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Whenever I hear someone making a general statement about what older people can or cannot do I think of my father-in-law. He's 80 years old and regularly runs marathons and competes in triathlons. He wins too. So I'm always suspicious about stereotypes involving technology and older users.

Older adults and the Internet

Research backs up my hesitations. In an article in Technical Communication Quarterly, Karen O'Hara from Miami University surveys recent research on older adults:

  • Older adults use the Internet for news, shopping, entertainment, and to keep in touch with friends and family.
  • Common myths are:
    • older users cannot learn to use the Internet
    • old people don't use computer
    • elderly people are "technophobes"
    These are indeed stereotypes and are not accurate.
  • There are reasons, however, why some older users don't use computers even more:
    • lack of motivation or reason to use the computer
    • lack of experience with current technology
    • cognitive differences and age-related declines
    • lack of knowledge of how to use the Web
    • no access to a computer
    • no understanding of what to do with the Web

According to the AARP, more than 40 million adults over 50 are online in the US.

And according to a report by the Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School the percentages of use of the Internet by older adults in the US is large:

Percent of adults of a given age who use the Internet
age 46-55
age 56-65
age 66+

Older adults and handheld devices

And what about research regarding older adults and other technology besides the Internet? One set of researchers recently looked at older adults and handheld computers. (Leonard, et .al.).

In this study thirteen volunteers used a handheld computer to play a card game. Ten of the participants had some level of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a visual impairment. The rest were visually healthy, age-matched controls.

Participants used a Pocket PC, with a touch-sensitive, 3.5 inch diagonal LCD. Participants were verbally instructed to locate a target card amongst a grid of several distracter card icons of different numbers/suits. They selected the target using the stylus, dragged it to the card pile on the left-hand side of the display matching its suit and dropped the card into this pile. They were asked to work as quickly and accurately as possible. Participants were trained on the task and informed that there would be upcoming changes to the interface. They were also introduced to the auditory feedback for the task. Three independent variables were controlled during this task: Set Size, Inter-Icon Spacing, and Auditory Feedback. Dependent variables were time, accuracy and errors.

What were the results?

  • Having AMD definitely caused errors and decreased speed. User performance went down in direct relation to the severity of disease. The AMD score had the largest influence on trial time and visual search time, and was the third most influential factor on movement time.
  • The users' amount of contrast sensitivity impacted the efficiency of the task. Improvement in contrast sensitivity scores was a predictor of faster trial time, visual search time and movement time.
  • Auditory feedback helped decrease movement time and drag distance for the visually impaired users and did not disturb either visually impaired or unimpaired participants.
  • Diminished spacing (as compared to a desktop PC, for example) did not cause longer search and selection times.
  • Personal characteristics such as age, dexterity, and learning are all influential factors in handheld device use, but even having AMD did not prevent people from using the handheld device.
  • All older adults, even those with visual impairments were able to use a stylus for input on a handheld device.
  • Auditory cues may prove valuable in making handheld devices accessible to individuals with visual impairments.
  • Less spacing of a handheld device does not mean that it cannot be used by older or visually impaired adults.

So watch out for your assumptions

  • Don't assume that older adults, with or without visual impairments, will not be able to successfully interact with handheld devices.
  • Use auditory feedback on handheld device interfaces, regardless of the age or visual impairment of the user.
  • Watch out for your own stereotypes about older users, especially if you are young.
  • Make sure users are motivated to use the product you are designing. Be sure you know, and are not just guessing, what their motivation is.
  • If you are designing for a U.S. audience, remember that the population of older adults is increasing, and their online use is increasing. This may represent a large segment of your users.


AARP – the "Older, Wiser, Wired" initiative.

Center for the Digital Future, USC Annenberg School.

O'Hara, K. (2004). "Curb Cuts" on the Information Highway: Older Adults and the Internet, Technical Communication Quarterly, v13.4, pages 423-445.

Leonard, V.K., Jacko, J.A., and Pizzimenti, J.J. (2005). An Exploratory investigation of Handheld Computer Interaction for Older Adults with Visual Impairments, Proceedings of the 7th International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility, ISBN:1-59593-159-7, pages 12 – 19.

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

Leave a comment here

Reader comments

Judith Sgro

Apparently, they failed to find my 68 year old mother when they did the research on this. She is a nightmare with the computer. She panics about everything...'why is that green light do i get the curser from THERE and put it email the same as the internet...' and no matter how hard we try, she just doesn't learn. she gets frustrated and then we do, as well. she just does not understand the whole concept. therefore, i really disagree with this article. give my mother a call and you'll feel the same way.


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