Buttons, DVA, Good Design, Mobile, Product Design, Usability, User Experience

Telephone design for elderly people

Designing for the elderly could be considered as a hard task. Designers are usually not elderly and knowing how a product would be perceived could be considered a not so easy task. But the results of such a task could be highly rewarding as they directly impact on somebody’s life quality. Even more, usually designing for the elderly means designing for everyone. I show here some products designed keeping in mind the needs of the elderly.

Elderly person talking on the phone

Telephones are always a problem

Elderly people seem to be perfect victims for most home telephones and cellphones. They are difficult to use and they offer a lot of functions that many don’t understand how to find. But telephones are devices with a lot of importance to people, specially during emergencies.

Some companies have been designing telephones for the elderly, for example Doro. Big buttons and limited functions make the following phone a hit for those looking for simplicity. I find the possibility of writing the names on the same phone a great improvement for the older ones.

Doro phone for the elderly.

Digital menus

Navigating through menus on a tiny screen is a problem for a lot of people. Many get lost and don’t understand how to select, scroll or go back to the beginning. Interaction designers at Emporia, like at Doro, have been having this in mind and add a memory help notebook directly on the phone. Note that the notebook is all the time facing the user (and not in the back of the headset like in many home phones).

Emporia Time phone for the elderly

Functionality over style?

Designs for the elderly tend to be ugly: huge buttons, huge letters on a huge screen and terrible colors. But designing for the elderly is designing for all and if the designer is able to produce something appealing to everybody the product could be probably sold to a larger number of people.

The Deutsche Telekom released a home telephone that was initially thought to target the elderly. Not surprisingly a lot of young families are buying the phone. It has big numbers but they still look nice, it has fast dialing buttons and a paper notebook on the charging base.

Again, less digital menus

Something that people are requesting is to have more physical buttons. The Deutsche Telekom placed the answering machine controls on the charging station to make the listening of new messages easier.

Sinus A210 phone designed for the elderly and everybody. Picture be Deutsche Telekom.

That need for adding features

This telephone is including a flashlight and a radio, each function with its own button. Design research might have been revealed that those are important features for elderly people. But they also seem to be there just because it was possible to add something else. A dedicated button for a radio, do we really need that on a cell phone? Is that going to improve the user experience?

Doro phone with radio. Picture by Doro.


26 thoughts on “Telephone design for elderly people

  1. The most severe problem that I have encountered is the “hang up button”. 100% of my test sample (in fact one 85 year old lady) forgets to press the red button after a call. Calling her the next time just gives the busy tone. Sure, hanging up the receiver was sufficient during her entire life time.
    Hence I am happy that I found a phone today, that hangs up automatically when the other side finishes the call.

  2. These phones are amazing! I think they are extremely useful and I really hope they sell well. However, in my opinion, the problem is not so much with usability of technology, but with getting the knowledge of ‘what technology can do’ out there to the public (seniors).

    I am finding a similar issue exists with my software “Big Buttons”, which converts computers into senior-friendly zones. It’s available for free download, but letting people know that this free service for seniors exists is extremely difficult and time consuming! I just wish young people would take more responsibilities for seniors and show them the ropes regarding phones and computers etc.

    Anyway, thanks for this article and I will post a link on my site (bigbuttons.com.au)!

  3. Hi Ben,

    What I lernt from interviews to elderly people is that younger generations (e.g. grandchildren) influence a lot the elderly at the moment of making a technology buy. Maybe your marketing efforts should target the younger ones too.

    Thanks for the comments,


  4. Alex, that’s a great point.

    I have considered it, and bought the domain “getgrannyonline.com”… but what to do from here is going to take some serious work clearly! I have found it’s very easy to bring Big Buttons to the attention of seniors and organisations focused on caring for the elderly, but to grab and maintain the attention of young people is another story entirely.

    But I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve said – I will let you know if I come up with anything youth-marketing-wise!


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  6. John says:

    Thanks for your information. It is difficult finding mobiles that can be used by elderly – this market is increasing rapidly! There is huge variety of phones in stores but none for this category!

    As a train commuter the designated radio button would make my experience very smooth and would make a phone like these attractive to me.

    For my elderly parents however the main problem is accessing the menu for numbers of various family members and friends. The ABCD phone is great but they need to keep in contact with more than 4 people.

    The earlier comment about ‘hanging up’ is also valid for seniors.

    Thanks for pointing out some of the features and options.

  7. Larry says:

    My elderely father is in a long-term care facility and he needs a the simplest land-line phone that can be developed (no cell phones allowed in his long-term care facility). I envision a phone similar to Doro, but only the four call buttons, the red disconnect button.

    When a call button was pressed, the phone would start by ensuring the phone was disconnected (hung up), then would open a connection and then dial the number. The phone would hang up as soon as the other party hung up, or if the call was not answered within 120 seconds. There would be no SOS button, or the button there would be an option to disable it and if pushed when disabled, the display would show “DISABLED”. There would be no green connect button – the dial buttons would handle opening the connection.

    The phone would display “BUSY” if the called number was busy and “RINGING” when the ring was being sounded in the ear piece, and “ANSWERED” if the call was answered. It is important to use words, not symbols.

    When there was an incoming call, the phone would ring and vibrate and the body of the phone would brightly glow during each ring (or LEDs embeded into the top and bottom faces would blink).

    The phone could be corded with a long, durable cable that had some coils at each end but was otherwise straight. Or, the phone could be cordless with an optional tether made of strong plastic-covered wire with a spring at one end to provide some cusion when the tether was pulled taught. The idea here is to keep the phone handy and to prevent it from being lost or taken.

    One advantage of a cord is that there would be no concern about remembering to charge batteries. If that seems trivial, you have not dealt with elderly users.

    If cordless …

    The phone would display “CHARGE ME” when the battery was low (simple words, large letters). The base unit would have a simple cradle that held the phone upgright and a proximity charging system to eliminate the need to place it in any particular position.

    Cordless or corded …

    There would be a clip that could be slid to any point along the tether or cord (with enough friction that the clip would stay put once positioned) to allow the cord to be lightly attached to a pillow or bed-side strap to keep it from falling into places where it would get snagged. The tether would end in a trangular hoop and the package would include some different ends to attach to that hoop, perhaps a velcro strap, a strong clip, a tab with a screw hole and a caribeaner.

    The base unit would have a snap-down cover that hid all controls. Under the cover, there would be controls to program the numbers for the phone and to create a blacklist or whitelist of incoming numbers, with an option to block all long distance calls (telemarketers) except for the long distance numbers in the whitelist, and to block all outgoing long distance calls and 900-numbers (to prevent unauthorized bills generted by staff and others). A code would have to be entered to access the admin functions.

    The base unit would have a dial pad under the cover, to allow the line to be used by visitors to call any unblocked number.

    For my Mom, who has more faculties and more technology savvy from being a secretary, I would have a cordless handset with dialing numbers and a dial key and a simple scroll list of names. Other than that, I would have the same features.

    Check out the BONE PHONE as well. It helps people who have trouble hearing by sending sound along the bone structure of the ear.

  8. Glenda says:

    I would love a phone that hangs up automatically when the call is over. My mom frequently forgets to push the hang-up button on her cordless phone. She has a life-line type care provider that can’t be notified via her emergency button if the phone is off the hook! Any suggestions?

  9. emily chan says:

    I am an entrepreneur/manufacturer in China. I am in the process of designing both a mobile phone and a home telephone. Please continue to let me know what functions you would like to see and I will try to incorporate them. Our goal is to serve our last generations.

  10. Larry says:

    Auto hang-up is probably the most important feature. My Dad will sometimes fall asleep during a call, so we need to be able to hang up and then dial him back and know the phone will ring.

    Protection from telemarketers is next.

    Protection from abuse by preventing the phone from making long distance calls or 1-900 calls (high charge per minute services like phone sex can really add up. I have heard horror stories of huge phone bills that have to be paid).

    Allowing a whitelist of numbers for long distance (all other incoming and/or outgoing long distance numbers are blocked).

    Allowing a whitelist of incoming numbers for local calling is also valuable.

    He has called late at night, then hung up in an upset mood, but we dare not call back for fear of waking his roommate. So, it would be great if we could program the phone to ring silently (lights and vibration only) during specific hours.

  11. Larry says:

    The phone should be large enough to be held comfrotable in a weak hand and the earpiece should have a speaker cup that covers the ear (like old corded phones). This will help him place the speaker where he will hear the caller clearly. The phone should be light (but not feather light) because elderly people’s muscles are weak.

    I am not as worried about a corded phone as in my previous post. I have learned that a cordless phone can work well. The phone should have a cradle that allows it to be placed upright and should slip easily into the cradle. The charger connections should be functional even if the user is not careful about how the phone is placed into the cradle.

    A satellite charger base that can be strapped to the bed rail (e.g. velcro straps) or screwed into the wall beside the bed. (The phone needs to be handy and he has very little flat space near him – just a night table and a hospital-style eating tray on wheels).

    An accessory – a stand that could hold the phone base (or a satellite charger) at a convenient height beside the bed, (like a short pole lamp with a flat top and a sturdy base that is on castors or wheels).

  12. Wim Meulders says:

    We will be launching soon a serie of phones with busytone detection. If the user doesn’t hang up the phone on the cordless (or the handset falls off on the corded) the system recognizes and opens the line again after 8 seconds. It has many more features for elderly living alone.

  13. JohnnyC says:

    Looking for a mobile phone for my elderly mother, I had to do a lot of research, the most convenient and cost effective one I could find was the SVC Tracfone, It has the big buttons and is hearing aid compatible.

  14. Kerstin Exner says:

    Interesting discussion.

    Do you think phones for elderly people always will need to have physical buttons? What about a customisable touchscreen smartphone where you can put virtual buttons with pictures of family members to tap for calling them on the home screen for example and lock all unwanted functions?

    Designing dedicated physical devices for any special group of people is always going to be very costly for the hardware providers and these devices will never get as much attention as the manufacturer’s mainstream models. A software solution on a mainstream device is much cheaper and more customisable for the specific needs of the individual. It also removes the stigma attached to a “special needs” device.

    Of course, the hardware issues, e.g. remembering to charge the battery, as mentioned here would not be solved with a smartphone as such, but these problems could be solved with peripheral hardware, which is cheaper to build than a whole new phone model. With the wifi/bluetooth/NFC capabilities of a smartphone, the phones can communicate anything to any device. Plus they can offer so many more intelligent services for monitoring and alerting for example.

    I have recently done a research project with older users (only up to 72 years of age, so not the typical target audience for the phones described here), who used an iPhone for the first time. They found the iPhone easier to learn than their own phone with its deep menus (again, they weren’t special senior phones but normal button operated feature phones) and they also found the touchscreen more pleasant to operate than their phone with its small and fiddly buttons.

    I personally think that the way forward is an inclusive design of mobile devices which are operable by a wide audience rather than specialised devices for small groups, similar to the approach of accessibility on websites.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

  15. Sunrise says:

    Looking for a phone that has the disconnect feature. Has the series of phones launched? Do you have a link to review?

  16. Sergey says:

    I would appreciate if you could share with us where did you find the phone and what is the model name and number. Please…

  17. Mealskitchen78 says:

    My father can’t afford land line and a mobile (which he needs will working around the farm for safety) does someone make a docking station for mobile phones that will act like a speakers/traditional home phone? He has trouble hearing the ringer on his mobile (this is also restricted by available reception). Please help :-)

  18. Gxmunoz says:

    Elderly people have ergonomic problems with today’s phone designs. Sleek and small cause ‘fit’ problems. When using a newer cordless model with all the latest bells & whistles my parents seem more concerned about making sure the mouthpiece is close to the mouth, pulling the speaker away from the ear making it hard for them to hear anything.

  19. Bent_nielsen says:

    What all of the phones seem to be missing is an auto hangup. Old people forget to push the hangup button having lived with phones that automatically hung up when you put them down. So if designers would put a “time out to hangup” feature of say 1/2 to 1 hour so the line would become active again and family could call.

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