The video feed is clear and there are smiles all around. My mom, who lives in Virginia, is singing a preschool song via FaceTime with her 2-year-old grandson in Georgia. He recognizes Grandma's face on the screen and immediately starts making the finger motions with her for "itsy bitsy spider". Grandma, born in 1946, is among the first of the Baby Boomer generation, a generation getting comfortable now with retirement. And she is using technology all day long.

"Wait!" you might say. "I thought 'old people' weren't comfortable with technology, and weren't going to adopt it!" Catch up with the times, my UX friends, and sweep that old stereotype out the door. Baby Boomers are very different from the previous Greatest/Silent Generation. Boomers are the generation that protested and went to court to increase women's rights, stop the Vietnam war and racism, and generally expected to change their world. They were actually quite successful, and they are still a generation to be reckoned with, even as they age. The charts below show quick definitions of recent generations and their size as a proportion of the US population.

The Generations Defined
Year Born Ages in 2017
Greatest/Silent Generation Before 1946 72 and older
Boomers 1946 to 1964 53 - 71
Generation X 1965 to 1980 37 - 52
Millennials 1981 to 1997 20 - 36
Generation Z 1998 to ? 19 and younger

source: Pew Research Center

Graph showing that baby boomers are 25 percent of the population.

Baby Boomers are also different from the Millennials or Generation X'ers we usually think about first when designing a new site or app. You see in the graphs below that smart phones have surpassed other browser internet access for Generation X and Millennials. Baby Boomers are definitely using smart phones, but have not seen the value as much as other generations.

Graph showing that baby boomers use smart phone apps less than younger generations.

In contrast, Boomers are still see a lot of value in their TVs and Laptops. I suspect that image and text size may have something to do with these preferences.

Daily device usage in the United States in 2014, by age group. Chart shows that 71% of baby boomers use laptop/PC, 42% use a smartphone, and 26% use a tablet.

Boomers have, however, been buying lots of stuff online. The graph below should be a wake-up call to online merchants. If you are not seeing this proportion of Boomers in your online stores, you are losing some business.

Share of online users in the United States who have purchased from online merchants within the past 12 months as of December 2016, by age group. 89% of Baby boomers said they had purchased online.

UX Research with Baby Boomers

CapTech recently worked with a large US insurance company on a longer-term engagement, where the team designed and implemented several website features to serve their current customers. Over a period of 20 months, 9 rounds of usability tests were conducted, each round focused on a different feature. Along the way we discovered that 75% of their customer users were Baby Boomers! This gave us a great opportunity to really understand this user group. Here are some of our lessons learned:

  • Remote usability testing worked well! We were a little concerned that these users might be challenged to install browser add-ons and participate in a video conference. We were wrong. Our protocol used WebEx for test sessions, and I'm happy to say that we never had to cancel a session because the user could not get connected with WebEx
  • Accessibility features are expected. Users expressed a desire for:
    • bigger text fonts,
    • more control over font size,
    • higher color contrast,
    • bigger screen targets (for clicking or touch), and
    • simpler pages that helped keep them on task.

These are all accessibility features that most of UX'ers know about, but may not keep on top of mind. This feedback argues for a more universal design approach, which, when done right, benefits all users of your site.

Many of the users I talked with did not know how to zoom in on a web page using their browser, and a text resizing widget was not available on the page. A standard UI text resizing widget is a badly needed, and should become the norm for future web pages.

  • Do not use the latest slick widget. Stick with well-established web standards.
    • Our research confirmed previous research that the "hamburger" icon was not immediately recognized by this user group to access a mobile menu.
    • Users did not immediately know that clicking on the top left site icon took the user to the home page. Sites usually offer no affordances to tell users this is the case.
  • Use task-related words instead of technical words
    • This is another UX mantra that applied to our users. When we offered a new feature to submit expenses online, the phrase "submit a document" made a lot more sense than "upload a document".

Tech and the Future with Baby Boomers

Here are just a few Potential Areas of Growth for Boomer Users:

  • Online grocery shopping
  • Virtual medical appointments
  • Electronic medical monitoring
  • Social connections (See graph below. If users see value, they will adopt technology to stay in touch.)
  • Online Learning

Having spent this time doing research with Baby Boomers, and witnessing my mom using new technology in her own life, I see great promise in what technology can provide to this generation. Baby Boomers are using and WILL continue to be using technology, and if we can make it easier for them to use, we can enhance their lives in many ways. Boomers will be the first generation to have the advantage of technology and the internet of things as they age.