The tech industry is an exciting and dynamic environment, fueled by new ideas, innovation and a passion for problem-solving. If you are a designer, developer or technologist within this sector, you are most probably relatively young, and work alongside fellow young people. With little daily access to age groups outside your own (the median age of a Facebook employee is 28), it may be easy to forget that older people actually exist, and worse still, that these same people are using the things you create.
There will naturally be a higher percentage of older people with additional needs and challenges than those found amongst young designers and developers who have not yet had these life experiences. Because of this, we all need to be aware of a few things when designing and testing web designs for older people.
The United Nations (UN) predicts that one in five individuals will be over 60 years old by the year 2050.
Common challenges faced by older website users
Vision and hearing difficulties
In an aging population, the likelihood of diminished vision and hearing loss increases. Approximately 1 in 28 Americans aged 40+ have a vision-reducing eye condition, and 71% of over 70s suffer from a percentage of hearing loss, so it is very important to be aware that your website users may struggle to read your written content or hear audio cues. For the visually impaired, you should ensure your website is set up and structured in a way that allows screen readers to be easily used.
Motor control and dexterity issues
As we age, we are more likely to encounter some loss of motor control and manual dexterity, which means our hands and fingers will not be able to function as they used to. So when we design and test websites for the older user, we need to keep in mind how somebody with arthritic or shaky hands (possibly combined with low vision) may interact with out interfaces and digital designs.
According to a report from the Nielsen Norman Group, users aged 65 and older are 43% slower at using websites than users aged 21-55.
Lack of technical knowledge and mental models
Someone born in the 1950s will have seen an explosion of technology as the world they have grown up in has transformed around them. A lot of older people are extremely tech savvy and can confidently navigate the digital world; however we must consider those who are not.
Speaking from personal experience, when I finally convinced my mother to get a smartphone so she could better stay in touch with the kids, it was like watching somebody encounter piece of alien technology – she did not have the mental models and the understanding of non-linear navigation and layered interfaces, because she was used to devices like the TV remote that simply switched channels, and brought up a basic TV guide menu that she could scroll up and down with. According to the aforementioned Nielsen Norman Group report, half of the seniors surveyed said they keep a list of steps and instructions about how to use websites they regularly visit – this makes more sense when I recall that my mum used to keep a handwritten list of how to use her phone!
Complexity should be reduced as much as possible, especially when it comes to navigating and getting around the digital products you design.
Fear of breaking things
With traditional technologies such as keypad telephones and TV remotes, the user was more physically disconnected from the end result – the content on the screen across the room, or the voice at the end of the wire that connected to the phone base. The devices were clunkier, but there is a feeling that they are more robust because they are analog.
Because websites and digital experiences feel a lot more engaging and interactive, there is often a fear in the mind of older website visitors that they might break something, or do something wrong that could cause terrible things to happen. Using my mother’s smartphone experience as another example, she was absolutely terrified that she would do something wrong, that the website could break if she pressed the wrong thing, or that her personal information would somehow end up being published across the world wide web.
Because older website users may know less about the internet and digital in general, there may be an underlying fear that their actions could result in something disastrous happening to them – so we must consider ways of reassuring and guiding the user through visual and written methods.
Interaction design principles for older people that should be tested
- Use conventional interaction elements – Avoid fancy design elements that could be mistaken for decoration – a button must look like a button.
- Make it obvious what is clickable and what is not – Use conventional hyperlink styling and clearly label buttons with the action that button makes.
- Make clickable items easy to target and hit – Remember that low vision and poor manual dexterity will probably make clicking/tapping on small buttons difficult.
- Ensure that the back button behaves as expected – Make sure the visitor can travel linearly forwards and backwards through the pages, with no unexpected jumps.
- Let the user stay in control – Avoid auto-playing videos, scroll hacking, and other forced navigation that may disrupt or confuse the experience.
- Minimize vertical scrolling and eliminate horizontal scrolling altogether – Take measures to avoid the user feeling lost or confused, and ensure there are visual anchor points to guide the visitor experience.
- Provide clear feedback on actions – Make it obvious when an action has been completed and when an error has occurred.
- Use human language – Make sure you use clear and casual language to guide the user in what to do next, and reassure them with a human tone that avoids jargon. A large red “ERROR” message is often overkill for the minor mistake the user may have made, and does nothing to reassure and encourage them to carry on using your product.
- Consider your content design – Break information into short sections, guide the visitor through the page, and ensure headings are clear and paragraph text is large and readable. Left justify all text for maximum readability.
- Label everything – Make sure icons and symbols are labelled as much as possible – a hamburger menu might be obvious to you, but without context and prior knowledge, what could it mean? Always label the menu symbols.
Make sure you step out of your young person bubble. Get your digital products in front of older people and see how they use them; they have a lot of life experience and you may learn a lot about how to better craft your websites with them in mind. Host digital inclusion events and test your websites again after you’ve made changes based on the feedback.
As well as creating a better experience for your older users, there is also a business opportunity to embrace. The older user demographic will continue to grow because having grown up with tech, we are all becoming part of the aging population. By embracing web design that is more suited for older users, you can expand the uptake, retention, and amount of business generated by this population.
In summary, by following the best practices mentioned in this article and designing with older users in mind, you will be creating a better online experience for everybody!