Reaching Retirees: Web Design for Senior Users

Jun 24
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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 [1]. 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.

Established Guidelines

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 [2] .

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 [3] . 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.

Fig 1. Self-segmentation Illustration

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 [4]. 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.

Fig 2. Shallow Sitemap Illustration

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

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explicit in the display of navigation options.

Navigation menu

Fig 3. Explicit 2-level Navigation for Retirees

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 [5] , 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.

Improving Confidence

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 [6] . 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.


[1] United Nations (2007). World Population Ageing 2007. Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations. (Updated 21 August 2007).

[2] Nielsen, J. (2000). End of Web Design. Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox, 23 July 2000.

[3] Fidgeon, T. (2006). Usability for Older Web Users. WebCredible, February 2006.

[4] Nielsen

[5] Arch, Andrew (2008). Web Accessibility for Older Users: A Literature Review. WC3.

[6] Fidgeon

[7] Usability and Older Adults. User Experience Magazine. Volume 8, Issue 1, 2009.

Posted by: David Richard
No Comment
  1. Penina

    Apr 4, 2010 - 12:30 PM

    This is a good beginning to a long discussion. Retirees and older users are not only an untapped market, they are also an untapped knowledge source. Improving their online experience has the potential to greatly improve the quality of information available on the web, enriching everyone.

    1. drichard

      Apr 4, 2010 - 01:49 PM

      We couldn’t agree more. We obviously tap into some of this knowledge as we conduct user research but would love to figure out a way to drill even deeper. As the older population continues adopting technology, perhaps someone will create a knowledge base that compiles some of that wisdom.

  1. Penina

    Apr 4, 2010 - 02:47 PM

    Some of the DIY and hobby forums (I design for some) attract retired contractors and mechanics, who have created a massive resource simply by answering member questions, and even arguing amongst themselves about best practices. I’m hesitant to call for the creation of a knowledge base that is exclusively from/for this group, as we tend to isolate – and then ignore – them.

    I do think it’s interesting that so far, the forum structure seems to attract more of this kind of participation than other kinds of social media. I’m not sure if that’s an accurate assessment, though.

  1. Rich

    May 5, 2010 - 03:49 PM

    As an early web designer I’m getting on in age and have seen the shift from dewy decimal type systems to modern web findability. One of the core precepts of user centered design is to understand your users experience/knowledge – our understanding of something new is based on what we already know. In the case of baby-boomers I think we have to look at older organizational structures they are familiar with and root our mental models around those. It’s a good place to start anyway – prototyping and testing shouldn’t be ignored either. Good discussion thanks.

    1. calfredson

      Jun 6, 2010 - 08:51 AM

      That is a great point; a lot of focus is placed on seniors’ online information-finding habits, whereas not as much attention is paid to how existing organization structures can be used to improve web usage. Even when taking design and labeling metaphors into account, more can be done to meet the needs of baby-boomers and seniors.

  1. dani

    Jul 7, 2010 - 09:58 AM

    Most of Web accessibility recommendations by W3C will be useful for senior users also, not only for people with disabilities.

    There is a broken link on the reference site.

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