How to understand older people and tech #1: crystallised intelligence

The best digital experiences for older people take advantage of their crystallised intelligence

As we age, we gain a type of intelligence called ‘crystallised’ intelligence.

Crystallised intelligence comes from our experiences and the knowledge we have stored in long term memory. We become very good at solving problems by drawing on what we know.

One of the frustrations frequently voiced by older people in our research is how frustrating it is when a tech tool they know well gets updated or re-designed. It’s important to remember that someone with crystallized intelligence will instinctively try to solve a problem by drawing on familiar concepts and language.


Unfortunately, the designers of some new apps and software have forgotten this lesson. They change the names for things, move things around and change where items are located.

When the new design fails the familiarity test, the user becomes stressed and picks up the phone to ask for help.

What does this mean from a tech design perspective?

Some people explain this as ‘older people don’t like change’ or ‘older people like to talk to someone’.

While there is some truth in both of those statements, they ignore the real insight. The insight is that tech for older users needs to be designed and explained using concepts and language that are familiar to them.

If you need to create a new language for something new, then signal that this is new terminology and provide resources to help explain it.

After all, that is exactly what happened when the tech pioneers created the language of ‘desktops’, 'files' and 'folders'. They used familiar language to convey a new idea.

I hope you now know some of the ways to talk to older people about tech.  Conducting user testing with older people will teach you how to talk to your older users and customers. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This is the fist of several blog posts about older users and tech. Click here to subscribe to the newsletter where these blog posts will first appear


Tags: Retirees, User testing, Older people using tech, Seniors