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Touch for the very first time: Older adults and tablet use


We’re living in exciting times: we are constantly confronted with new technological advancements and technology rapidly changes our everyday life. At the same time, there are many people in the older generation that never used widespread technologies such as tablets before. That unique constellation enables researchers to get insights on (technological) first-time experiences and apply those findings to improve general user experience.

That’s exactly what scientist from Ancona, Italy did: they conducted an experiment with older users that never used touchscreen technology before. But before we deep-dive into the Italian experiment, I want to outline some characteristics of older adults which should be taken into consideration during the system design process.

Characteristics of Older Users

The recently published book “Designing for Older Adults: Principles and Creative Human Factors Approaches” from Czaja et al. gives a nice overview of psychographic, perceptual, cognitive and psychomotor characteristics of the elderly. I summarised some foundational facts for you:

  • Older adults have lower levels of technology self-efficacy and higher levels of computer anxiety. For that, designers should ensure that they provide support to their older users e.g. by providing them with adequate instructions to feel comfortable using the technology.
  • When it comes to the use of ICT, vision, hearing and haptics are the most important senses. Unfortunately, they are strongly affected by age. Older adults are more often visually impaired and need to wear glasses compared to younger adults. Also, the speed with which visual information can be processed slows down with age. There are strong correlations between age and hearing loss and the sense of touch declines with age, making older users less sensitive to haptic cues. As an example, vibrations used to indicate a feedback by the system might need to be adapted to the higher haptic threshold of older users to be noticed.
  • Aging also effects cognition such as processing speed, attention and memory. Thus, the design needs to be adapted to the user group. Practical suggestions include presenting as few as possible objects per page to reduce the time needed for visual search. Next, blinking windows with information that is not task-relevant should be removed since older users are more easily distracted by salient cues.

Technology Design for Older Adults

Other great suggestions on how to design user interfaces keeping the elderly in mind can be found in a systematic literature review by Australian researchers. The paper aggregates challenges that older adults experience with user interfaces and solutions proposed by the reviewed literature. Personally, I liked the finding that elderly users can benefit greatly from receiving constant feedback from the application on the progress of a task. This is because they have less trust in the computer performing the correct action OR lack confidence in their ability to choose the right action. The feedback in form of confirmations or errors therefore eases their anxiety and helps them learning procedures. A great example all of us know is a progress tracker used in some online shops that gives us information about our current progress and steps that will follow.

Here you can find an amazing article on progress trackers. This article is also were I retrieved from this image of a progress tracker

Their literature review also revealed that older users prefer touch input over mouse/keyboard input. In experimental studies older users report that tasks performed with a touchscreen were subjectively easier to perform. Researchers explain this finding by a more direct and intuitive link between the physical action (movement of body such as tapping) and the digital action (what’s happening “on” the screen). Throughout the literature, researchers suggest using touchscreen technology whenever possible when designing for the elderly. Keeping this in mind, let’s have a look now at the Italian study with older adults using a tablet who never interacted with a touchscreen before.

Study: Older adults using tablets for the first time

22 participants with a mean age of 76 years old participated in the experiment. One of the inclusion criteria was that the participant has no previous experience in the use of computers, internet or other ICTs (except for old-fashioned mobile phones). This experiment gives us valuable insights since it’s one of the few experiments focusing on touchscreen (or more general: technology) first-timers! The experiment consisted of three game sessions testing for performance in tapping a button, dragging an object and zooming or shrinking an object.

Three game sessions, picture retrieved from the original paper by Menghi et al. (2017)

For the tapping condition a success rate of 78% was reported. Significant effects of the size of the object on the performance of the participant were found: the bigger the targets, the quicker the participants tapped on them. This result confirms findings of previous studies and doesn’t come too surprisingly. The elderly might benefit from bigger items especially due to their visual and psychomotor limitations.

When it comes to the drag-and-drop and the pinch-to-zoom condition performance declines tremendously. The drag-and-drop task had an overall success rate of only 45% and the pinch-to-zoom task has only been performed successfully in 24% of the cases.

Learnings and Summary

These findings can be interesting for other user groups as well. Touchscreen technology is often praised as an intuitive or natural form of interaction. In this specific experiment, participants had no previous experience with touchscreen and were (mostly) unable to perform the two touch-based gestures. That leads to the interpretation that even interaction with “natural” user interfaces needs to be learned and practiced to be performed successfully. This finding should make us overthink frequently used touch-gestures such as zooming using two fingers.

” Improving the design in favor of the older users means also to reduce the frustration with the use for a wider plethora of users”

– retrieved from Menghi et al. (2017)

With an ageing population in most industry nations, it’s time to start considering the special characteristics and needs of this ever-growing user group in the design process – especially considering the possibilities technology offers the elderly in remaining socially active and independent.

Menghi, Roberto & Ceccacci, Silvia & Gullà, Francesca & Cavalieri, Lorenzo & Germani, Michele & Bevilacqua, Roberta. (2017). How Older People Who Have Never Used Touchscreen Technology Interact with a Tablet. 117-131.
Dodd, C., Athauda, R., & Adam, M. T. (2017, December). Designing user interfaces for the elderly: a systematic literature review. In Proceedings of the Australasian Conference on Information Systems (pp. 1-11).
Czaja, S., Boot, W., Charness, N. & Rogers, W. (2019). Designing for Older Adults : Principles and Creative Human Factors Approaches. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.