If you speak to anyone under 30, they cannot imagine a time without the internet and digital communication tools. They are native to this digital world and so find it intuitive, like walking around the room. However, for those more elderly consumers, the internet is a web of confusion; there are tools and language outside the realm of their experience.
Currently, we all rely more heavily on digital tools for shopping, socialising, and attending to our most basic needs. Consequently, there is an opportunity for website developers to welcome this older generation into the fold. However, designing for this age group is not straightforward, and none of the typical assumptions can be made. Both accessibility and ease of navigation must be at the forefront of any user experience decision.
Here we take you through five crucial decisions to make when appealing to the older generation.
Problems with vision and hearing
From the age of 40 onwards, the lens in our eye starts to harden. It causes a condition called presbyopia and makes it difficult to read the small and close text. Our ability to discern colour also diminishes with age, with shades of blue significantly affected.
Hearing of older users may also become unpredictable. Most people over 65 will experience some form of hearing loss. Also, for most in the older generation, the sound is less fundamental to the product’s success. In essence, the user will be much more confident with a single sense approach.
Consequently, designers need to avoid font sizes smaller than 16 and give accessibility options – or the ability to increase the text’s size. The designer also needs to avoid the colour blue in interface design and pay special attention to the contrast ratios. Finally, using screen readers for those with excessive sight loss and provide subtitles on video and audio for those who are struggling to hear.
Issues of motor control
Using a computer generally becomes more difficult as we age because of the motor control needed to move the mouse. Most 80-year-olds and over would use the mouse with two hands, as an example. Touchscreen elements are also tricky for the older generation, as they find it challenging to target the space on the interface.
In general, it is better to design for a mouse than a finger, as the mouse will always offer more accuracy. However, if using a touchscreen, you need to leave a lot of space between elements – with at least 10mm between each touchpoint in all directions.
If you ever want to see the importance of this advice, watch someone over 75-years-old attempt to use a smart phone. Therefore, assuming that the site will be accessed on a tablet should help with the design.
Be sensitive to the time of life of this age group
Older people have more time and have spent longer building trusted relationships. It is likely they have seen the same doctors for decades and have a handful of lifelong friends. Consequently, designing imagining that these people want access to the globe is the wrong mindset. For older people, the technology will enable them to connect with a small and vital group of people, not that large social network so crucial to the digital native.
When designing the product for the elderly you should also be mindful of the sense of anxiety that might come if you overemphasise security and privacy features. The audience is likely to be accessing the tech to speak to trusted people.
Finally, when going through set up, be mindful of your unconscious bias. It is understandable why a 30 something developer might think asking about your first new car would be a great security question. However, if your first new car was bought 50 years ago, it seems less relevant to use as a memory prompt. Do not produce content that assumes someone is in an early stage of life.
Lack of experience with technology
Give a three-year-old a tablet, and they can navigate their way to CBeebies website or have summoned up their favourite cartoon on YouTube in the blink of the eye. However, sit someone older on a website, and they might not know how to scroll down the page the bit out of view. Therefore, when designing the interface, it is important to work out how the scaffolding will help guide the user to the navigation tools on the internet.
In short, you cannot assume your user has prior knowledge of the digital language of websites. You need to place yourself in the mindset of the elderly user and make choices on usability through their eyes.
There are considerable variations in older people’s cognitive abilities. For some, the decline in acuity is palpable – especially in the retention of short-term memories. However, the acuity sticks around for others, and they are sharp as a pin throughout life. A designer needs to consider the variability in memory, attention span, and ease of decision-making.
Therefore, when introducing the features of your product, do this gradually to avoid cognitive overload. Avoid split screens and always provide reminders and alerts for actions that need to be completed regularly. Don’t be afraid of longer-form texts and more in-depth content but adapt the timeouts caused by inactivity. Most importantly, avoid multiple tasks on one screen or parts of the screen. Keep the interface clean for the elderly.
In the time of COVID-19, technology has been a lifeline to older people. For designers, there has been a genuine opportunity to make people’s lives better. To be part of this revolution for older people, it is essential to design brilliantly. Work to make the website or app as accessible as possible, keeping your target demographic clearly in focus.
Laura McLoughlin is a Digital PR based in Armagh, Northern Ireland. She has previous experience as a website editor and journalist, and currently works with Olympic Lifts.