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Lots of graying users

According to a study by the Annenberg School at USC, American Internet users include...

  • 75% of adults aged 56-65
  • 41% of adults over 66.

If we want to design for the bulk of our users, we had best consider the more mature user groups.

Could be even MORE graying users

The "older people are just technophobes" stereotype doesn't hold water. According to a recent study by O'Hara, the top reasons older people don't use computers are:
a) lack of motivation or reason to use the computer,
b) lack of experience with current technology, and
c) cognitive differences and age-related declines.

So it's not that they don't want to use your site – it's that they find it too tricky or intimidating to be worth that effort at this point in their lives.  As usability practitioners, we need to change this!!!

What you need to overcome

"Newly old" – between the ages of 40 and 50

  • Slowly deteriorating vision.

"Middle old" – between 50 and 65

  • Slight/moderate degradation of vision
  • Not able to retain as much information in their working memory
  • Not able to process information as fast as they once could.

"Older old" – between about 65 and 80

  • Significant deterioration in motor control and visual acuity.

"Very old" – those over 80

  • May not be able to accommodate these persons' deteriorating faculties via conventional Web design.

What to do?

According to the work of Kurniawan and Zaphiris...

Target (button/link/menu) design: Use larger targets, and provide a clear confirmation of target capture. Make navigation menus and action buttons bigger and use mouse-over effects and other methods of showing target affordance, or "clickability".

Text treatment: Use a sans serif type font – i.e. Helvetica, Arial or Verdana of 12 or 14-point size.

Text presentation: The National Institute on Aging's checklist suggests that lines be double-spaced for ease of consumption by older users. 1.5 spacing may also be a reasonable compromise. This extra spacing makes it easier for the eye to track from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. As always for the Web, keep text short and use bulletized lists to facilitate scanning.

Cognitive design: Give the user ample time to read information before refreshing pages, and reduce the demand on working memory by supporting recognition rather than recall. Older users, especially those over 60-65, take longer to process information, and have more difficulty remembering, for example, entries made two screens earlier in the workflow.

Graphics: Use very little, and preferably no animation. Animation and scrolling text and graphics are the most distracting visual elements to humans overall. In addition, icons should be simple and should include a descriptive label so that your older users will not have to "guess" their meaning.

Navigation: Provide "bolder" navigational cues, including the location of the current page. Most older users – except perhaps for the "new old" – tend not to do as much "mouse minesweeping."  So pull-down menus should generally be avoided for these users.

Search features: Cater to spelling errors. Use auto-suggest of likely misspellings to automatically show what a correct spelling would be.  Then the user can click the suggested link without having to reenter their search terms.

For a complete list of heuristics, check out the list of Research-derived Web Guidelines for Older People. You may also want to reference the Making Your Web Site Senior Friendly checklist produced by the National Institute on Aging. Both of these sources will help you to "wear your older persona mask" when you design your next site or application for this type of user group. Note that many of these guidelines overlap with the standard best-practice guidelines, and with the accessibility recommendations made by the W3C. This reinforces the fact that best-practice, accessible design better serves all types of users.


Zaphiris, P., Kurniawan, S., "Research-derived Web Design Guidelines for Older People," Assets '05, Baltimore, MD USA. ACM 1-595593-159-7/05/0010 (2005), .

Zaphiris, P., Schneiderman, B., Norman, K., "Expandable Indexes Vs. Sequential Menus for Searching Hierarchies on the World Wide Web," International Journal of Human Computer Studies (2002).

"Research-based Web Design and Usability Guidelines," US Department of Health and Human Services, 2006.

IBM Ease of Use Guidelines.

Chaparro, B., Minnaert, G. and Phipps, C., "Mouse-over vs. Point-and-Click: It Depends!" Usability News, v1.2 Feb 1999, Wichita State University Software Usability Research Lab.

"Making your Website Senior Friendly," National Institute of Aging, 2006.

Center for the Digital Future, University of Southern California, Annenberg School.

Policies Relating to Web Accessibility, World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), 2003.

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

Leave a comment here

Reader comments

Dan Ford Sigma Micro

Instead of placing users into arbitrary categorizations based on age, wouldn't it be more efficient to address this as an accessibility issue and not just a problem of "old" people? I'm personally offended by the implication that just because someone is "old" their vision is failing or they're becoming less intelligent than others who are less "mature". Yes, there are users who are visually impaired, have learning disabilities or possess motor control issues. But those things are not a condition of age! I feel these age classifications are poorly conceived and the author could have done a better job.

Lauren Hansen JPMorgan Chase

Was it really necessary to label the age groups as "newly old" through "very old"? Wouldn't just specifying the age ranges have been enough? I stopped reading the article at that point because I found the labels offensive.


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