An Aging Population
The ongoing world wide demographic shift has rendered the largest population of people over the age of 65 in human history. It is projected that by the year 2020, about 20% (or one in 5) Americans will be over the age of 60 . Interestingly enough, the ever-increasing number of elderly Americans grows as steadily as our reliance on the internet. As such, accessibility and usability affordances must be improved to accommodate the growing audience of senior and retired users whose needs require special consideration.
Due to this fact, Design For Use has been increasingly involved in improving websites and applications that see a high traffic of elderly users, specifically state retirement and insurance sites. Our design solutions and recommendations greatly improve seniors’ such as retirees’ confidence with online interfaces.
The WC3 developed provisions in 1999 to guide the improvement of online accessibility for people with disabilities. While many of these guidelines cater specifically to persons with hearing and vision impairments, the more generalized guidelines improve accessibility for all internet users.
Consequently, with the world’s aging population, steps have been taken to design guidelines for elderly users of the internet as a separate group from people with vision, hearing, or motor disabilities. Specifically, websites that appeal largely to senior citizens, such government, retirement, banking and healthcare websites, have begun to reconsider the needs of their audience in web design and redesign.
Primarily, companies catering to older users improve the usability of their sites by providing larger text options to help users with impaired vision, increasing button size to account for dexterity problems, improving contrast sensitivity between background and text colors, and providing an uncluttered lay out to improve clarity  .
Although these practices are aimed at seniors, they improve the usability for all users, and can be achieved at little financial cost and time. In addition to the online physical constraints of seniors and retirees, a more pressing matter is exploring the mental models of seniors to improve their interaction and success rate with websites.
Better Understanding Senior User Behavior
In addition to the functional limitations that hinder many elderly internet users, including vision, hearing, motor, and cognition problems, there are more specific behavioral models that also prevent seniors from successfully achieving their online goals.
The Need for Self-Identification
Significantly, seniors and retirees rarely self-identify themselves as needing extra accommodation online and will not commonly seek out accessibility options to improve their online experience  . For example, some retired users are not aware of the ability to change a wesbsite’s text size, so when affordances are created for older users, the format of the website needs to drive attention to special options for seniors. Encouraging self-identification improves the ability of senior-users to take advantage of accessibility affordances and allows website designers and usability professionals to create a more customizable experience for seniors and retirees.
Design For Use employed the self-segmentation tactic on the homepage of a recent state retirement website. By requiring users to identify themselves as either an employee or retiree immediately, the user is then directed to a section of the site that caters directly to their needs. In this case, self-identification is necessary to continue navigating the website, enabling users to view pages specifically designed for their usability and information seeking needs. Prior to the Design For Use redesign, the state retirement website offered self-segmentation at a deeper point in the website, which did little to meet the unique needs of the retired members.
Lack of Conceptual Models
Additionally, when compared to younger users, seniors and retirees have a lower success rate of completing online tasks, while spending more time attempting these tasks . The increased fail rate and time spent online can be contributed to seniors’ lack of conceptual models about the internet, specifically if a website requires continued click-thrus to navigate a deep page structure. The more a senior user is required to click-thru, the more challenging it is to remember where they are and how to get back to their starting point. Younger users have a greater experience navigating large websites, and as a result, they have more sophisticated mental models of online paths and wayfinding. One way to improve the mental models of retired users is to provide a more shallow and broad website that doesn’t require excessive click-thrus and enables easy backtracking or resetting to home.
While working with the same state retirement client, Design For Use created a shallow page structure for retired users, ensuring easy navigability. Many of the navigation options are accessible from the main retiree page, making it faster for retirees to find information without drilling further into the site. By showcasing pertinent information in the navigation menu, retirees are more aware of where their information needs might be met next. While a similar page structure was used for the employee section of the website, the retiree area was more
explicit in the display of navigation options.
The Danger of PDFs
Another road block in reaching retirees is that many retirement and healthcare sites rely on PDF files as a replacement for html pages. Oftentimes plan summaries, coverage lists and brochures are presented as a PDF document rather than an html page, which is problematic because senior users are less likely to download files than younger users. Therefore, retirees choose not to access the information within the PDF; prompting a call to the help center, or failure to take action for that task.
Additionally, the PDF information structure doesn’t lend itself to serachability within a website, making it nearly impossible to find information contained in a PDF by using the search box. Retirees rely on the search option more so than younger users for navigation  , making it less likely that they will find the information they need if it is contained in a PDF rather than an html page. From an accessibility stand point, screen readers have a harder time decoding PDFs, which is problematic for senior users with vision impairments who rely on screen reading capability. Therefore, Design For Use recommends that any information represented in a PDF be transferred to an html page for easier use and findability by retirees.
Perhaps because of the increased time spent on task and lower success rate, seniors and retirees also have lower confidence in their online ability than younger users  . Additionally, seniors are more likely to blame themselves for online problems, rather than attribute errors to poor website design or technical malfunction. While there is no way to bridge the experience gap between older users who have narrow internet experience with younger users whose entire workday is often spent in front of a computer, it is possible to improve confidence for senior users by employing simple design strategies.
 United Nations (2007). World Population Ageing 2007. Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations. (Updated 21 August 2007).
 Nielsen, J. (2000). End of Web Design. Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox, 23 July 2000.
 Fidgeon, T. (2006). Usability for Older Web Users. WebCredible, February 2006.
 Arch, Andrew (2008). Web Accessibility for Older Users: A Literature Review. WC3.
 Usability and Older Adults. User Experience Magazine. Volume 8, Issue 1, 2009.