Technology accessibility for Australian elders

A snapshot of how older Australians engage with technology

Decorative only

Elders in Australia

This is a byline

Technology usage by elders

  • Approximately 71% of elders in Australia access devices and the internet (at varying frequencies). There is an even split of men (49%) and women (51%) within technology users (Roy Morgan Single Source, June 2015).
  • The most commonly used devices by elders are desktops (41%), laptops (27%), tablets (18%), and mobile phones (12%).

(Australian Communications and Media Authority-commissioned survey, May 2015.)

  • Elders are the most frequent users of tablets in Australia. (ACMA, 2015)
  • The primary activities undertaken are:

(Australian Communications and Media Authority, 2016. Digital lives of older Australians, p. 7.)

  • These same users are less likely to watch television or video content (22%) or audio content on a device (11%). (ACMA, 2016, p.9)
  • The most common communication applications were Skype (19%), Facebook Messenger (13%), Facetime (8%), iMessage (7%) and Viber (7%). (ACMA, 2016)

Digital inclusion of elders

Australians aged 65+ are the least digitally included demographic in Australia, scoring lower than the Australian average across all categories of access, affordability and digital ability.  

(The Australian Digital Inclusion Index, 2019. p 16)

  • The greatest divide is in the digital ability category which encompasses attitudes, basic skills and activities:

(The Australian Digital Inclusion Index, 2019)

  • Elders aged 80+ score lower across every category, with women 80+ the lowest scoring category and men 65 - 69 the most included.
  • The data demonstrates a diminishing digital inclusion trend with age.
  • Elders who are non-users of technology are more likely to be unemployed or retired, have no tertiary education, be of lower socioeconomic status, live rurally, or be single (ACMA, 2016, p. 11.)
  • The primary reason for not utilising technology and the internet was reported as a severe lack of interest and need for it (69%) , as well as it being ‘too complicated’ (15%) (ACMA Survey, 2016).

Barriers to accessibility

Physical barriers

  • Elders living with physical impairments or limited mobility face significant barriers in accessing technology.

  • Estimates suggest that between 84,000 - 212,000 people are living with Parkinson’s Disease in Australia.

Mental

  • Elders who live with mental impairments face significant barriers in accessing technology.
  • Memory, socialising, intellect, rationality, and concentration faculties become vulnerable as we age. (Dementia Australia, 2020. Statistics)
  • 10% of elders over 65 and 30% of elders over 85 are living with dementia, with 250 new diagnoses each day.
  • The impacts of memory-related illnesses decreases concentration time, impacting the ability to process and absorb information, and to remember the processes that technology requires. (The National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, 2016, The Economic Cost of Dementia in Australia 2016–2056)
  • Mental accessibility issues perpetuates certain attitudinal barriers by impacting confidence and resilience in using technology.

Resource and Situational

  • Intersections of lower socioeconomic status and geographic location will impact access to technology for elders.
  • From a financial perspective, disposable income or savings and the impact of ongoing health costs will determine the engagement levels of elders. Even where the device itself is supplied, there are associated costs, for example repairs or help.
  • For elders already experiencing socioeconomic inequalities, experiences can perpetuate in the context of access to technology through financial barriers.  
  • Barriers are further exacerbated by intersections of geographical location; living rurally or not having access to a stable internet connection.
  • Education levels are linked to literacy, and more specifically, technology and internet literacy. Education levels can be a barrier to access through interpretation of information, processing and analysis. However, interventions that recognise a spectrum of learning styles and levels will challenge this barrier.

Learning Styles

  • Elders may not be used to interfaces, graphics or trends in technology. Therefore UX and UI cannot be assumed to be ‘intuitive’ and must be rote learnt from scratch—even, for example, commonly used icons.
  • There is an 'automatic preference' for reading a manual, rather than experiential learning, however this appears to be more of what elders are used to, than a strict preference.
  • Fine motor skills, memory and reaction time become impacted as people age. More time is required to process information, remember instructions and become familiar with interfaces.

Attitudes and Experiences

  • Previous technology usage predicates older users’ desire to use, and attitude towards using, technology.
  • In one study, those who had ‘no’ previous technology experience reported greater challenges (i.e., lack of instructions and guidance, lack of knowledge and confidence, health-related barriers, cost); disadvantages and concerns (i.e., too much and too complex technology, feelings of inadequacy, and comparison with younger generations, lack of social interaction and communication, negative features of tablets); and skepticism about using tablets and technology in general.
  • However, the study also notes that after being exposed to technology, participants were more eager to adopt new technology and willing to learn using a tablet.
  • The attitudes and experience (or inexperience) of elders with technology is formative in their likelihood of adoption and positive experience in using technology in future.
  • A combination of lifestyle, physical and mental limitations and education factors intersect with a generational knowledge gap (generally) with technology.
  • Confidence is the primary factor in influencing attitudes for elders with technology.
  • The myriad accessibility factors discussed above prevent willing elders from engaging, as well as those without as much experience with technology. This group hasn’t had the experience of having a ‘win’ with technology that would be conducive to further use.
  • This barrier is incredibly delicate and volatile - one poor experience (or one bad design) can form an elder’s perception of technology indefinitely.
It takes a lot more to unlearn than to learn.

UX/UI Considerations for Accessibility

  • There are a range of UX (user experience) and UI (user interface design) considerations that maximise the accessibility of technology for elders and may mitigate some of the challenges faced
  • Making technology more accessible for those who may experience difficulty using it, makes it more accessible for all: Katie Riley, Product Designer at San Francisco-based workplace safety company Envoy, notes that better readability helps everyone:
“A person’s vision ability is not the only factor to consider—easier to read means easier for everyone. Today’s guidelines could be tomorrow’s requirements: accessibility-related lawsuits are on the rise. Following existing guidelines could reduce company liability”.

(Stephen Westland, Qianqian Pan, SooJin Lee, A review of the effects of colour and light on non‐image function in humans)

Colour

  • Elderly users are more likely to experience a range of cognitive challenges (e.g. vision, learning and memory). Therefore, colour choice isn’t just important for how users access information, but also influence how they understand that information.
  • 4.5% of the population experiences some form of colour blindness (or colour vision deficiency) which is a decreased ability to see colour or differences in colour. ( (Colour Blind Awareness,What is colour blindness?)
  • Colour blindness is disproportionately represented by males (up to 8%). Protanopia  (inability to perceive red and green), deuteranopia (inability to distinguish between red and green) and tritanopia (inability to distinguish yellow and blue) are the most common forms of colour blindness. (David Nicholls, Coloring for Colorblindness)
Standard vision (TL), Deuteranopia (TR), Protanopia (BL), and Tritanopia (BL).


  • Various organisations, institutions, and designers have developed a range of colour palettes that satisfy Protanopia, Deuteranopia, and Tritanopia needs such as Viridis. (Nick Gotelli, Viridis Color Palettes)

Fonts

  • Font types have a significant impact on readability—especially for those with neuro-divergence or learning challenges, such as dyslexia.
  • In general, the following characteristics enhance readability and comprehension (for English/roman characters):
  1. Sans serif fonts
  2. Monospace fonts.
  3. Roman fonts.
  4. Letter shapes are clearly defined and unique (prominent ascenders and descender, as well as d/b or p/q combinations which are not an exact mirror image of one another).
  5. Definition between Uppercase I, lowercase l, and 1.
  6. Generous letter spacing.
  7. Generous kerning (particularly between r and n).

(Luz Rello and Ricardo Baeza-Yates, Good Fonts for Dyslexia);(Carrie Fisher, Designing Accessible Content: Typography, Font Styling, and Structure)

  • Fonts such as Lexie, OpenDyslexic, and FS Me  have been specifically designed for readability, though many open-source fonts are considered to be accessibility-friendly, too, such as Helvetica, Courier, Arial, Verdana, San Francisco, and even the much maligned Comic Sans.
  • The use of italics generally decreases readability.

Sources

  • Roy Morgan Single Source, June 2015
  • David Nicholls, Coloring for Colorblindness