Simpler Than Ever? Online Grocery Shopping With Seniors

Debbie wants to get groceries without leaving her apartment. This is what she tells me during the “Internet workshop” I’m facilitating at a seniors’ low-income housing residence in Montreal.

They are part of a series of Online Literacy workshops I’ve been facilitating for the past year and Debbie is one of many seniors participating. The workshops are supported by the Ageing, Communication and Technologies research project, affiliated with Milieux’s Participatory Cluster and they give older adults a chance to learn about their own tablets, cellphones, or computers or explore new technologies. These workshops are not show and tell, they are very much hands-on. As a facilitator, I manipulate the devices as little as possible, and let the seniors do the finger work. While some of them have never operated a mouse or used a digital camera before, others have had experience with a range of technologies.

Online grocery shopping is an action that has transitioned from futuristic idea to common practice in only a few years. It is also a tool that could make Debbie’s life considerably easier, since she uses a walker to get around and lives on the 7th floor of her building, which is located 500 meters from the grocery store. If only it was that simple.

Debbie’s desire to buy groceries online opened my eyes to a few important points. Most technological interfaces are not designed with seniors in mind. Small devices like smart phones or digital cameras are rarely senior-friendly as a consequence of their tiny buttons or small screens. Actions such as enlarging text or typing on a tablet can be puzzling, uncomfortable, and outright annoying. It turns out that the interface for online grocery shopping is no exception.

Nevertheless, Debbie and I crack our fingers and set to order groceries online from a big supermarket chain offering the service. First, we need to create a new account, which takes us approximately 20 minutes. I’m just grateful she remembered her e-mail password.

In the case of this grocery shopping website, the website designers did a great job of connecting the shop’s inventory system to a visual interface – so much so that the search for carrots is entirely overwhelming. When Debbie searches “carrots”, the system finds 113 results – the first of which is “Living Organic Carrot – 10,99$”. Let us appreciate this feat of modern system engineering for a moment.

The “Living Organic Carrots” look like a nice option. However, Debbie just wants her “usual carrots.” We try to find them in this orange mosaic while she masters the art of scroll-page shopping. There they are (five minutes later)! We add them to our virtual cart. The exercise is time-consuming, and carrots are only one item on Debbie’s 30-item long list.

In the end, Debbie decides to give up on the carrots and also on the rest of her list. A complex website, coupled with an outdated tablet and a slow Internet connection depleted her enthusiasm and diminished her determination to order groceries online. Upon abandoning the task at hand, she remarked that she was unable to deal with “technological gadgets.” She puts the blame on herself and we put the tablet away.

After this experience, I cannot help but reflect on the ways in which the design of the system and even of the tablet prevented Debbie from doing what she wanted to do. When I started facilitating these workshops, I was amazed to take a step back and realize something: the quantity of informed micro-decisions a person must make in order to operate these technologies properly are decisions that we – the so-called “native” users – stopped noticing long ago. For instance, do you realize that in order to input a URL address, you must first click in the white rectangle of said URL? Otherwise, it doesn’t work. This has become innate to most, but it is not. Every decision, linked to every movement, is not innate and must be learned.

We should be impressed that digital technologies now allow us to order a complex list of items from our home, pay online and receive said groceries later the same day. However, it is only amazing for a minority of consumers. Ironically, those who would benefit most from this service are the very ones whose experience navigating it can be the most challenging: marginalized, non-literate or disabled seniors. Literacy and financial barriers—the cost of the devices themselves, but also Canada’s infamously global chart-toppingly expensive Internet—are only two factors preventing seniors from fully participating in the digital world.

Technology advances, but there isn’t always a clear-cut correlation between advancement and user-friendliness. While the rate of innovation is rapidly accelerating, technologies themselves aren’t necessarily becoming easier to use. Engineers of all kinds might not realize what new challenges result from improvements to their systems. This is why designing logical, user- and senior-friendly systems should remain the priority of UX designers and software developers. The possibility to enlarge font size or consistent design patterns across a website are only two possible inclusive design practices making it easier for seniors – and for everyone else – to feel at ease on the Internet.


Nora T. Lamontagne is a writer and a Master’s student in Media Studies at Concordia under the supervision of Dr. Kim Sawchuk. Her research revolves around the weaving practices of older weavers of Cercle de Fermières and the ways they contribute, by the socio-material relationships they create, to strengthen this century-old crafts community.