Web Designers: Senior Website Design Advice

Web Designers, Senior Website Design Advice

Where are most web designers going wrong? They’re not respecting their elders.

Websites most often aren’t designed with older adults in mind. It’s an oversight that can be costly to businesses online as the population ages and as more seniors discover the Internet. Usability studies suggest many sites need to be more accessible for older people just beginning to learn about computers. Many of those are suffering from age-related eyesight, memory and movement problems.

Just one example: Many sites don’t let visitors enlarge their small type.

A growing number of websites — mainly those specifically offering products and services to older users — are starting to catch on. “Everything seems to be revolving around the boomers aging so that there is more awareness of making websites a little friendlier towards seniors from a design perspective,” says Amy Lee. Amy is the director of customer web experience at AARP Services Inc. It’s a unit of the Washington-based AARP, a group that represents the interests of older Americans.

Those that haven’t caught on could be missing a major opportunity. The number of adults online age 65 and over in the U.S. grew to 11.1 million in July. That’s up 23% from a year earlier, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, a New York-based unit of research and consulting firm NetRatings Inc. That makes seniors the fastest-growing age group online.

Easily Stumped

As these older adults move onto the web, many report that maneuvering online can be intimidating. Take George McKinney, a 73-year-old retired structural engineer in San Diego who uses the Internet to research stocks. He often shuts down his computer in frustration. For example, when he enters a stock symbol and gets an error message that doesn’t tell him exactly what he did wrong, he gives up.

“I’m not a great typer,” says Mr. McKinney. “I pick finger by finger, and sometimes I do the wrong thing and something else comes up, and I don’t know what the heck is going on.”

Mr. McKinney’s online experience is common among older adults. “They can often be stumped by even the smallest problem,” says Jakob Nielsen, a co-founder of Nielsen Norman Group in Fremont, Calif., a consulting firm that specializes in optimizing the user experience on the Internet.

Think Big

Adults age 65 and over are the fastest-growing age group online in the U.S. Here are the top 10 guidelines from the Nielsen Norman Group consulting firm for making websites easier for older users.

  • Avoid tiny type and allow users to make the font size bigger.
  • Use high contrast between the text and the background, for body text, links, and navigation elements.
  • Make links and other clickable elements big and easy to click–no moving parts or other gimmicks.
  • Clearly signal what’s a link by making it colored and underlined. Don’t underline any other text and don’t use the link colors for any other text.
  • Change the color of visited links, to reduce the need for users to remember what they have previously clicked on.
  • Avoid scrolling lists and hidden menus, like drop-down menus, especially those that require precise use of a mouse.
  • Use plain language and avoid or explain technical terms such as PDF, Acrobat, and HTML.
  • Write concisely and limit the amount of information presented on each page.
  • Be flexible in interpreting search queries: Accept synonyms, typos, and hyphens.
  • With forms that ask users for their occupation, be sure to offer “Retired” as a choice.

Senior Web Test

Mr. Nielsen has used a series of tests to measure how users age 65 and over-performed four web tasks compared with younger users. These include finding the average temperature in Dallas in January and buying a Janet Jackson album. He found that younger users were able to perform tasks more successfully, quicker and with fewer errors. Other studies, including ones by Fidelity Investments that measured how users completed tasks on a prototype version of a retirement-benefits website, have produced similar findings.

Why? Many older adults pick up the Internet later in life, not having had the chance to grow accustomed to it at school or work. They are learning its terms and concepts from scratch. For example, the AARP noticed in usability studies it conducted that a few participants expected the “sitemap” to show the geographic location of AARP offices.

Older web users “don’t have a good mental model of all things computers,” Mr. Nielsen says. Several older people in his studies didn’t differentiate clearly between a website’s search box and a browser’s address bar. Others ran into trouble when they put parentheses around telephone numbers in forms or didn’t understand web terms like URL.

You’re Never Too Old to Surf the Internet

Fidelity Senior Web Users

Fidelity noticed older users were more cautious in everything they did on the web. They’re often pondering the pros and cons of clicking links and reading all available information. Tom Tullis, senior vice president of human interface design at Boston-based Fidelity Investments, attributes such behavior to the fact that older adults grew up in a much more mechanical world, where if you made a mistake, you couldn’t backtrack. “My favorite example is there is no back button to the taste of your toast,” he says. “If you burn your toast, it’s burnt.”

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