7 tips for designing for older users

by Paul McCarthy on 1 May 2009

The discussion on web design for older site visitors often drifts towards accessibility and gets mixed up with looking at disabilities rather abilities, but this should not always be a given.

Not every person over 65 years has eyesight so poor that they have to increase text size or change the contrast of text colours. Not every person over the retirement age has problems with motor control or significant short term memory loss. The diversity of the 65+ user group is enormous. A website might be easy to use for someone over 75 years old simply because they're experienced web surfers or familiar with the site. In contrast you might find someone younger, but with less Internet experience, struggling to use the same site.

You can find a comprehensive list of design guidelines for users over 50Opens in new window at the American Association of Retired Persons website and in the UK City University's guidelinesOpens in new window. Having researched and worked with older users it becomes obvious that there are very specific themes that come up repeatedly for the average senior surfer. These are simple things such as “what's clickable and what's not”, window management and jargon that acts as language barrier.

Here is a digested list of the most important design tips based on research with users.

1. Make obvious what's clickable and what's not

You must clearly distinguish between paragraph, heading and link styles. Underlining link text within written text helps links to contrast with copy, but underlining links in the main navigation isn't necessary as each and every item should be obvious. Also, don't employ underlining to identify headings.

Buttons must also be made as large and prominent as possible so they become a clear call to action. 3D effects for buttons can help to make them stand out. Also, make links and buttons easy to target and hit by increasing their clickable area.

In addition, next to the cursor visibly changing into a 'hand', you should offer a highlight around the area to click on.

2. Use radio buttons rather than dropdown menus

A dropdown menu can be fiddly and time consuming for site visitors, and can result in people selecting the wrong item by accident. If you have less than 10 items in a dropdown menu use radio buttons if possible. These have the advantage of showing the number of options at a glance without having to click.

However, you should keep dropdown menus where they are established conventions, e.g. when choosing your country. Here, it's better to stick with what users are used to.

3. Stay in one window

If possible, always stay in one window. If you like to provide useful tips or explanations, consider implementing it in a way that the explanation appears on the same page. If you need to include a pop-up or re-direct to a new window, then inform the users by telling them.

A good example of showing useful tips on the same page is twitter's sign-up page. Here the explanation comes up when users click into the field “Full name”.

4. Implement the shallowest possible information hierarchy

Ensure that you fully understand your users' goals and provide them with the shortest paths to completing their task. Pull out important and frequently visited topics and display them on the homepage. You should also maintain consistent labelling of links and page names and allow site visitors to get to the content within 2-5 clicks.

The path must be kept as clear as possible of distracters such as advertising, though you can display some after the task has been completed successfully. Provide about 3 helpful cross-reference links that are related to the current task goal, but not many more in order to avoid distraction. Overall, try tominimise the options on screen to be as succinct as possible.

5. Include a site map and link to it from every page

A site map gives users a good overall picture of how the site is organised and clearly defines all the resources the website has to offer. The link to the site map can usually be found near the top or the bottom of the page and frequently placed near the link to 'contact us'.

Internet savvy senior surfers are aware of site maps and make use of them to gain an overview of the site. They will also likely click on a sitemap link when they get lost on the site or if they can't find what they want while browsing.

6. Keep your language simple

Avoid technical jargon at all cost. However, if you employ newer functionality such as tagging for example, don't try to rename it, but provide an easy-to-understand explanation for it. Include instructions in plain English where necessary and always try to reduce the number of words displayed on the page.

Use simple and short sentences and include bullet points where possible. For links on the homepage or landing pages include a short description to tell site visitors what to expect when following the link.

7. Appear trustworthy

Senior surfers tend to be more cautious when browsing and can get confused when something unexpected happens such as a new window opening or an application installing.

Firstly, clearly state the purpose of your site on the homepage. Also, offer a brief description with content links, so users know what to expect when following them. Explain in 'large print' how personal information will be handled before asking users to enter it.

Make use of the well-known padlock icon to indicate a secure part of the site. Show words such as'secure''safe' and 'confidential' in bold. Offer a content section on security when your site offers financial services.

Conclusion

Follow these 7 simple design tips and it will help the majority of site visitors over 65 years use your site more easily and of course it will help all other users too. It will be an enjoyable experience for novice Internet users as well as those who are experienced surfers but new to your site. In addition, any user who might require assistive software will not be compromised by any of these design tips.

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