Universal design: unifying human diversity and building access across the digital divide

As the older adult population rapidly expands, accessibility means more than just standards compliance: it means developing solutions that embrace “good design” and technology that meets the needs of all users, including people with and without disabilities.

Architect Ronald Mace first coined the term “universal design” in the 1980s. He believed universal design meant designing for all people, and that it needed to include seven principles: equitable use; flexibility in use; simplicity and intuitiveness; perceptibility of information; tolerance for error; low physical effort; size and space for approach and use.

Bridging the Digital Divide

The Silent Generation and older baby boomers lag behind the digital natives of the Gen X, Millennial and Gen Z cohorts in technology adoption.

And older adults’ slow tech adoption has only amplified the digital disconnect within families and communities that has been brought on by the pandemic. With stay-at-home orders, technology should be a bridge during this time of lockdown and self-quarantine. Instead, because older adults are not always avid users of technology—often neither owning devices nor subscribing to Internet providers—locked down older adults cannot experience the virtual face-to-face connections that are so important to preventing social isolation.

This reluctance among older adults to use technology could stem from its design. The tech industry today is dominated by software engineers and product owners in their 20s and 30s who cater to the masses, particularly to those younger than age 45. The older adult user base often is overlooked when engineers design new technologies, apps or devices. Older adults’ decreased hearing, sight and motor skills can cause difficulties when they try to use small devices and navigate non-intuitive interfaces.

On the other hand, certain technologies exist that emphasize the user is “old,” negatively stigmatizing this group. For example, wander guard pendants used by older adults are neither attractive nor seen as trendy. This type of technology, which emphasizes differences, is not technology for all. 

Embracing universal design principles is the first step toward bridging the digital divide. Universal design provides equity and dignity for the user to partake in activities without the stigma of inaccessibility and without adaptations. A good example of this is automatic sliding doors. Sliding doors include six of the seven principles—they provide equal access to all people, including those in a wheelchair or who are using a walker; they empower a person to enter a building without aid and ensure that anyone can enter the building (principle No. 4, information perceptibility, is not applicable).

A universally designed environment also empowers older adults to integrate seamlessly within their community, mitigating the negative labels associated with aging. This naturally fosters an increased engagement in life and allows older adults freedom of access without experiencing prejudice.

Silicon Valley (Finally) Wakes Up

The good news is that the tide is starting to turn. Silicon Valley is beginning to include older adults in the design of their solutions. In Cupertino and Palo Alto, tech giants recently have done some investigative work on how older adults use tablets and voice-activated solutions.

Partnering with CDW Healthcare, customers who are independent living residents (with an average age of 85) in Palo Alto provided feedback directly to Apple, explaining how they used their iPads and where they needed support.

In Cupertino, Google looked at how its Google Assistant home speaker could be used in senior living within a continuing care retirement community. The residents provided relevant feedback on how they were using the assistant and how it could ease operations and service inside their community.

Google created a simple interface that will put non-technical users of any age at ease.

Google worked with CDW Healthcare in mid-March, when the first stay-at-home orders were issued, providing 900 Google Nest Hub Maxes to Merrill Gardens communities in Seattle, Wash. The goal was to help residents in lockdown gain access to video chats using Google Duo and to provide content using YouTube. What is remarkable about this action is that Google took its existing consumer device design and created a solution via input from older adults.

“We learned that the (older adult) residents might have physical disabilities that make it hard for them to touch screens,” said Rachel Been, Design Lead for Google Nest.

“Devices that can be controlled with an individual’s voice—with visual affordances reminding people of what the device is capable of—make control more natural. And when there is information on the screen, large buttons and text make content easily touchable, which can be helpful for people who have trouble with fine motor skills. This information helped us design a better experience for Merrill residents, but it also allows us to design a better experience for everyone,” said Been.

“Google has made a huge difference by creating a simple interface that will put non-technical users of any age at ease,” said Merrill Gardens IT Program Manager Dalen Newton. “It has been refreshing to work with Google to help them better understand the senior living space. They took their newfound knowledge and developed a truly ‘design for all’ concept.”

Been believes good design is connected to the positive outcomes technology can bring. “The goal of Inclusive Design … is that it’s not only about the final product, but about the path to the final outcome … The goal with working with Merrill Gardens was about facilitating communication between older adults and their friends and family to help mitigate loneliness during this tough time. In order to design for that need, we had to understand what ‘facilitation’ and ‘communication’ meant for this community.”

In this time, wherein social distancing is a life-saving measure, particularly for an older adult population, technology can be a lifeline to family and friends. Elders want to engage with modern technology, and this will only happen if interfaces are optimized for their accessibility.

With greater investment in applying universal design to provide accessible devices and digital training, technology has the potential to become a powerful tool for reducing loneliness among elders. It can help to eradicate the digital divide, empowering older people to connect, create and contribute online.

Ginna Baik is Strategic Business Development Manager for Senior Care at CDW Healthcare, in San Diego, Calif., and serves on the ASA Board of Directors.