|useit.com Alertbox April 2002 Seniors||| Search|
Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox, April 28, 2002:
The Internet enriches many seniors' lives, but most websites violate usability guidelines, making the sites difficult for seniors to use. Current websites are twice as hard to use for seniors than for non-seniors.
Seniors are one of the fastest growing demographics on the Web. The United States alone has an estimated 9 million Internet users over the age of 65 as of September 2004. Indeed, all industrialized countries have huge populations of senior citizens, many of whom have substantial assets. Although they are typically retired, seniors lead very active lives and often have great interest in modern technologies such as the Internet, which gives them another method to communicate and stay informed.
In our study, email was the main Internet application used by seniors. Our participants used the Web mainly for:
|Success Rate (task completed correctly)||52.9%||78.2%|
|Time on Task (min:sec)||12:33||7:14|
|Errors (erroneous actions per task)||4.6||0.6|
|Subjective Rating (scale: 1=low, 7=high)||3.7||4.6|
|Overall Usability (normalized geo. mean)||100%||222%|
The differences between seniors and the control group are all highly significant.
Normalizing the usability metrics so that the seniors' scores are the baseline value of 100% in all cases leads to an estimated overall usability of 222% for non-seniors. (Averaging computed as the geometric mean.) In other words, overall usability was slightly more than twice as good for non-seniors as it was for seniors.
Also, many seniors retired without having used computers and the Internet extensively during their working careers. Thus, they have not necessarily learned good conceptual models of how these technologies work, which makes it more difficult to understand their quirks. For example, we observed several users who did not differentiate clearly between a website's search box and the browser's URL box. After all, both are input fields that you type in when you want to go elsewhere. The lack of experience with good conceptual models is obviously not fundamental to human biology, and may disappear as the current workforce retires.
Our testing identified many instances of poor design that compounded to make the Web more than twice as hard for seniors to use. Complying with the guidelines for designing for seniors would remove many such usability problems. And, while Web usability might still be slightly better for younger users, the differences could be reduced drastically.
Sites that target seniors should use at least 12-point type as the default. And all sites, whether or not they specifically target seniors, should let users increase text size as desired -- especially if the site opts for a smaller default font size.
For hypertext links, large text is especially important for two main reasons: 1) to ensure readability of these essential design components, and 2) to make them more prominent targets for clicking. You should also avoid tightly clustered links that are not separated by white space. Doing so will decrease erroneous clicks and increase the speed at which users hit the correct link. This rule also applies to command buttons and other interaction objects, all of which need to be reasonably large to be easy to click.
Pull-down menus, hierarchically walking menus, and other moving interface elements cause problems for seniors who are not always steady with the mouse. Better to use static user interface widgets and designs that do not require pixel-perfect pointing.
Seniors also have a harder time using unforgiving search engines and forms. We saw users thwarted because they typed hyphens in their search queries, and punished because they used hyphens or parentheses in a telephone or credit card number.
Error messages were often hard to read, either because the wording was obscure or imprecise, or the message's placement on the page was easily overlooked among a profusion of other design elements. Simplicity is even more important than usual when seniors encounter error handling: Your message should focus on the error, explain it clearly, and make it as easy as possible to fix. Also, as much as possible, website tasks should adapt to seniors and their preferred way of doing things. After decades of writing telephone numbers in a certain way, it's not a very nice experience to come across a form that insists on a different format.
Usability for seniors is important, and not just so that they can perform a task aimed at a one-time purchase. By focusing on improving usability for seniors, you can increase their satisfaction and the odds of forming a long-term relationship.
Intranets should also cater to seniors. Most companies have employees in their 60s, and many big companies have special extranets for retirees that provide online benefits information and help the company maintain contact with former employees.
Besides the business reasoning, we all have a very personal interest in increasing usability for seniors: It's the one user category we're all likely to join one day.
When it works for them, the Internet is already an enriching part of many seniors' lives. Websites can become much more approachable, however, by following the simple design guidelines in our new report. If you consider these guidelines from the start, implementing them will rarely add to the cost of a Web design or intranet project. Also, many of the guidelines for increasing usability for seniors help other users as well.