Where is universal design when the elderly needs it?

That more seniors find it difficult to adapt to the digital technology that has come in recent years is no big news. There are a lot of new things to learn, it evolves rapidly, and many have not had the opportunity to engage with ICT before in recent years. Not all elderly used the computer in their working life in the way most people do today.

Technology has changed life, and the changes do that most need to deal with digital technology in one way or another. Changes are too many people, both young and old, hard, and motivation can disappear in the frustration of not getting it right. You need to feel that you can cope with the technology to be confident. Besides, many elderly experience disabilities, which can make things even more challenging. With age, many of us see, hear, remember or move with a little less ease. And there is also the issue of social isolation.

Motivation and opportunity

In my thesis I wrote about seniors and ICT, and how to help elderly over “the digital fence”. The topic covered how one could motivate seniors to get online. There are several factors that come into play. One of my results, which I think is important to emphasize, is that if the elderly users do not want to learn, they should not be forced. It is important to remember that they have lived a life without great use of ICT, and that interest may simply not there. Others are undecided, and need a little motivation of some kind to get started.

Such motivation can be an external influence. Many just need a nudge to get started. As a rule, it is the elderly's family and friends who may have the greatest impact for this. Family and friends know their elderly best, and it's easier for them to find what might be interesting for them. In addition, both public and private actors have a different type of influence, when cutting options for manual assistance giving force users to go for the digital services – or opt out. Municipalities can influence by providing training and support. This is an important responsibility to take care of those who do not have relatives.

Although elderly often start using digital technology with the help of someone else, they usually end up with more interest and pleasure in it, and the opportunities it offers. It allows them to keep in touch with family, cultivate hobbies and stay abreast of society. The technology gains significance in everyday life. But it is not necessarily that easy to get hold of everything they want online, and that raises the question of how public and private actors can make it easier for seniors to use their services. The answer here is to facilitate web, apps and services by making it universally designed.

Many seniors want to be a part of the digital society. Others see no choice but to attend digitally. But many experience problems, because they can not manage to deal with the digital technology. Could not more facilitation helped more of these?

Digital first choice for all

In Norway, the government has decided to start implementing the goal of "digital first", which means that communication between government and citizens should primarily take place digitally. It is a good idea that can both save money and also enables people with disabilities to get information and perform services on equal terms with everyone else. But it requires that the interface works for everyone.

Municipalities want to save money by avoiding paper and old style mail, and will allow elderly to use the the internet, but not all seniors are ready for it, and many need help. Are municipalities doing enough to include elderly in the digital society? Should not the municipalities and other public sector bodies at least have good, user-friendly and universally designed websites and services?

Universal design is accessibility for all. Universal design online is to make the Web available to all. For me it is strange that the debate on including elderly in the digital society, and making “digital first” work for a larger proportion of the citizens, does not focus more on universal design.

With a greater focus on universal design, more elderly will use the web. And the easier it is to use, the more likely it is that more people will get started. Municipalities must take their responsibility, after all they are closest to its citizens. That responsibility could for example start with the place where most people look for information and services these days: the web.

Lena Drevsjø