Improving the Learnability of Mobile Devices for Older Adults

Leung, R. (2011). Improving the Learnability of Mobile Devices for Older Adults. Doctoral Dissertation. University of British Columbia.


Mobile computing devices, such as smart phones, offer benefits that may be especially valuable to older adults (age 65+). However older adults have been shown to have difficulty learning to use these devices, which is a barrier for technology adoption.

The main goal of the research reported in this dissertation was to investigate three promising design approaches – increasing the interpretability of graphical icons, incorporating a multilayered interface, and augmenting the mobile device’s display – to determine whether each can improve the learnability of mobile devices for older adults. We involved both older and younger adults in our studies to uncover benefits unique to older adults.

  • Graphical icons: We conducted an experiment to determine which icon characteristics affect initial icon interpretability for older adults. We found that icon interpretability can be improved for older adults by reducing the semantic distance between the objects depicted in the icon and the icon’s function, and by labelling icons.
  • Multi-layered interfaces: We prototyped a two-layer smart phone address book and conducted an experiment to assess its learnability over four learning phases. We found that the multi-layered interface, compared to a non-layered full-functionality control interface, provided greater benefits for older participants than for younger participants in terms of faster task completion times during initial learning, lower perceived interface complexity, and greater interface preference for learning.
  • Augmenting a mobile device display with a larger display: We first conducted a comprehensive survey of older adults’ learning needs and preferences. Based on the survey findings, we designed and prototyped Help Kiosk, an augmented display system for helping older adults to learn to use a smart phone. An informal evaluation found preliminary evidence that Help Kiosk may be able to assist older adults in performing new mobile phone tasks.

Through these three investigations, our research identified and validated design approaches that researchers and developers can use to improve the learnability of mobile devices for older adults, which should increase the chances of technology adoption.

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