UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 1003 April 18, 2013

Romancing the Boomer

:
Designing apps that resonate with older users

 

There has been a lot written about the huge wallets of the baby boom generation.

They control 77% of the nation’s wealth and buy 45% of all consumer goods. Boomers spent a whopping $2.5 trillion in 2010 alone. And, since they are all getting older, this is a market that shows no signs of slowing.

In fact, when the youngest Boomers turn 50 in 2014, there will be 78 million Boomers ages 50-68.

Who are Boomers?

Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. They spend more on tech than any other cohort. They spent an average $850 for their latest home computer: $50 more than any other group, reported Forrester Research in 2010. People presume that Gen Y is the most eager to adopt technology, which may be true, but they don't have the spending power to support their desires like Boomers.

Boomers want products and services that will keep them connected to others, make life easier by giving them more free time and that are simple to use. Products marketed directly to them are more likely to be adopted and shared with their peers.

Boomers don’t want to see ads with music and events from the ‘60s and ‘70s. They accept that those years are gone. They do want to see ads showing them enjoying their lives now, being fit and active and socializing with friends and family.

There is a terrific television ad for the Toyota Venza that shows a 20-something son in his parents’ home talking about his worries that his parents are aging. He says his mom used to make dinner for him, but now she goes to bed too early. Then the ad changes to show why Mom isn’t cooking dinner. She’s too busy with Dad, having fun with their friends. It portrays Boomer parents as energetic. It reminds Boomers of their youth, without making them feel old. It works.

Opportunity Through Understanding

Boomers have grown up with technology and are the obvious early adopters of many many apps, healthcare apps especially. However, it’s imperative for young designers to understand the mindset of Boomers, their backgrounds, their physical shortcomings, and their influencers in order to be able to market their products to this group.

In in early 2012, the Pew Internet Project revealed that 80% of Boomers are online and 29% of them own smartphones. They spend 15 hours per week online doing research, emailing, shopping, reading, and socializing about hobbies such as gardening and travel. But one size does NOT fit all in the 50+ market. You wouldn’t design the same video game for a 5-year-old as you would a 15-year-old. The same principal holds true when designing for a 50-year-old and a 65-year-old.

For example, dexterity and eyesight slowly degenerate each year an adult passes 50. So even 65-year-olds with the same cognitive abilities as 50-year-olds will not be able to operate or see the same site or app as their younger colleagues.

Boomers need easy-to-use apps that help them live longer, independent, quality lives. But they need the apps to work for them, which is different than what works for younger generations. For example, Boomers want tech-management support groups to teach them how to use apps and stay connected. They are a generation that embraced “rap sessions.” They are engrossed in self-help and 12-step groups. They’ve grown up with the love for connectivity to others, which is evident when so many Boomers gravitate to classes at the Apple store. It’s the sharing that revs them up.

With that in mind, here are a few general tips on designing for a delightful Boomer user experience.

Boomers Want Their Manuals

For as long as Boomers can remember, high-tech products have come with instruction manuals. Over time, they learned a certain routine:

  1. Buy new thing
  2. Read new thing’s manual
  3. Use new thing
  4. Make fun of significant other who’s having trouble because he skipped step two

Obviously, in a perfectly designed world, everything would be intuitive and instruction manuals would go the way of the dodo. But that’s not the world we live in. In our world, users spend huge amounts of of their time using other people’s products, which means that even if your design seems perfectly intuitive, you still run the risk of confusing older users by omitting instructions and other crutches.

There’s a school of thought out there that argues against user interface “crutches” like walkthroughs. The argument goes something like, “If you’re using a walkthrough, you’ve already failed.” Products, these people say, should be intuitive, even “Apple-like.” While I agree with that sentiment, the problem is that when it comes to Boomers and seniors, this mentality puts designers in direct contravention with decades of established habits.

Always remember: as a product designer, your goal is not to teach the world to appreciate good design. Your goal is to make your product as easy for your target audience to use as possible, even when doing so runs counter to your intuitions about what “good” design should be.

Still not convinced? Think of it this way: if you saw someone drowning, would you stand on the dock and lecture him about how the doggie paddle is an “intuitive” stroke, or would you jump in and save him and leave the lesson for another day?

Privacy Matters

Boomers aren’t from the “transparency era” like Millenials and Gen Xers. They value privacy and guard it all costs. If developers and designers want Boomers to get onboard with their sites, the sites need to address Boomers fears head-on. Remember, Boomers are a generation that lived through Joe McCarthy’s Red Squad in the early ‘50s and the FBI’s tracking of Vietnam protestors in the ‘60s.

That’s why it makes sense that, in a study conducted by Burst Media, “only 34% of Boomers were comfortable about privacy with Internet sites that customized content, but that number increased to 52% when they were presented with clearly stated privacy policies.” In other words, Boomers will use your site, but first they have to trust you.

Boomers Want to be Engaged

Boomers grew up in an analog world, where mechanical actions begat mechanical responses. Use simple animations to ensure that the effect of every action is clearly explained. Think of how when you download an app on iOS, you’re taken to the homescreen and forced to watch the app download. True, this often frustrates power users, but for a child of the analog age, it links cause and effect in a clear and understandable manner.

If your app involves text entry, make sure you include some form of a “save” or “confirm” button, even if it’s only a placebo. Yes, I realize that it’s unnecessary given autosave functionality, but your target users didn’t grow up net natives. The action of hitting “save” meshes with the habits they formed on installed software. Without that button, they’re likely to get confused and scared. And it’s not a long jump from confused and scared to abandoning your app.

Along the same lines, consider adding confirmation and error messages to any input action. A quick flash of green or red in a text box (plus a helpful bit of microcopy in the latter case) will go a long way in comforting your older users. And make sure those messages are inline whenever possible so that it’s clear what the messages are referring to.

Make sure also that you have ample help documentation supported by screenshots or screencasts where appropriate. Mimicking is a natural act for any age group, so give your users the tools to do so.

Conclusion

Boomers represent a huge opportunity for developers. Their penchants to research travel and healthcare online exemplifies their movement toward mobile apps. But in order to get them off of their computers and onto tablets and smartphones, the apps must enhance their expereinces and their lives, not complicate them.

Boomers understand it’s younger developers who are the bright experts designing digital tools for them. But Boomers want to be understood and have their privacy needs met in order to be loyal customers. When they have that, they will open their wallets big time.

Portions of this article were excerpted from the recently released e-book How to Market Digital Healthcare Products to Boomers, Seniors & Caregivers by Suzie Mitchell and Justin Singer.

 

Image of glasses of red wine courtesy Shutterstock.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

I am a communications consultant and market researcher who specializes in content messaging of digital products to the 50+ market  I blog for AARP and write "App of the Week" and am the co-author of the recently released book How to Market Digital Healthcare Devices to Boomers, Seniors and Caregivers.

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Comments

36
50

Hmm. Thanks for writing this. You've explained why the main demographic in an in-person technology support group I started is primarily people over 50.

41
52

Thanks Jonathan for your comments. I think you suspicions were probably correct.

45
48

Thanks for this article, which I think makes some excellent points.

I once asked our marketing people why we appeared to concentrate so heavily on the 18-35 demographic when our own CRM stats indicated that the 35-65 age group spend far more on our products. Their slightly mealy-mouthed response was that the 18-35s will be the new 35-65s in... 20 years time. I noted the marketeers themselves were about 30 years old themselves. My suspicion was that in fact they wouldn't know how to sell to their parents' generation. In failing to do so, may well be responsible for significant financial under-performance and even business failure.

44
49

Sorry to be a link dropper but my post on "usability, training and outsourcing" addresses this POV --f you are interested in the topic. It's short. Steve at whatstheidea

40
51

Thank you for the correction on iOS, but I'm not sure it invalidates my larger point. It's the rare company that can keep users around long enough to "teach" them anything. For the rest of us, the choice is usually between making a product easy and making a product no one uses twice. So while I agree that design as a discipline should aspire to frictionless experiences, I would recommend that most entrepreneurs settle for easy.

40
46

Thank you for the article. It gave me insight into a different audience's perspective, but at the same time, I'm not convinced that boomers are always looking for a "familiar" experience. Product Design isn't always about making the product easy. Easy means comfortable. Easy means familiar. but what's more important, is making an experience "frictionless".

You were incorrect when you stated that iOS takes you back to the home screen to make you watch apps download. They did that in the past, as a step toward something more frictionless. But now, it shows the download bar within the app store and lets you continue to shop.

Anyone can jump in and save the drowning person, but the value comes in the way that you decide to teach that person "good" design without them knowing it.