Making public sector websites age-friendly

Paul Crichton, Author of Digital Accessibility and Inclusion

Written by Paul Crichton, Head of Accessibility and Digital Inclusion at Test Partners

Government and supporting agencies do a tremendous job regarding digital accessibility and making sure that their online services are accessible to people with disabilities. However, older adults have their own digital accessibility needs and these are not all covered by current accessibility guidelines.

Almost a third of the UK population is over 50 years of age, and the numbers are only increasing as we all live for longer. Older adults are online – almost four out of every five people between 65 and 74 have used the internet recently, according to this ONS survey.

Surveys by organisations such as Nominet have found that only 46% of people in their fifties are classed as ‘digitally savvy’, and this drops to just 23% for the baby boomer generation (i.e. those born between 1946 to 1964). Research has also shown that giving up and leaving a website is almost twice as high for older adults compared to those under 30 years of age.

How do we explain why older adults find it harder to complete tasks than younger generations?

Much of this is because older adults are not digital natives who have grown up with this technology. But this does not explain away all the problems that older people encounter on the web.

As we get older, the way we work with technology alters because of changes in ourselves. As with digital accessibility guidelines, there are four main categories where this is evident: vision, cognitive, fine motor control and hearing. These are the areas where we need to make accommodations for older users to make our digital products, ‘age-friendly’.

Vision

Our eyes are thought to be at their best around the age of 30. As we get older, our acuity diminishes, making it harder to read fine details and print. Physical changes to the eye mean we start to develop presbyopia – age-related farsightedness – and by retirement age, almost everyone needs glasses. In addition, peripheral vision narrows, and our sensitivity to contrast diminishes.

Some of the things we need to consider are using large, plain fonts on plain backgrounds. Text should be written in normal sentence case. Text should have plenty of spacing and should be easy to scan.

Cognitive

As we get older, we become more conservative and risk-averse on websites—one study showed that 45% of older people interviewed were reluctant to try new things or explore a website. Interactions tend to be slow and methodical. Compared to younger users, older adults tend to find it harder to learn and to complete tasks, they use different search strategies, and can be more easily distracted.

When considering cognitive issues, things to consider are not straining short-term memory. Use a writing style that is brief, language that is active and not passive, and is clear. Provide examples of the data required in forms. Don’t use icons without text labels, especially for key functionality like the hamburger icon, often used for navigation in mobile design. 

Fine motor control

Fine motor control naturally diminishes with age from around 50, even in adults without conditions such as arthritis. This can combine with reduced hand-eye coordination, which has an impact on our ability to click small buttons, icons and links.

Make sure that links are not too close together, especially when viewed on mobile devices. Clicking links accidentally is very annoying for older users. Make sure controls have large clickable areas. Avoid actions like hovering or dragging that require plenty of accuracy to work.

Hearing

When it comes to hearing, Action on Hearing Loss (formally the RNID) says that hearing loss begins to increase sharply at around the age of 50, and that 55% of people over 60 are deaf or hard of hearing.

For video content, make sure that they have accurate closed captions. If it is not possible to provide them, then provide a transcript.

It goes without saying that older adults are not universally affected by any of these considerations. There are plenty of people in this age group who do not exhibit any of these issues. We all know an older adult or have a relative who uses Facebook, does their banking and pays their Vehicle Tax online. But by making your website age-friendly, you’ll be giving many of your older users a better experience, and a better chance of completing the tasks that they set out to do.


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2 responses to “Making public sector websites age-friendly”

  1. Robert Harvey says:

    All of these points are relevant to making any website accessible to all and not just to older people. For me the issue with this website that it is an example of the first issue listed. I will suggest that the font used is a bad choice for the following reasons:

    1. It is too small – my estimate is that it is equivalent to a 10 point font set at around 13 point spacing. The extra white space between lines gives an elegant look to the page but it aggravates the next issue that I have with it.

    2. The typeface is too light – meaning that the width of the strokes (the lines) of the letters is very fine. This contributes to feeling of lightness about the page but, together with the extra line spacing, contributes to glare that makes the page more difficult to read.

    3. The typeface has an x-height that is around 50% of the cap-height. The ascenders rise significantly above the cap-height (ascenders usually do this but in this face the added height is extreme), while the descenders (the loops letters) are very tight to the body of the letter. Again this contributes to the feeling of elegance but compressing the main features of each letter into a very small space has a negative impact on the legibility of the text.

    This baby boomer, remember we are the generation who laid the groundworks the web is built on, agrees with Paul’s comments. In the 1960s Marshall McLuhan said ‘medium is the message’ a comment that I believe is relevant to this discussion. Here ‘the medium’ is the web page. Get the design of the medium wrong and you send the ‘message’ that the content is not intended for the user. I recommend going for accessible design everytime. It may not always be the most elegant but it does help to avoid the accidental exclusion of significant user groups.

  2. […] Making public sector websites age-friendly – a useful reminder about accessibility on Digital Leaders. […]

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