Usability for the Elderly

7 February 2009
Ben Logan

Author: Ben Logan

Passionate about improving services and experiences for the people that use them.

The elderly are the complete opposite to young children when it comes to web site usage. There are two obstacles with usability for the elderly. First, most of the current elderly population has spent the bulk of their life span without computing technology, so they usually have either no or very limited experience with the technology. In addition, the elderly are more likely to have a disabilities such as physical, mental, and cognitive impairments compared to children.

The elderly as web users

People 45 years and older will soon make up more than half the adult population, and people 85 years and older are the fastest growing age group more and more are coming online each year.

We are specifically referring to people aged between 45 and 95 in this article as the range we consider to be elderly.

Examples of web sites accessed by the elderly

We have come up with a brief and very generalised list of sites that might be accessed by the elderly (in no particular order):

What are some of the characteristics of the elderly using the web?

The elderly are very technology averse and a lot of them are terrified at the thought of using a computer.

We have highlighted a few characteristics of the elderly using the web:

  • They will need to be taught slowly and have lots of explanation
  • Would typcially need their environment setup so they could follow simple steps
  • Internet access would typically be during the daytime
  • Would feel more comfortable at a desk or workstation than on a laptop
  • Typically will surf the web at home
  • Love the idea of keeping in touch with relatives
  • Want to be able to keep up with their grandchildren
  • Find the whole experience liberating once they are up to speed
  • Sceptical of online shopping and giving card details even with trusted brand names e.g. John Lewis

What are some of the issues the elderly face?

The elderly face a lot of the same Usability issues as adults but areas such as simplicity of copy and instructions is key:

  • Font size too small or not able to change the font size
  • Installation of media plugins e.g. Adobe Flash can be problematic
  • Not always sure if an object is a link or is clickable
  • Security messages about untrusted SSL certificates can make them exit a site
  • Take longer to complete tasks so screen refresh and redirect can cause concern
  • Often prefer pages with high contrast
  • Easily confused by technical jargon and acronyms
  • Prefer clear concise instructions and help options
  • Like visited links to change colour
  • Avoid a deep navigation hierarchy
  • Minimise blinking images and animation

What can you do to reassure the elderly during Usability testing?

The elderly require a patient approach when it comes to running a Usabiltiy testing session:

  • Allow a lot more time for the session and do not rush participants
  • Make sure there are lots of breaks and access to soft drinks
  • Offer words of encouragement as the elderly are often more emotional with their reactions
  • Make test scripts clear and concise and instructive
  • Try to avoid technical jargon in the session as a lot of the terminology will be things you take for granted as a working usability professional
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