Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

NDA Viewpoints: Why it’s time to stop designing for digital universal appeal

By Karl Randay, Head of Design, 383

The market for digital products and services aimed at older generations is currently experiencing a bit of a surge. This, coupled with younger audiences being heavily reliant upon their digital connectivity, and then Gen X-ers being advocates for early tech adoption, having grown up with it, means that there’s a growing range of very different ages to consider and cater for when designing digital products and services.

From smart-home-enabled elderly care and digital hearing aids that filter out specific frequencies, all the way down to products that allow almost-constant contact between friends and those that cater for the limitless needs of the quantified self, we’re seeing a growing spread of digital utility that is geared towards niche audiences, specifically in terms of age.

We’ve seemingly left behind the period where any product or service was designed in such a way that it had universal appeal. Arguably, this has happened for the betterment of the product. Instead of risking their potential dilution so as to appeal to a wider market, the focus has swung in favour of getting to really know the audience and homing in on a key demographic.

We recently carried out some research in the utilities sector to get to know its audience better, and discovered both distinct similarities and differences in terms of what they wanted. On the one hand, customers across age groups shared the universal need for companies to get the basics right. But on the other hand, there were also distinctive differences in terms of what each age group were looking for.

Other sectors, such as banking, retail and travel have already identified the growing need for personalisation as part of their innovation strategy, especially when it comes to the core customer experience. Therefore, being able to tailor an approach to designing products is a clear advantage in terms of helping futureproof businesses and maintain a level of uniqueness in an ever-competitive field.

I’ll tell you what I want

Current trends in what each age group looks for from a product can be broken down into two groups.

  1. Firstly are the baseline things that have a universal appeal across all age groups and tend to follow current societal issues — for this, think about attitudes towards driving more ethical behaviour; having greater clarity and simplicity; how loyalty is rewarded.
  2. Then there are trends in behavioural needs that tend to shift toward specific age groups, such as younger generations looking for instant gratification but being less interested in price savings. Another example would be how Gen X-ers are becoming more environmentally aware and interested in bigger discounts for loyalty, while older generations want to know they are making the best savings, while still having access to products that are exciting and engaging, not just beige and utilitarian. 

There’s also a more risk-averse attitude towards digital for younger audiences. Gen Z users are generally more willing to provide personal information in exchange for a more personalised experience. That’s not to say older generations aren’t keen to adopt the technology, they are, as they strive to feel closer to their digitally active younger relatives, but are perhaps more cautious when it comes to trading in personal information for personalisation.

Let the needs take the lead

The good news is that in spite of the differences in mindset, there’s a relatively positive attitude for technology to play a part in people’s lives, across all of these age ranges, but in a carefully crafted ‘right’ way. To quote Steve Jobs “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology”, so any innovation has to be led by the needs of the customer.

The first stage of design should always be about spending as much time as possible trying to understand what jobs, goals and tasks your users are trying to accomplish, before trying to figure out how you actually then solve their problems.

So, test your assumptions about the audience you are designing for – it’s a myth that older generations are reluctant to adopt new technology! It actually comes down to neuroscience and cognition, with ageing causing changes to the medial temporal lobe, which just means that people need longer to develop familiarity with new techniques, requiring more exposure or simple guidance on something to learn how to use it.

While having some focus on ‘age’ has helped to identify distinctly different needs of customers, the actual designing should be more about designing for tasks and behaviours, not age. At times during our research we’ve noticed significant differences that sit ‘within’ age segments compared to actually between them. A lot of niche UX considerations are actually universal, with some of the more conservative principles reserved for older generations actually being fairly sound methods for reducing complexity and helpful for most situations.

Designing for failure is also a critical consideration and something to keep front of mind, especially when designing for the older generation or anything that is a fundamental part of anyone’s day-to-day wellbeing

By considering the failure points of your design, you can make sure that you’re able to understand which elements of the experience are the most important to each generation, but also potentially dependent upon specific conditions, like having an inconsistent connection, reduced time, complex tasks to complete or even relying upon a healthy voice to be able to interact with an Alexa for instance.

And let’s not forget about emotion, which is also an important factor. Expecting your customer to follow complicated processes when they have heightened anxiety causes problems.

So you should always be looking to reduce complexity, because sometimes — contrary to some opinions – it can be about achieving the fastest way to get something done, not necessarily the cleverest.