Design & UX

Improve Usability for Older Users

By Tim Fidgeon

According to the 2001 UK census, the UK now has more people aged over 60 than under 16. It also revealed that there are now 1.1 million people aged over 85 in the UK — and the trend toward an ageing population is common in many other western countries.

We recently analysed and compared the results of 16 usability testing sessions. Eight of these sessions were conducted with older users (i.e. over the age of 65), and the other eight were run with younger users (under the age of 40).

The 40-minute ‘talk-aloud’ sessions involved our asking participants to find information on a range of government web sites. The results of this research provided insights into the ways older users differ from their younger counterparts when it comes to using the Internet.

Assigning Blame

The main finding of our study was that older users were more likely to assign blame when using the Internet.

Of the eight older participants, three appeared to blame themselves for any difficulties which they encountered (sample quotes included, "I don’t really know what I’m doing"; "It’s probably my fault"; "This always happens to me"). However, four of the older users seemed to blame the site(s) for any difficulties which they encountered (saying things like, "I hate it when websites do this"; "Well, that’s stupid"; "That doesn’t make any sense").

We found that the younger users were far less likely to assign explicit blame for any difficulties they encountered: only one user from this group assigned blame, and assigned it to himself.

Emotional Reaction

We also found that older users employed far more emotive words and phrases than younger users when referring to web sites.

All of the older users employed strongly positive or negative words, such as "love", "hate", "stupid", "helpful" and "friendly", in their remarks. Indeed, one participant even talked to the website as if it were a pet ("That’s a good boy")!

In contrast, only two of the younger participants expressed themselves in comparably strong terms (both when talking negatively about aspects of a site).

Weaker Mental Models

Another very interesting finding was that six of the older participants regularly failed to scroll down a page (i.e. did not do so six or more times in a session). This failure often led these participants to miss information that was directly relevant to their task.

In comparison, none of the younger participants failed to scroll down a page six or more times in a session.

In our opinion, this is likely to be attributable to older users not having fully internalised the concept that browser windows often requiring scrolling — a concept that’s novel to computer technology.

Technical Language

We also found that older users were less likely to understand technical language. For instance, a moderator’s request to "bring up the minimised window" was not understood by five older users (in comparison to its not being understood by only two of the younger users).

We found that older users were at least twice as likely as younger users not to understand the phrases ‘Homepage’, ‘URL’ and ‘Browser’.

Link Identification

Our sessions showed that, as a group, older participants were more likely to click on elements of a page that weren’t links (an average of 14 times per session, in comparison to the younger participants’ average of five times per session).

It was also the case that all older users reported preferring websites that changed the colour of their visited links, whereas only five of the younger participants considered the matter significant.

Aversion to Downloading

Of the eight older participants, five expressed a strong aversion to downloading documents from the Internet because they were "worried about bugs [i.e. viruses] and things." None of the younger participants expressed such views.

Higher Incidence of ‘Search’ Usage

Of the younger participant group in our study, only two individuals used the available search functionality, whereas six of the older participant group chose to make use of it. It is possible that this may have developed as a means of compensating for their apparent difficulties or discomfort with traditional browsing.

It should be noted that all users expected a site to have a single ‘Search’ function that searched all of the site’s content.

Slow Task-completion and Reading

Our older participants required over double the average time of our younger participants to complete a task.

Three of our older participants also displayed a tendency to read all of the text on a page before being willing to decide on their next course of action. None of our younger participants did this.

Preference for ‘Big and Simple’ Design

Seven of our older participants reported anything less than 12-point type as being too small to read comfortably — and even though all users agreed that being able to re-size the text on the screen would be a good idea, only one of them knew how to do so through the browser.

It was also the case that all older participants preferred 800×600 over 1024×768 resolution.

Our Recommendations

Although more research into the Web usage behaviours and preferences of older users is obviously required, we would like to suggest the following:

  • Designers should investigate innovative ways to communicate the fact that a page is not finished and requires scrolling.
  • Technical terms should be avoided if possible. Where they have to be used, a clear explanation must be easily accessible (including examples wherever appropriate).
  • Links should be identified in a consistent and obvious way (e.g. blue, bold, underlined; red on mouse-over).
  • The attention-grabbing features on a page (e.g. headings, pictures, icons, instructions and bullets) should be links.
  • Visited links should change colour.
  • Provide an HTML-version of as much content as possible and do not require users to install software (even Adobe Acrobat) in order to be able to access information.
  • Make content as concise and clear as possible. Consider providing two versions of the same content (‘simple’ and ‘detailed’) and allow users to decide which they want to access.
  • Sites should provide a ‘Make the writing bigger’ link with accompanying illustrations or icons and always use high contrast to display text e.g. black text on an off-white background (n.b. using an off-white background is preferable to white because it reduces the chances of eyestrain for people who are slow readers).
  • Provide explicit instructions by using the imperative forms of verbs (e.g. ‘Go to more details on…’, ‘Find a…’, etc.).

Older users are an audience that will grow in size and importance over the next few years. Our studies indicate that there are a lot of simple things we can do to support their use of the Internet.

We believe that these recommendations should be taken into account by all sites, and efforts should be made to further expand our knowledge of how to design for these users.

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