How to Make Your Site Senior-Friendly

Young senior using a laptop.Until we find the fountain of youth, studies show our ability to use websites will drop by 0.8% per year from age 25 to 60, making websites 43% harder for seniors (age 65 and older) to use. Declining eyesight, dexterity and memory create usability challenges that can derail a senior’s interest or online purchase.

With seniors making up Canada’s fastest-growing age group and a rising 48% of them using the Internet, an increasing number of online users face these challenges. For those who don’t start using computers until later in life, there’s the added obstacle of trying to grasp common web terms like URL, download and double-click, which may sound cryptic.

Studies also show many senior users are afraid of making mistakes or potentially ‘breaking’ something. And others may hesitate to try an alternate path, if the first fails.

While we can’t stop aging, communicators, UX designers and digital pros can tweak solutions to accommodate aging users. For maximum benefit, counter ‘ageism’ with an interface that meets seniors’ as well as younger users’ needs.

Start by incorporating the web accessibility basics outlined in Ontario’s new Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), even if your site is exempt.

Looking at AODA requirements, I thought more could be done and took a deep dive to find out. I discovered many recommendations for accommodating seniors pertain to Jakob Nielsen’s 10 usability heuristics that should apply to interfaces for users of all ages. However, some of them are more specific to seniors or need extra diligence when designing for older users.

Thorough testing with senior subjects is also imperative for any site for this older demographic and should include ample focus testing error and recovery messages.

Key User Experience (UX) Design Recommendations

So here’s a checklist of key recommendations from varied sources for supporting seniors matched with Nielsen’s heuristics:

1. Visibly show user the system status –
• Incorporate visual cues to show users where they are in the website, such as highlighting the current menu, instead of forcing them to rely on memory.
• Display messages that tell users when a successful action must be processed before the screen refreshes to reassure them all is well.

Heart, dice and big dipper graphics to represent dating, games and horoscopes seniors can understand.
Use meaningful symbols/icons with text labels.

2. Match system objects to the real world –
• Offer familiar, tangible words with explanations as alternatives to common ‘techie’ terms that may confuse newcomers to the web. For example, use ‘picture’ instead of ‘icon.’
• Use meaningful symbols/icons but prudently to avoid image-overload and always include text labels.
• Offer a back-up visual to a standard convention to improve clarity, such as a traditional filing cabinet image along with the standard hard-disk icon.

3. Give the user control and freedom –
• Make Forward and Back arrow buttons prominent and be sure to leave ample space between them.
• Include text alternatives for all media items, not just images.

4. Strive for consistency and standard formats –
• Follow platform conventions and try to keep steps consistent for as long as possible. Conduct thorough usability research and workflow analysis upfront with seniors to give a site design optimal longevity.

5. Make it hard to screw up –
• Given seniors’ ‘fear’ of failure, take extra care to build error-reduction and quick recovery paths into solutions.
• Make forms short, easy to complete and designed to accept anticipated punctuation variations, such as phone numbers and credit card numbers with and without dashes.
• Separate hyperlinks with ample space to avoid erroneous clicks.

6. Design for recognition versus recall –
• Display relevant topic items during searches in much the same manner as Google does. (Stats suggest seniors like and use Google search more than other users.)
• Use different colours to distinguish between visited and unvisited links to help users keep track.

7. Make it flexible and efficient to use –
• Overcome dexterity challenges by offering alternatives. Offer Alt key strokes and Enter key pressing, instead of double-clicking and dragging menus. Try up and down arrow options versus scrolling.
• Offer an option for adept users to take a more proficient path (with less prompts), if they want.

Image of Everything Zoomer website as example.
For readability, use high contrast dark type on light backgrounds and avoid pattern backgrounds.

8. Opt for readability and minimalist design –
• Stick to sans serif fonts but not condensed versions.
• Ensure point size is at least 12 points. Use the scalable ‘em’ unit or percentages (e.g. 120% for big text) in cascading style sheets (CSS) to avoid coding restrictions that keep type small.
• Use high contrast dark type on light backgrounds or vice versa but avoid pattern backgrounds.
• Avoid putting yellow, blue and green together, as they’re hard for seniors to differentiate.
• Ensure designs are responsive, as many seniors are taking to tablets, including my elderly mother who finds one easier to use and less intimidating than a laptop/desktop computer.

9. Help users recognize, diagnose and recover from errors –
• Prominently position error messages and use plain language to help the user understand, then course correct. Specifically test error text with seniors to ensure clarity.

10. Offer accessible help and documentation –
• Offer a phone number option for help/support, not just an email or web page.

For more ‘how-to’ details, check these guides:
• Nielsen, Jakob, Seniors Citizens (Ages 65 and older) on the Web, 2nd Edition,NN/g, May, 2013.
• National Institute on Aging, National Library of Medicine, Making Your Web Site Senior Friendly – A Checklist, 2002.
Other Sources:
• Aula, Anne, Learning to Use Computers at a Later Age, Computer Human Interaction Information Visualization Research Group.
• Kantner, Laurie and Stephanie Rosenbaum, Usable Computers for the Elderly: Applying Coaching Experiences, Tec-Ed, Inc., 2003.
• Nielsen, Jakob, Seniors as Web Users and Define Techy Terms for Older Users. NN/g, May, 2013.
• Revera Report on Tech-Savvy Seniors: Key Findings, June, 2012.
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Sixty-five Can’t be the New Forty-five — Until Respect for Time Aligns

ClockMix2From our mother’s first contraction and throughout our working lives, time is sacrosanct. Weekdays are a series of tightly coiled con calls and meetings with minimal buffers for overage or bio breaks. We even send our spouse outlook invites to book date nights, as we may never see them without the electronic reminder.

But when we cross the abyss at 65, we’re supposed to drop all these conventions. You see, time shouldn’t matter to seniors. At least I think that’s what service providers and our culture leads us to believe.

For example, when my active 88-year-old mother had a tumble, I learned:

  • The physiotherapist assigned to her senior’s complex would “show up” randomly for her  appointments with no advance notice. (Aside from the inconvenience, this could be privately disruptive should she feel under the weather or have company.)
  • The personal support worker might show up a half hour late for her scheduled home visit and expect mom to wait without being advised of the delay. (Mom waited 25 minutes once and then, thinking she’d been forgotten, left for her scheduled art class.)

I’ve also seen a wheel trans service show up and cart a devoted gentleman off midway through his Sunday church service. This happened on several occasions even though service times were carefully communicated at the time of booking, which was days in advance.

With scenarios like these, how can a fit 65-year-old live a 45-year-old lifestyle? How can they plan ahead or commit to any set time with confidence?

Certainly I’m grateful for the tightly stretched, high quality of care available in Ontario (and elsewhere) for an aging population and others with healthcare challenges. Asking for seniors and their time to also be given the same respect as others may be a luxury — or is it?

If we want to strive for fulfilling and productive lives well into our golden years, we need more than good health and marketing. Likely it will take more funding, resources and innovation to bring timing for seniors more in line with the rest of the world.

For those of us at the end of the baby boom, now may be the time to change perceptions and address challenges because arriving late for your performance, plane or sky diving class just won’t work in a 24/7 world.