Research shows that there is a vast difference between the way that older and younger people interact with new technology, and particularly the Internet. By using ergonomic principles to understand these differences, the internet as well as technologies and equipment like ATMs and cell phones are becoming more user friendly for seniors.
According to recent census polls, the fastest growing population is those over 65. While 10 years ago fewer than 25% of older adults had even been exposed to computers, a growing percentage of those over 60 now have computers in their home. Ergonomics is important when designing for this population as it has been shown for the past 20 years, that the normal effects of aging include a decline in computer-related sensing, cognitive and responding abilities. These declines in the ability to sense, process information and respond
can negatively affect older users’ ability to perform computer and specifically internet related tasks.
Research is inconsistent in some of these areas, but has been able to make clear recommendations in others.
One known consideration for designing for a senior population is sight. Is the text in a legible font and size? Many experts recommend using only sans serif fonts (Arial, Helvetica, Verdana), and black type on a white background. Sans serif fonts have letters that are of uniform stroke and width and are without flourishes or embellishment. Training on how to adjust the font size on one’s monitor is also needed.
It is also known that in many elderly people, the ability to make quick, precise movements is decreased. This means that websites which have ‘click’ options placed very close together on the screen may increase the likelihood of error for elderly users.
More complex aspects of cognitive functions are not so easily explained. For instance, older users tend to take longer to locate information through an internet search engine. Some theorize that this has to do with a decreased short-term memory, while others feel it is because seniors tend to have a more meticulous searching methods. One study found that an increased number of navigation options on a page would result in greater performance loss in elderly users.
What most web designers don’t know is that this type of research is going on and its results are available to them. With ISO and other standards and guidelines bodies taking a serious look at accessibility and usability for all populations, I expect we will see more attention being paid to the unique capabilities and limitations of the elderly population.