All too often, insufficient attention is paid to the needs of non-disabled older users online, who comprise a distinct but sizable subset of web accessibility use cases and exist on that, occasionally blurred boundary between conventional accessibility and general usability.
Organizations that fail to take the needs of older customers and website visitors into account are missing out on a massive opportunity.
Data from the U.K.-based Office for National Statistics shows that the pandemic has fueled a sharp rise in the use of digital services amongst older populations with 54% of over 50s now using the internet at least once every three months, up from 47% in 2019.
Similar ONS data shows that recent internet users over 75 have nearly doubled from 29% in 2013 to 54% in 2020.
Post-pandemic, this trend is likely to continue.
However, understanding how best to address the needs of “silver surfers” is not always simple.
Many of this population segment does not self-identify as being disabled but might instead, live with milder age-related impairments such as reduced visual acuity or cognition.
For many of the over 65s, the latter may simply stem from a lack of familiarity and confidence around essential web norms and the rules of the road when it comes to the information superhighway.
This may apply to common site layouts, transaction processes and terminology and often results from not having grown up in the pervasively digital landscape we have today.
This phenomenon is well-described by the legendary best-selling author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Douglas Adams, who wrote in a collection of essays posthumously published in 2002:
“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”
Pivoting to digital
To provide some clarity for organizations and web designers on what this sub-genre of digital accessibility looks like and where overlaps may occur with more traditional disability use-cases, Texthelp, a global leader in education and workplace accessibility tools published some interesting research earlier this month.
The research produced in collaboration with YOUGOV entitled “Improving Online Accessibility for the ‘Silver Surfer,’ involved 2,031 respondents to an online survey carried out in April 2021 aged over 50, of which 584 were aged between 65 and 74 and 450 were over 75 years of age.
Headline figures from the research suggest that one in four (27%) of over 50s reported issues accessing websites during the pandemic.
Of this segment, almost a third (31%) of U.K. respondents said they had trouble knowing what to do or what to click on.
Sixty-three percent said they found the layout of sites overly complicated, while 20% indicated a preference for larger text and 22% wanted the website content to be easier to understand.
The White Paper featured key insights from a variety of industry sectors significantly impacted by the sudden pivot to digital services last spring attributable to the Covid-19 pandemic spanning healthcare, retail and financial services.
These included observations from the likes of Monzo Bank and the U.K. Department of Work and Pensions.
Accessibility for older adults is different
A key idea for organizations wishing to make their digital products more user- friendly for older customers to grasp is that simply making their websites and apps compliant with the internationally recognized Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) will not necessarily serve older generations.
These guidelines codify elements such as how to describe images with alt tags for visually impaired users and are useful for legal compliance with local disability legislation in some territories.
However, the guidelines don’t, by themselves, make a website more intuitive and easier to use, or explain how the use of jargon such as a “shopping cart,” might be confusing to those unfamiliar with e-commerce.
As Martin Mckay, CEO of Texthelp, the report’s publisher explains, “It’s eminently possible to have a WCAG AAA compliant website that’s still incredibly difficult to interact with and consume for many users.”
Usability features organizations need to be looking out for
A crucial but often overlooked aspect of website usability is the general readability of a website’s content.
Therefore, something as simple as using shorter sentences and simpler words, not just across websites but in other associated documents too like instruction manuals, as well as social channels, can go a long way.
“if we can just lower the cognitive load of websites, people will find it much easier to interact with them,” says McKay.
“By designing something that could be there for people who might have a brain injury, we can make it much easier for lots of octogenarians who are getting pushed online for the first time.”
Of course, clear language alone is less useful if a site doesn’t maintain other basic usability table stakes such as a clear and logical layout and appropriate use of contrast for text and images.
As in facets of traditional accessibility, new and existing website elements should be manually tested by the design team. If user testing is taking place, older adults and personas should be included as part of the brief.
Of course, it’s not just about morality and delivering fair and equal access — there remain strong legal and commercial imperatives for maintaining website accessibility, including where it overlaps with general usability.
Yes, perhaps your average octogenarian may not grasp all the commonalities and customs of online navigation, and yet, through the accident of poor design, there is surely one online habit they’re likely to have become very used to.
With every purchasing option underpinned by a multitude of Google search rankings, if a website isn’t intuitive and easy to use for people of all ages, there remains nothing simpler than just clicking away and looking for one that is.