Touch screens don’t work for everyone

I’ve been volunteering with AgeUK to help elderly people with digital devices.

One interesting experience I had recently was helping Edna (not her real name), an 88 year old woman with an android tablet. She wanted to use it to check answers to the weekly Crossword puzzles, use Skype for connecting with friends overseas and do a bit of online shopping.

As I walked her through different tasks on her tablet, I noticed she was having a lot of difficulty with pressing on buttons, links and swiping through screens. I asked her to try using different fingers and to press down with the flat of her finger and not her finger nail but none of these seemed to help. She started getting frustrated with it and saying it was her fault and that she “didn’t know how to use the thing.” I assured her she wasn’t doing anything wrong and would look into it further.

I was puzzled why the tablet wasn’t responding to her fingers. After the session, I did some research and found that a lot of elderly people were experiencing similar problems and it had to do with moisture.

First, a bit of background on touch screens. Almost all devices with touch screens these days, from phones to tablets, use “capacitive touch screens”. These work by sensing where our fingers touch the screen using the electrical charge our skin carries. Think of the static shocks you get when touching a door handle. And the electrical charge is greatest when our hands are warm and moist.

In older people, dry skin and cold hands are common:

As skin ages, the skin has a decreased ability to retain moisture, to control temperature and to sense the surrounding environment. Environmental factors, such as exposure to UV radiation, also have a detrimental effect on skin health over time. (bpac)

The puzzle was coming together. This explained why Edna’s tablet wasn’t responding to her fingers and why she was having such difficulty with it. Her fingers were dried out so the tablet wasn’t picking up an electrical current from her skin. It was like she wearing gloves and trying to use her phone.

It was a really interesting accessibility problem and something I didn’t even think about until I observed it. It’s yet more evidence why first hand research and observations are so important. Being there in person is absolutely necessary to uncover the underlying problems with how people are using devices and empathise with their needs.

The solution I advised was to buy a basic stylus and use that instead of her fingers. Another remedy would be to use a water based moisturiser but that doesn’t help if her hands are cold as well as dry.

And it’s not just elderly people who may experience problems with touch screens, there are many others who could be affected:

  • People with poor circulation can have cold hands
  • Healthcare workers who wash their hands a lot leading to dry hands
  • People with diabetes or blood conditions may have cold hands
  • Carpenters who have callused hands
  • Guitar players who have callused fingers
  • People with low levels of iron with anemia may have cold hands1
  • Raynaud’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis causes cold hands1
  • A thyroid imbalance can cause cold hands and dry skin2

 

References:

  • Featured image: Timothy Muza https://stocksnap.io/photo/1942FD49BF
  • 1 https://www.healthstatus.com/health_blog/heart-disease-2/medical-cold-hands-feet/
  • 2 http://bottomlinehealth.com/your-hormones-may-be-out-of-whack-and-you-dont-even-know-it-men-this-can-happen-to-you-too/
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