Accessible digital experiences.

When was the last time you looked at the settings menu on your phone? Say you wanted to do something more than just toggle Wifi or Mobile data. Say you wanted to change your ringtone. I can’t even remember which menu has the option to change my ringtone. Such is the complexity of software these days. Even mundane tasks are sometimes tough to execute. Now, I sure can figure out where the ringtone option is within a few seconds, but that is not the point. A quick glance at the settings page reveals a huge list of options where about 75% of the listed items are redundant. Why do all my accounts need to be displayed on the settings page? I never need to access them. Then there is the section with options like time, date, language, input and printing. These can be stowed away into another menu titled “other” or something relevant. I should not be expected to spend time scrolling through the extensive list trying to get to the ringtone page.

I might sound like I’m being fussy, but in today’s world where usability is given a very high preference, older users’ capability, I feel, is often overlooked. The majority of the population who grew up witnessing the advent of smart technology are still playing catch-up. They are not the post 2000s kids who grew up with iPods and iPads. They are ones who watched black and white shows, played outdoors extensively, played board games and mailed letters. I am talking about my grandparents who are post 60. They fear using their smartphones because they don’t understand where the options are. In phones with keyboards, there was an omnipresent option button and a back button. They knew where it was and it was easily accessible. But now, every app has these buttons in different locations. Some need a swipe from the edge, some have three dots in the top right and some in the top left.

I remember the time I was trying to teach my grandparents to use their new android phones. It was then that I truly realized the non user-friendly nature of the software. It was squarely aimed at youngsters and not meant for older people: the text was small, the menu button was (nearly) hidden and the options buttons nearly hidden too; all this done to have an eye-candy UI with a clean appearance. This drastically reduced the software’s ease of use, especially for the older people who are slowly adopting smartphones. I know that there are options to change font sizes and colors, but again, they are hidden inside the settings menu and it is difficult for them to access the accessibility options.

As designers we are trained to design products, either physical or digital, to be as universal as possible. It is disappointing to learn that design focussed industry giants like Google and Apple are not taking the required effort to make their smartphones easier to use for older people. I began the article specifically targeting the settings menu because that is entirely in the control of the respective software vendors; the needed changes can easily be implemented by them. If it is successful, other software makers will quickly follow suit.

I am currently working on a small personal project targeted at making the settings menu smarter and easier to use. This should give me some insight into the factors to be considered to make digital experiences more accessible to a wider range of population. I understand that it is easy to complain and point out shortcomings in these softwares, but it is tough to implement these changes. Only when I actually try designing an app which is as universal as possible will I understand the challenges faced by these companies. I am excited to see what I discover in this new path I’ve started on and I hope the result will be something which will actually benefit the companies as well as my grandparents.

Wish me luck! Cheers!

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