The influence of stereotyped capabilities linked with the age of users on user experience.

October 14, 2009 |  by  |  Inclusive design

The trend to design inclusive of elders is catching up with the manufacturers to cater the grey pound/dollar market, in the process of designing an usable product for the elderly people many manufacturers fail to note how the elder people perceive the product when they use it and how others perceive those products while the elders use them. Some products are merely designed based on the stereotypes linked to the age group of the elderly person and not based on their actual capabilities. Product designers who design products based only on the age group of the users may perhaps be influenced by the categorised capabilities linked to that age group. Users who are miscategorised by the product designers would be discontented with the products.

Why we categorise or miscategorise?

According to Fiske & Neuberg (1990) categorisation is an adaptive feature of the brain, because it frees up cognition to perform more important tasks. Once we know that the object before us is a table, we know what its purpose is and how to think about it, based on our earlier acquired information about tables and their features (Mervis & Rosch, 1981; Rosch, 1978 cited in Tedd S. Nelson, 2009). However, when we start applying this natural tendency to categorise objects in our environment to people, the categorization process is not nearly as accurate nor is it free of consequences. Miscategorising a couch for a bed likely will not be a big deal under most circumstances. However, mistakenly categorizing a man as a woman might get you a punch in the face! Despite this and other risks, everyone tends to categorize other people on an innumerable array of dimensions (Tedd D. Nelson, 2009).

The view of older people as dependent, incompetent, and in decline both physical and mentally (Lieberman & Peskin, 1992 cited in Tedd D. Nelson, 2009) tends to lead younger people to treat older persons as if they were children. This is called infantilization (Gresham, 1973). Older people are shielded by younger persons from issues in the world or their own life that the younger person may deem ‘too complicated’ or ‘too upsetting’. Accompanying ageist behaviour and infantilization is usually a marked difference in the much younger persons speak to elderly persons. Caporael (1981) had identified a particular ageist communication style termed baby talk in his research on intergenerational communication. This means that the ways we speak to older adults are virtually identical to how we speak to babies.

Caporael et al. (1983) found that older people who had higher cognitive functioning and were overall in better health found that baby talk and infantilization behaviour to be very insulting, and it made them angry.

However, for those with diminished cognitive abilities or health problems, such ageist speech and behaviour was perceived as comforting (Tedd Nelson, 2009). The ideal example to illustrate the infantilization, baby talk and Miscategorisation of elder people was portrayed by Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski in the movie Gran Torino (2008).

Meet Mr. Kowalski our celluloid persona

Gift from Son and Daughter in Law

Gift from Son and Daughter in Law

Click here to view the day in the life of Mr. Kowalski

Mr. Walt Kowalski was a retired Polish American Ford factory worker and Korean War veteran. He lived with his yellow Labrador retriever, Daisy, in a Highland Park, Michigan neighbourhood, He had higher cognitive functioning and in better health to do his day to day routine activities as portrayed in the movie Gran Torino (2008). Mr. Kowalski’s son and his daughter in law visit him on his birthday and gift him an accessible phone alone with an arm extender which would enable him to reach any object easily, although Mr. Kowalski was old, but he lead an active lifestyle with high cognition, good vision , good hearing (no kidding watch this video). The gift which he got from his son and daughter in law reflects the ‘infantilization’ propounded by Gresham (1973) and our celluloid persona did found the gift very insulting.

Do the old people feel as old as the young people presume them to be?

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends on aging between a nationally (USA)representative sample of 2,969 adults finds a sizable gap among the expectations that young and middle-aged adults have about old age and the experiences reported by older Americans themselves.

Figure 2 The challenges of aging

Figure 2 The challenges of aging

The survey respondents are asked about a series of negative benchmarks often associated with aging, such as illness, memory loss, an inability to drive, an end to sexual activity, a struggle with loneliness and depression, and difficulty paying bills.

In every instance, older adults report experiencing them at lower levels (often far lower) than younger adults report expecting to encounter them when they grow old.

Survey respondents age 18 to 29 believe that the average person becomes old at age 60. Middle-aged respondents put the threshold closer to 70, and respondents ages 65 and above say that the average person does not become old until turning 74.

Other potential markers of old age–such as forgetfulness, retirement, becoming sexually inactive, experiencing bladder control problems, getting gray hair, having grandchildren–are the subjects of similar perceptual gaps. For example, nearly two-thirds of adults ages 18 to 29 believe that when someone “frequently forgets familiar names,” that person is old. Less than half of all adults ages 30 and older agree.

However, a handful of potential markers–failing health, an inability to live independently, an inability to drive, difficulty with stairs–engender agreement across all generations about the degree to which they serve as an indicator of old age.

From the survey it was found that Public opinion in the aggregate may decree that the average person becomes old at age 68, but you won’t get too far trying to convince people that age that the threshold applies to them. Among respondents ages 65-74, just 21% say they feel old. Even among those who are 75 and older, just 35% say they feel old.

The percentage of gap as shown in figure 2 is the percentage of elderly people who are mis categorised by the young people (as per PEW survey it was people aged between18 to 64). You can access the full survey report from PEW Social Trends.


Walt Kowalski may be an outlier in the data, but most of the elderly people’s capabilities exceed to operate the products designed for them resulting in ‘infantilization’ propounded by Gresham (1973).

Figure 3 Emporia LIFE plus mobile phone

Figure 3 Emporia LIFE plus mobile phone

Figure 4 Doro HandlePlus, simplest mobile phone

Figure 4 Doro HandlePlus, simplest mobile phone

Designer should understand that products designed inclusive of elders needs to be aesthetically  pleasing excluding ‘infantilization’ as propounded by Gresham (1973).

The product features should be traded off based on the actual capabilities of the selected population instead of the stereotyped capabilities linked to their age, this would remove the stigma factors like ‘infantilization’ for some elder users.

The mobile phone in Figure 3 and figure 4 are the ideal example for functionalities trade off to meet the requirements of different capabilities of the elder people.

In figure 3 we can see the Emporia LIFE plus mobile phone it got big buttons, large display and other essential features needed to cater to elderly users who’s physical, vision, hearing and cognitive abilities are far better then the elderly people whose capabilities are limited to use the phone in figure 4.

By the way if you happen to be a diehard Dirty harry fan like me I am sure you will be disappointed with the way the movie ends. I was expecting Clint to ask that question “Do you feel lucky?”.

References and acknowledgements

Figure 1 : screen shots from the movie Gran Torino,2008, Courtesy IMBD

Figure 2 : Courtesy PEW Research center

Figure 3 : Courtesy Emporia LIFE plus mobile phone

Figure 4: Courtesy Doro HandlePlus mobile phone

Caporael, L., 1981, The paralanguage of caregiving: Baby talk to the institutionalized aged, Journal of  Personality and Social Psychology, 40, 876-884.

Caporael, L., Lukaszewski, M., & Culbertson, G., 1983, Secondary baby talk: Judgments by institutionalized elderly and their caregivers, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44,746-754.

Fiske, S.T., & Neuberg. S.L., 1990, A continuum of impression formation from category-based to  individualing process: Influences of information and motivation on attention and interpretation. In M.P. Zanna (Ed.) Advances in experimantal social psychology (Vol.23, pp. 1-74). New York;         Academic.

Gran Torino, 2008, Motion picture, IMDB

Mervis, C.B., & Rosch, E., 1981, Categorization of natural objects, Annual Review of Psychology, 32,         89-115.

Pew Research Center, 2009, retrieved on 8 Oct, 2009, from

Todd D. Nelson, 2009, Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination, Psychology press,Taylor & Francis group.