Human Factors Considerations in
System Design for the Elderly

By Mathew McNerney

  Caption Text

Human Factors (HF), an extremely broad term used to describe several areas of study, includes but is not limited to human performance, human-centered design and human-computer interaction. The Human Factors Society defines HF as the characteristics of human beings that are applicable to the design of systems of people, machines and environments. The overarching concern with HF is our society's increasing interdependence of humans and technology which warrants greater consideration for the human equation on systems design, implementation and evaluation in order to optimize efficiency, usability and most importantly acceptance by users. While advancements in human centered design are growing in acceptance every day, HF interventions have traditionally neglected the specialized needs of the elderly.

With origins in the industrial revolution, HF considerations eventually took root as a discipline during World War II with the mission critical objective to design safe, functional, and user-friendly airplane cockpits. Today, the most prolific research and development advancements in HF continue to reside in areas with the highest catastrophic potential such as aircraft and automobile design, air-traffic control systems and nuclear power.

While historically HF principles have been used to inform hardware design, there is now widespread overlap into human computer-interface design and its function. Donald Norman (1990) chronicled the importance of good HF design in his book Design of Everyday Things by drawing attention to the human centered design of a variety of commercial products. HF principles are now achieving wider commercial implementation in the form of "user-friendly" or human centered design, especially in the high tech arena. As evidenced by many useful yet failed products, such as early hand writing recognition systems, companies have come to realize that feature rich products with a lot of bells and whistles are no longer enough to produce and market a successful product.

David Meister (2004) goes beyond the basic conceptual level in his book "Conceptual Foundations of Human Factors Measurement" by defining HF as a behavioral discipline that is a direct descendent of psychology that is also as well as an engineering and system-oriented discipline, calling it a "hybrid of two parent disciplines." The HF disciplines are unique from behavioral psychology, however, in the fact that HF is concerned with the effect of behavioral input on some physical equipment with a transformational result. Unlike psychological studies in human behavior, HF is also concerned with the tasks and goals that are inherent in larger complex systems (Meister).

Meister emphasizes that HF research, design and implementation can be successful only when the focus is placed on the entire system that is being evaluated. "All humans are part of a system and are controlled by the system in some way…how well the human performs as a systems element determines in some measure how well the system performs" (Meister, 2004). It is the system's symbioses between humans, machine and environment that we need to focus on warns Meister.

With this in mind, HF design interventions can and will be very useful in the design of modern communication tools for the elderly. In the coming years, driven by the market force of 70 million baby boomers "coming of age," the communication industry will learn some valuable lessons creating successful systems. While adoption of accessibility guidelines are well on their way, there is plenty of room for further HF design considerations in designing effective communication tools for the elderly. While training will continue to be an effective tool, user-centered product design will become perhaps even more important in order to facilitate a widespread adoption of rapidly changing, advanced communication tools.

Neil Charness points out in his article, "Aging and communication: Human Factors Issues," that just by examining the most apparent statistics of chronic conditions in the elderly can shed quite a bit of light on the product design needs of the elderly. Figures for the percentage of women who suffer some level of limited psychomotor function such as arthritis indicate that traditional input devices such as computer mice and keyboards will not prove effective players in a symbiotic communication system. Equally, on the men's side, hearing degradation does not bode well for products that hope to rely solely on audio transmissions as the prominent communication medium. With regard to vision, the typical 65 year old eye admits 1/3 of the light to the retina in lower light conditions than an average 20 year old eye. The implications on the effectiveness of current LCD and VDT display technology--that typically emanate less contrast ratio than is needed for many seniors-could have staggering implications for the high tech industry (Charness, 2001).

On the cognitive level, HF systems design interventions will need to consider a wide range of issues with regard to the elderly. This includes relatively minor issues such as a person's reduced capacity to process and store information in loud environments to how to handle the dementia that characterizes diseases like Alzheimer's and to some extent Parkinson's. On an emotional level, and just as critical, is the inability of older people to rely on the interpretation of body gestures and facial expressions to receive information because of a variety of ailments but also because of the current quality of video conferencing transmission (Charness, 2001). While it may be considered a foregone conclusion that bandwidth concerns will solve any future quality concerns, optimism of the future alone may not necessarily encompass the needs of people with poor eye site or greatly reduced psychomotor capabilities. Charness does point to the success of two programs in Germany and Portugal that used a television-based video conferencing system to facilitate communications between doctors and elderly patients.

Despite a few successful programs, discussions on HF design for the elderly is more about what can and should be done rather than what is being done (Spiezle & Molton, 2001). With that being said, there are many people, working in a variety of disciplines to make things easier for the elderly. A recent discussion with Seattle Occupational Therapist, Tatiana Kaminsky --who conducted graduate work at the Human Interaction Technology lab (HIT) at the University of Washington--proved revealing regarding HF interventions for the elderly. While she admitted to improvements in ergonomically designed products for our aging population she acknowledged the problems described above regarding PC-based communication technologies such as email, text messaging. She added that newer developments in video conferencing have proven difficult for many older adults with typical visual impairments. Kaminsky laments that the "Windows-based software actually made things worse, since the Windows GUI requires more physical and sensory skills than DOS did. Plus, Windows makes it challenging for some assistive software packages to work, especially for people who have visual impairment." Performance improvement specialists can learn from the work being done by occupational therapists as they strive to improve the life quality of the elderly through a variety of physical, emotional and psychological interventions.

Improvements in human-centered design are starting to become more common place in some industries-high tech in particular- even while many industries continue to cling to the "shoot first and ask questions later" approach to product design. While there is still wide disagreement among the many disciplines regarding the proper approach to HF interventions, efforts are being made to find common ground with best practices. Web Accessibility efforts like W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 and Microsoft's Effective Web Design Considerations for All Ages have proven effective in encouraging wide adoption of usability standards that hint at greater things to come for the needs of the elderly and people with disability.


Charness, N. (2001) Communication, technology and aging: opportunities and challenges for the future. In N. Charness, D. Parks, B. Sabel (Ed.) Aging and Communication: Human Factors Issues. New York: Springer Pub.

Meister, D. (2004) Conceptual foundations of human factors. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Norman, D. (1990) The design of everyday things. New York: Doubleday.

Spiezle, C. & Moulton G. (2001) Communication, technology and aging: opportunities and challenges for the future. In N. Charness, D. Parks, B. Sabel (Ed.) Design challenges associated with longevity: The view from industry. Springer Pub.: New York.

Author Note


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