Designing accessible software for the digital divide

Designing accessible software for older people

Helping Hand is a suite of applications co-created with over 300 older people from North Liverpool.

Co-creation workshops

Bridging the digital divide

The digital divide in the UK is not just about wealth, ethnicity or physical access to computers and the internet – it’s also about skills and digital literacy. In Liverpool, the Friendly Economy innovation programme (funded by Liverpool City Council), highlighted a generational gap that prevents many of the cities older people, from accessing key online services. Red Ninja were commissioned to research and develop a technological solution that would make it easier for such people to access digital services and shop online.

While at Red Ninja I was fortunate enough to lead the co-creation and design of Helping Hand, alongside Lee Omar (Red Ninja), Jackie Connolly (Plus Dane Group) and Max Zadow (DCIC), collaborating with over 300 older people over the course of 6 months.

Colour theory to improve accessibility for older users
Software design considerations
App sitemap
User experience accessibility that relates to known conventions
Software design that relates to familiar conventions

Designing accessible software for the digital divide

Where do you start designing a user interface for people who haven’t used computers before? As with any good user-led design process, we started with the ‘why’. Over the space of half a year, I planned and led co-creation workshops at various Plus Dane residential housing in Anfield, Kirkdale and Walton. Meeting people of different backgrounds aged 65+, to understand what’s important to them and getting an insight into what’s stopping them from crossing that digital divide.

Building a knowledge bank of ideas and insight, we explored various services and products they wanted and after voting, a community events and online shopping app, were selected for the Helping Hand suite. We then evolved our workshops to investigate issues around trust (online security), shopping online, fear of missing out and of course, exploring what user interfaces were most intuitive.

For the user experience, I had to take a step back and in some way, un-learn what you instinctively know to design. Typically you want a functional and efficient UX/UI, that gets the user from A > E in a quick and pleasant manner, using modern standards. For Helping Hand, our users wanted A > B > C > D > E. They didn’t have any digital interaction experience to fall back on and so they needed to take it one step at a time, making sure they hadn’t pressed the wrong button (a lack of self-confidence was a common theme) and were presented information in bite-sized chunks so they didn’t feel overwhelmed, aiding cognitive memory.

On top of these and many more design considerations, we were creating software that was suitable for low-end Android tablets, whose screen resolution challenged any desire for stylistic flairs. Accessibility was paramount, with basic interactions and an easy to operate interface being essential;

  • We kept key buttons above a safe zone, as we noticed participants gripping devices with their thumbs often touching the bottom of the screen
  • Used large typography and plain English
  • Favoured photography over icons
  • Avoided modern interaction patterns such as infinite scrolling in favour of ‘page turning’
  • Due to age-related vision impairments, it was important our colour scheme met WCAG standards
  • They preferred skeuomorphic solutions that helped them to relate on-screen interactions with real-world experiences

A humbling and rewarding project, Helping Hand mixed strategy, in-depth research and technical challenges. It has helped users who had never operated a computer before, to access digital services for the first time – and love it!

You can read more about Helping Hand, as well as watch a short video over at Red Ninja’s website here.