [2006] aka Dr. Fun. Writes about games seniors, as well as others, play.

3. Information visualization of world trends.

4. Greene, Kelly [2006]. "Still Sexy at 60?" Wall Street Journal, 25 July 2006, p. B5ff.

5. Jacko, J.A., and Hanson, V.L. Universal Access in the Information Society 2, 1. Special issue on universal access and inclusion in design, Springer Verlag (http://link.springer-de or, 2002.

6. Maguire, M.C. [1997]. "A Review of User-Interface Design Guidelines for Public Information Kiosk Systems." Proc. User Interfaces for All 1997, FORTH Conf, Iraklion, Crete. URL:

7. Stephanidis, C., ed. User Interfaces for All: Concepts, Methods, and Tools. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, New York, 2001 (ISBN 0-8058-2967-9).

8. United Nations Statistics (2006).

9. US Department of Justice. Briefs on the Internet, Americans with Disabilities Act, and private business available at

10. Universal Design Japan Conference,

11. Yan, Ellen [2006]. "Racing to Play", 22 July 2006.,0,2223829.story.


Aaron Marcus

About the Author:

Aaron Marcus is the founder and president of Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc. (AM+A). He has degrees from both Princeton University and Yale University, in physics and graphic design, respectively. Mr. Marcus has published, lectured, tutored, and consulted internationally for more than 30 years.

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