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.

Great Content But Can Your Audience Find You?

Stone ArrowRecently I received an exhaustive URL to a great web page about a city’s new project. Then I looked for menu prompts to direct external visitors there but found none. Short of keying in a series of cryptic characters (which would look horrid in print), there was no way to find the page. Likewise, have you ever searched a website for an organization’s specific office or product and given up in frustration?

As communicators, we develop quality content and share it with our audiences, often using it to ignite conversations and engagement. But these efforts are in vain if a large segment of your audience doesn’t find you because the “path” is broken or desperately needs a renovation.

Sure you can fix website menus/links within your organization and use key words effectively but what about sites that others control?  Check how relevant third parties are representing your brand, if at all. You may find some surprises. I don’t mean media/blogger stories where editorial integrity has the last word and your organization’s core messages may never be conveyed verbatim. I’m thinking of websites/other digital properties owned by organizations affiliated with yours − so your brand has a legitimate reason to be there and properly represented.

For example, what if…

  • You manage communications for a public sector organization and your parent Ministry lists you on its website but with an outdated value proposition.
  • You work for a retailer that runs a customer loyalty program with a trusted vendor − but the vendor lists only a few of your participating stores on its promo web page, if at all.
  • Your socially responsible employer is actively dedicated to a cause; the recipient not-for-profit features all its corporate supporters on its web page, with links to their sites, but leaves yours off the roster.

Having lived each of these scenarios, I think it’s worth the time to occasionally retrace your audience’s steps to see how aligned stakeholders cite your brand on their sites.

To do a digital audit, run a:

  1. Manual check of all the relevant affiliate and stakeholder organization websites that should or could mention your brand.
  2. Google search and dig beyond the first couple of pages to find any gaps.
  3. Search on Bing/Yahoo or use other online tools to uncover missed opportunities.

If mentions or messages are amiss, you can outreach directly or use your contacts/networks to tactfully request changes.

More importantly, maybe it’s time to take a page from the social media best practice of “listening” to conversations and using what we hear to inform strategy.  We can do so by using this audit to find out why a mistake or omission occurred. Maybe your contact list is outdated, there is a major disconnect or a relationship gone amok?  With this insight, we can take steps to course correct or adjust our strategy for engaging that stakeholder as we move forward.

Do you do these checks? What works for you and what “surprises” have you uncovered?

Breaking Barriers to Get Your Message Online

YourHealthYourWagEx3Your organization’s website is likely its lobby to the world, with gateways to pages that convey its historical rise to its current value proposition. For brand consistency and streamlined access, the best practice is to have a single website but sometimes I don’t find this viable.

If you’ve  ever tried to “renovate” or add an item/page to your website for a valid purpose, only to be halted by a rigid platform, a tight budget, limited resources or a backlog of other priorities — you know what I mean.

Blogs are noted for their flexibility and capacity to go into overtime when a crisis occurs, while your website or traditional channels may be too slow or inaccessible. The same premise applies to using a blogging platform to create a “pop-up” micro site, for a short-term need or a “workaround” to the main website.

TrilliumHallEgWhen do you need a pop-up microsite?  What about when…

  1. You need to promote an event in a tight time frame (such as a first-time public information event targeted at local residents)
  2. You need to launch an unconventional application or brand extension for your product or service (such as a multimedia venue a hospital wants to market to “healthy” people)
  3. You anticipate multiple updates for a quick pace build or a tiered campaign roll-out (such as a conference assembled in an insane time frame with fluctuating abstracts and speakers joining at a staggered pace)

For mavericks who “dare to challenge” convention, a pop-up site can also serve as a workaround for the above or other scenarios when your main website is:

  • Governed by an umbrella organization and your initiative is sure to exceed the pages, resources or customizations allocated to your division, department or franchise.
  • Hopelessly hard-coded and long overdue an upgrade
  • Managed by limited resources, with many requests ahead in the queue.

SustainPlantExI’ve turned to WordPress to quickly and efficiently build a micro site as a central communications conduit for some of the above scenarios and more.   [Here are the steps I’ve followed to create a pop-up site in WordPress but you can likely do the same in other blogging platforms.] Be sure however to check WordPress.com policies before you start to ensure you conform and there’s no surprises.

Have you created a microsite to meet a short-term or other need? Have you had success in other platforms? What challenges did you face? When do you think a pop-up site can prove invaluable and when should it be avoided?