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.
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.
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.