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Future-proof: Designing for an Ageing Population

It’s a sad truth that none of us are getting any younger.

I can’t bounce out of bed as fast as I used to. Sometimes random things hurt my body now, when they never used to. I really don’t like falling on the ski slopes. Change is harder to adjust to. Kids’ fads are just weird. I grumble at stairs.

Ageing is a global issue from which no-one is exempt.

As designers of online systems, content and experiences, we need to be aware of what it means to be on the other end of our designs—for our older audiences, and for ourselves as we grow older.

The United Nations predicts that by the year 2050, more than one in every five people will be over 60 years (source: World Population Ageing, 1950-2050, Chapter II: Magnitude and speed of population ageing—PDF, 663KB). While this has implications for housing, the workforce and the economy, there are also a number of health-related issues that occur.

Our Abilities Change over Time

As we age, our abilities change, with gradual declines in:

  • Vision – “Can you make the text bigger, love?” Content starts becoming hard to read due to declining ability to focus on near objects, along with reduced contrast and colour perception.
  • Physical ability – reduced dexterity means that it can get harder to use the keyboard, mouse and touch screens, particularly for small target areas (*shakes fist* single-letter link? Small button? Tiny checkbox? Argh!).
  • Hearing – it gets harder to separate sounds as we start to lose the range of hearing (with implications as more content is delivered online through videos and podcasts).
  • Cognitive ability – short term memory can impact navigation, attention and comprehension.

These slow declines in abilities become disabilities, sometimes compounded by other health issues, often with the individual being unaware that the changes are occurring. These gradual changes mean that people don’t necessarily identify with having a disability. When they experience difficulties using websites, they tend to dismiss this as a consequence of getting older, rather than a problem with the site (source: Mature Age ICT Users Survey 2). In addition, many are not aware that a solution exists to accommodate their access needs (which may or may not involve assistive technologies, or even just simply modifying their computer or browser settings).

This creates interesting challenges as more people move online and onto mobile devices and where essential services are delivered through online channels. As of April 2012, 53% of American adults aged 65 and older use the internet or email (source: PEW Older adults and internet use). This also has impacts on the retail industry, with accessible retail sites in increasing demand from the ageing population (including cashed-up baby boomers).

Simple Design Tips

Here are some simple tips to keep in mind when designing for the ageing population:

  • Large fonts as a default – Have you ever seen an ageing relative hold a newspaper out further and further to be able to read the text? Well, the same goes for the web. Use a large font as a default, and make sure that the font can be easily resized. Test to make sure that font sizes can be increased to a reasonable amount without breaking. If you’re a Firefox user, you can use the NoSquint browser extension to increase the text size when testing your web content.
  • High contrast – Grey text on white background can look pretty sexy, but only if you can actually see it (being young with 20:20 vision will help). Ensure that content passes colour contrast checks and that you’re not using colour alone to provide meaning. There are lots of free colour contrast tools to use, such as the Colour Contrast Analyser or the Colour Contrast Check.
  • Highly visible links – Making your audience hunt for a link is pretty annoying, particularly if text colour is being used to indicate a link and the contrast is low. Go old school—underline links, or provide some strong visual cues such as strong colour contrast and underline on mouseover or when a keyboard user tabs to the active link.
  • Control movement on the page – Some older people can be distracted by any movement and sound (such as those carousels commonly found on many home pages). Allow them to pause/stop/hide the movement and sound.
  • Consistent navigation – To help with declining cognitive abilities, ensure that navigation is consistent, with clear labels, and help people to orientate themselves within your site (for example, using breadcrumbs and clear page titles).
  • Good forms – Who likes filling in forms? Some people find it difficult to understand how to complete a form. Provide clear instructions, accommodate for misspellings, and provide clear and helpful error messages.
  • Stop CAPTCHAs – Hands up if you find CAPTCHAs easy. For the vast majority, CAPTCHAs can be difficult to understand, but they're particularly difficult for older users, often due to low contrast text, images of text which can’t increase in size when a person increases the text size, or difficult-to-understand questions (including mathematical CAPTCHAs). Here’s an example of a difficult CAPTCHA from reCAPTCHA:

    A reCAPTCHA image that is impossible to read

    Here’s an example of a difficult mathematical CAPTCHA from the Quantum Random Bit Generator Service:

    A preposterously difficult calculus problem, serving as a CAPTCHA question
     
  • Highly visible focus indicators – As we get older, some of us will rely on the keyboard to navigate. Ensure that the focus indicator is highly visible when tabbing through the content. Here’s a good example from webaim.org:

    A good example of how to make the item with current focus stand out on the page
     
  • Bigger target sizes of buttons, links and other interactive elements – This is particularly important on mobile devices. Make the target easy to hit.
  • Transcripts and captions – This will help supplement multimedia to help those who are having trouble hearing (or just prefer reading over watching your video). Remember to ensure that the text of your transcript can be increased in size.

Want to Learn More?

Check out:

The Good Stuff

Don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom. With age also come maturity, wisdom and a wealth of experience (or in some cases, a higher level of grumpiness). As designers, we just need to keep in mind that age brings a slow change in our abilities and that the people we design for don’t necessarily identify with having a disability (they’re just “getting old”). Design to be inclusive, and everyone benefits—including me!

If only the same was true for my skiing ...

Ruth Ellison

Ruth Ellison

Ruth is a design researcher from Canberra, Australia. In the last 15 years, she has worked across a range of industries, from airlines, to banks and government, doing research and design. She loves doing design research as she's fascinated by what makes people tick and how they interact with technology. In her spare time, she makes science and geek themed jewellery under her Crankybot design label, using her lasercutter in her garage.

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