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Impact of Smartphones on the experience of older adults

UX Research

The aim of this research project was to gather collective data to better understand smartphone usage patterns, challenges, and psychological impact on mid-life and elderly people. We interviewed a total of 19 people in the age range of 43-92 and got some insightful findings that could help us design technology for such people in a much-improved manner.


May 2020 - July 2020
(3 months - In a team of 4)

Guided research under Prof. Kalyan Sasidhar for a book he is co-authoring


UX Researcher

Gujarat (India), UAE,


Problem Domain


To explore the use and psychological impact of a smartphone on elderly

We all accept the fact that the younger generation has grown up with smartphones and has adapted to it. In contrast, there exists a usability gap for the older people, for whom, digital technology is a completely different ballgame from what they were accustomed to. The goal of this research was to interact with the elderly on a deeper level and glean information about their usage pattern, learning methods, difficulties while using, and psychological impact. Some of the focus questions and findings are as following.




After listing potential interviewees based on their availability for the interview and the demographic required, the participants were interviewed in-person or via video calls. The interviews were semi-structured with follow ups asking more in-depth questions across the span of a month. The question aimed to find out the usage and the impact of smartphone on their lives.

To solidify our analysed information, a google form was created that contained similar questions asked in interviews and sent the survey to various WhatsApp groups where the majority of the members match the demographic. From the 81 responses, we compared the data from the Google form to the data from the in-person interviews to define the final observations and conclusions.

The usage of smartphones



minutes per day

This is the average phone usage of 19 participants. The usage time has been told by the participant and it may vary if we actually test it using any inbuilt monitoring app.



handed use

Double handed usage. One to hold the phone and the other to use it. Unlike the younger generation that uses phones just with one hand, mostly with a thumb.



Most elderly people use normal contact book and calling app to communicate whenever needed. In fact, this is the primary reason for which they started using phones.

Inbuilt messaging 

We observed that most people use the normal messaging app to see internet service messages, OTP, finance related messages, order delivery messages etc. They rarely use it to communicate with others.

Clock app

They use it to set up alarms, but rarely use other functionalities of it such as stopwatch and timer.


Elderly people started using WhatsApp to communicate and stay connected. But as time passed, they started using it for various purposes such as video calling, joining community groups for the latest information and news, and putting their current activities on status.


Mid-aged people use Facebook mostly to see their friends’ activities through their posts, to wish others on their birthdays, to watch information and entertainment videos, and sometimes post their own activities. Most of them use Facebook for its primary purpose and not for some of its advanced use cases.


This is the way for many of the elderly people to pass their free time or sometimes to get needful information. Many people use it to watch recipe videos, religious talks, health and fitness videos, medical home remedies, sports, news, etc. Most of them are used to watching videos suggested on their feed or by searching a keyword. We saw less use of other functionalities such as subscription list, history, and watch later.

Regional news apps

Some people use regional news apps to stay updated on the latest news or to read books/magazines in their free time. Many of them prefer vernacular languages over English because they are more comfortable with the vernacular languages as compared to English.

OTT platforms

Few people use streaming apps like Hotstar and MX Player to watch web series, reality shows, or movies. It is not a very common pattern seen among elderly people. For many of them, the serials are set up on their phone by their younger family member (app login, saved to favourites etc)

Exercising with follow-along videos

Some people who like to stay fit and healthy use the follow-along videos on youtube, live streams on Facebook, or Zoom call. They use the link being circulated on social media apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook to join these streams. However, they do not specifically search for such live streams on google. Sometimes they use YouTube to watch exercise-related videos.

banking applications

Very few people use banking applications for limited purposes. Most elderly people don’t use it as they find it more risky and complex to use. They prefer the face-to-face financial dealing that they have been accustomed to.


Some people use Google to find relevant information, to use some government websites when needed, etc.

The difficulties in using the smartphone

Sensitivity of touch screens compared to dial pads

Navigating through screens with new gestures

Identifying icons

Getting familiar with English (Language barrier)

Hesitant to learn new things due to fear of making errors

Had to remain dependent on people

People who transitioned from using dial pads to using smartphones faced the difficulty of being accustomed to the sensitivity of touch screens. In the beginning, they struggled to use smartphones because of misclicking, putting too much pressure on the touchscreen, the quick response of the interface, inability to scroll properly, getting used to virtual keyboard and dial-pad, finding a way to go back, and many other issues created due to dissimilarities between smartphone and dial-pad.

People transitioning from dial pads to smartphones and also new users of smartphones found it difficult to use smartphones with new gestures such as pinching to zoom in or zoom out, scrolling, or swiping. It took time for them to remember different gestures for different purposes in the beginning.

Most of the people struggled to identify icons. For example, a participant (Sharda Kamani, age-55) didn’t know the meaning of the link icon of WhatsApp which is used to attach other forms of messages such as images, videos, documents, etc. There are also other examples of participants not identifying icons. This is an interface design issue that obstructs their process of accomplishing a goal.

Smartphones mostly come with inbuilt English language, therefore most of the people knowing only regional language found it difficult to use them due to the language barrier. However, current smartphones provide regional language support and also regional keyboards. But some people also struggled to get familiar and accustomed to the regional keyboard.

Most of the people we interviewed accepted that they do not try to use any new functionalities they are not already familiar with as they feel it might lead them to undesired results. They prefer to learn new things from someone and then try to use them.

As most of the people were new to smartphones and scared of trying new functionalities, they had to remain dependent on others to learn. This made them feel a little bit helpless and irritated sometimes

Different ways of learning to use smartphones

Asking family/friends to help


Most of the people learnt using smartphones from their family or friends. Some people note down the steps and keep practicing to get used to the actions

Associating colours with actions

People associated red colour with alert/off and green with safe/on. This way they were able to identify the state of their action.

Demo videos and classes

In some of the communities in Qatar, volunteers taught the elderly about smartphones and different functionalities of phones. People joined such classes or watched demo videos to learn.

Using shapes and colors as cues rather than text

The first reason for people to use colors and shapes as cues were the language barrier. As most people are not familiar with English, it's far easier for them to remember actions through visual cues such as colors and shapes rather than text. For example, red means to close or go back. Green means to turn on or start. Additionally, sometimes text can not be legible enough in some situations which leads them to rely on visual cues.

Most common issues while using the phone, which can be considered not being UCD


Too much information at the same time

Sometimes, one screen shows so much information at a time that it overwhelms the user. It impedes their effort of finding the relevant information they are looking for and also delays the task they want to do, leading to frustration. Therefore, it’s better to keep only essential information on a screen and in a legible form of text for the elderly to get their task done easily. For example, the Facebook landing screen has a lot of information and functionalities, most of which do not end up being used as they are not intuitive.

Difficulty in identifying icons

It becomes hard for them to identify new and complex icons sometimes. So it's better to use simple and minimal icons with a label to make them easier to identify and remember for the elderly. For example, the green button on the bottom right of the WhatsApp interface is for writing a new message to anyone, including people you have not messaged yet. But it does not signify that it can be used for that task clearly.

Smaller text is hard to read

A standard font size used for interfaces might not be an ideal match for mid-aged/elderly people. They sometimes have to zoom in to read properly, or might get confused if they do not know how to zoom in. So it’s better to design an interface for these people keeping their legible font size in mind.

Language barrier

Most people are not familiar with English, and it obstructs them from using smartphones to the full extent. Therefore it’s better to give different regional language support to make smartphones more useful for mid-age/elderly people. The switch between the languages should also be intuitive and easy to understand.

Feedback too absent/quick to comprehend

Sometimes, the feedback for an activity is absent/quick which leaves people puzzled about the status of their action. For example, a participant we interviewed didn’t know if the message she sent on WhatsApp was successful or not as WhatsApp does not show any popup showing the status of the sending. The small ticks are confusing and sometimes too tiny to understand. There is also no pop-up in WhatsApp when the internet is off, when you send a message without internet, it will show as a normal message sent, with a clock-like symbol. This does not give feedback to the elderly that they need to turn on their internet for the message to be sent. Another example is when you send an email through the Gmail application, the message sent confirmation is a tiny pop-up on the bottom of the screen that blends in with the interface. You spot it only if you know what you're looking for.

User control - back button

Some interfaces do not have any back button or the support for the inbuilt back button of the smartphone. Such interfaces lack essential user control. For example, some of the participants didn’t know how to go back from the ongoing call screen as it doesn't have a back button on the interface. As a result, whenever they need to find other information during a call they end the call and call again after finding the needed information.

Reliance on colors/shapes rather than text

Whenever smartphones do not have regional language as text, people who are not familiar with English find it difficult to navigate and also have to rely on colors and shapes. For example, red means close and green means on/open.

Lack of color is confusing

As many people associate colors with the status of their actions, the lack of color on the interface makes it difficult for them to know what they are doing is right or not.

Psychological Impact of smartphones

Pyschological impact


They can talk to their loved ones from anywhere and anytime, click photos of their family


They feel connected to the world through social media apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook


They can get information about anything without relying on other sources through the internet


Some people find it a gateway of relaxation after doing household chores or work the whole day


When they can not accomplish a task because of the interface design related issues


When they forget a password and don't know a way to recover from it

Do they feel that phones have taken over their lives?

Some people felt that the phone has taken over their lives because they found it distracting and very time consuming. They felt it makes them unable to concentrate on work and also the use of smartphones makes them too dependent on technology. Use of smartphones also reduces their family time, according to them. This was observed mostly in the younger part of the group we interviewed.
On the other hand, some people didn’t feel like phones have taken over their lives as they only used the phone for limited things such as calling loved ones. The phones became a part of their lives at a much later stage, by which they had already set a routine for their days so they did not feel that the phones overpowered their daily schedule. This was observed mostly in the older part of the group we interviewed.

What did I learn?

I learned to look deeper than the surface level and research considering the context. For example, instead of only focusing on questions like what applications did they use and what did they use their smartphone for, I also asked questions like what the smartphone meant to them and how did they feel while using the phone. I noticed some common trends of usage like using Whatsapp for almost everything in the phone, or video calling loved ones. I observed some similarities with the interviewees in the book "The Global Smartphone" - some elderly people claimed that the younger generation had a heavy reliance on smartphones, or smartphones negatively affected the studies. I learnt that the things which were intuitive to me were not intuitive for the elderly, as they were not accustomed to the language, amount of information symbols and colours of the smartphone interface. Lastly, I found that smartphone is becoming an integral part of people's lives and hence, helping the elderly get used to the digital technology is very important.

What would have I done differently?

I came to know of applications which track your phone usage in terms of the applications used and the time. Including this would have given us better understanding of the usage patterns of the elderly. I also wish I had actually designed the interface using the feedback given and tested them - this was not possible for the people we interviewed on videocall as they would find it difficult to access the platform we were considering for user testing. 
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