SXSW 2011: Your Mom Has an iPad: Designing for Boomers

John McRee (@johnmcree)
Lead User Experience Architect

EffectiveUI was brain storming ideas of what would be a good topic at a conference, and this was what John came up with. The idea stuck, and the office and industry had a great reaction to the idea. The question simply is: is designing for boomers important or relevant.

John recites a poem:

A computer was something on TV
From a science fiction show of note.
A window was something you hated to clean,
And ram was the cousin of a goat

Meg was the name of my girlfriend.
A gig was a job for the night.
Now they all mean different things,
And that really mega bytes.

An application was for employment.
A program was a TV show.
A cursor used profanity.
A keyboard was a piano.

Memory was something that you lost with age.
A CD was a bank account.
And if you had a three-inch floppy,
You hoped nobody found out.

Compress was something you did to the garbage,
Not something you did to a file.
And if you unzipped anything in public,
You’d be in jail for a while.

Log on was adding wood to the fire.
Hard drive was a long trip on the road.
A mouse pad was where a mouse lived.
And a backup happened to your commode.

Cut, you did with a pocket knife.
Paste, you did with glue.
A web was a spider’s home.
And a virus was the flu.

I guess I’ll stick to my pad and paper
And the memory in my head.
I hear nobody’s been killed in a computer crash,
But when it happens they wish they were dead.

Interesting Information

In truth, Boomers love technology. The older generations are really something to focus in. The younger generation is powering forward, but we need to learn as much as we can to support everyone.

More and more older individuals are using the iPad. The Nintendo Wii, for example, spent a lot of it’s marketing on a non-traditional gaming market, including elders.

Boomers comprise more than a third of the online population. Compared with non-boomers, they consider themselves more savvy than the rest of the population. 47% of internet uses ages 50-54 are using networking sites, 26% of 65+ are too. Percentage using social networking by age is on the rise, it’s a pretty straight linear trend right now.

Between the ages of 50-64 Twitter use has went up 120%!

Boomers spend the most money on technology because they have it. Close to 80 million Americans controlling 50% of the country’s discretionary spending. Boomer women spend more money in all channels than women from all other generations (Forrester Research). They outspent younger adults by $1 trillion in 2010.

The oldest members of the Baby Boom generation turn 65 this year. They’re too young to have any personal memory of WWII, but old enough to remember the postwar American High. There are 79 million Baby Boomers, which is 26% of the population

How to design for Boomers?

Well, we don’t. Design for goals and behaviors, aptitude, and attitude, not generation. Age isn’t something you should really focus on unless it’s a very specific audience. However, there are patterns to consider.

  • Like to learn new technologies and share their knowledge: but really, who doesn’t?
  • Want technology to be safer
  • Want technology to be easier to use
  • See technology as a tool
  • Expect technology to adapt to them

Like to learn new technologies and share their knowledge: but really, who doesn’t?

The Kickass Curve: Once you get someone through the sucky part of using new technology, then they get into this cool area where they can start to use technology and “Kickass.” When someone becomes “Kickass” then they want to show all their friends, and promotes the product. So, how do we make a product Kickass?

  • Overlay the product with instructions.
  • Point to obvious places where you interact and get at the functionality of the product.
  • Keep it simple, sleek, and easy to use. Give little tid-bits of information on where to start, and where to go. Sure you can have the ability to dig in deeper and get crazy, just simple on the interface. Just get them through the “suck threshold” as soon as you can.

Want technology to be safer

Use things like loading bars, use pagination so people know how to jump forward and backwards in steps. Use strong visual design to establish trust. An ugly website will scare people of how reputable it is.

Want technology to be easier to use

Consistent navigation and behavior. Don’t have a bunch of ways to navigate the website. Have a consistent nomenclature: Submit, Continue, Proceed, Cancel, Go, etc.

See technology as a tool

Increasing features doesn’t make something easier to use. The “feature race” is competing to have the most amount of features in your apps. The people in the “UX” stage are the little guys competing against bigger companies with lots of features. Boomers just simply want a nice feature, and nothing else as it gets confusing.

Expect technology to adapt to them

They want to be able to talk to people, to communicate, and do it easily.


In the workforce 42% of people have a significant disability when nearing retirement. The workforce benefiting from accessibility tech is 60%: GPS speech output, closed captioning, accessible software. The self perception of aging is “disability” is a huge turn-off. Even seniors when asked if they’re old, they’ll deny it. No one wants to click on something to acknowledge they’re old.

  • Limit on-click events
  • Use external labels on forms, and don’t have the text box change when you click into it
  • Meaningful links of what it means, not just “learn more…”
  • Make sure color contrast is there. There are tools on Google where you can enter the foreground and background color and it will give you a number on how much it contrasts.

Session Summarize

Boomers want to learn and share safe, easy to use technology as long as they see it as a tool that’s useful. Make sure you design for goals and behaviors, aptitude, and attitude; not generation.

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