Design Patterns for Mobile User Interfaces Targeted at Older Adults

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… you are developing a smartphone UI targeted at older adults. This may be the first time you are designing for this specific audience, or you might already have some experience and have chosen to review the design decisions made in previous projects. You are in the early stages of your interface design, and had reviewed official recommendations on how to correctly apply standard gestures to your smartphone interface. However, your user-interface is targeted at older adults who might not be technology proficient, and therefore not be familiar with gestural interfaces, nor with the gestures used to operate them.

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Multitouch devices, such as smartphones, offer a wide variety of functions that are accessible to users through the use of gestural commands. However, these gestures have largely been created by systems’ designers over time as the evolution of touchscreen technology progressed. In this context, the design of gestures might have been more concerned with systems’ recognition issues, rather than the end-usability of such gestures (Wobbrock, Morris, & Wilson, 2009). In addition, several authors have pointed out that in many cases these interfaces lack affordances (Norman, 1990), or cues that inform users on the gestures available to interact these systems (Bau & Mackay, 2008; Bragdon et al., 2010; Norman, 2010).


Accordingly, our research with older adults aimed to evaluate the discoverability of current smartphone gestures. In order to do so we employed the method described in (Wobbrock et al., 2009). Which consisted of showing an animation depicting the consequence of a gesture for each task. We would then explain the task to participants, and ask them to perform a gesture they thought could provoke the consequence seen in the animation. Our results showed that tap and swipe gestures were overall those that were best understood by older adults and were used to solve almost all of the tasks. While other common smartphone gestures such as pinch, spread, tap and hold, and double-tap, were performed either by very few, or by no participants at all

Tap and swipe are the most essential gestures used to operate a smartphone. Where most commands and functionalities available by the use of other gestures such as pinch, spread, touch and hold, and double-tap are also available through contextual menus, or specific UI buttons. Meaning that if older adults are able to use tap and swipe, they will have access to most functions available on existing smartphones.

Therefore …


When designing smartphone interfaces for older adults, make sure that commands or actions that are activated by the use of complex gestures such as pinch, spread, touch and hold, and double-tap, are also available through menus, or dedicated UI buttons. In order to access these menus and UI buttons, older adults should only need to employ tap and swipe gestures. Additionally, FOR NOVICE USERS, PROVIDE DEMONSTRATIONS OF AVAILABLE GESTURES, as in many cases your older adult users may be completely new to the gestural interaction paradigm, and not know where or how to start using your interface.

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Bau, O., & Mackay, W. E. (2008). OctoPocus: a dynamic guide for learning gesture-based command sets. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 21st annual ACM symposium on User interface software and technology, Monterey, CA, USA.

Bragdon, A., Uguray, A., Wigdor, D., Anagnostopoulos, S., Zeleznik, R., & Feman, R. (2010). Gesture play: motivating online gesture learning with fun, positive reinforcement and physical metaphors. Paper presented at the ACM International Conference on Interactive Tabletops and Surfaces, Saarbrucken, Germany.

Norman, D. (1990). The Design of Everyday Things: Doubleday Business.

Norman, D. (2010). The way I see it: Natural user interfaces are not natural. interactions, 17, 6. doi: 10.1145/1744161.1744163

Wobbrock, J. O., Morris, M. R., & Wilson, A. D. (2009). User-defined gestures for surface computing. Proceedings of the 27th international conference on Human factors in computing systems - CHI '09. New York, New York, USA: ACM Press.