Designing User Interfaces for Older Adults: Myth Busters

October 7, 2013

By whatever definition of older we might use, the number of older people throughout the world is surging. The general characteristics of older adults—along with demographic and technological trends—merit particular consideration when designing the user interfaces that they will use. As a heterogeneous population with its own usability considerations, however, this group has not gotten much attention.

The “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 speak in terms of accessibility rather than usability. (For this discussion, let’s assume a very large overlap exists between the two terms.) And the W3C’s WAI-AGE project, which looked at the application of the WCAG to improve Web accessibility for older and disabled people, found that “existing standards … address the accessibility needs of older Web users,” implying that no further work was necessary. But have greatly improved user experiences for older Web site visitors resulted from the existence of WCAG 2.0 or any other set of usability or accessibility guidelines?

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Note—For examples of other guidelines, see Chisnell and Redish’s “AARP Audience-Centered Heuristics: Older Adults,”PDF Kurniawan and Zaphiris’s “Research-Derived Web Design Guidelines for Older People, and NIH’s “Making Your Website Senior Friendly.”

It could be, as argued by Richards in “Web Accessibility as a Side Effect,” that Web sites are more accessible in general, as a result of developments in “Web technology and associated shifts in the way Web pages are designed and coded.” But one doesn’t have to evaluate very many Web sites to realize that design that exhibits good general usability is more the exception than the rule. And, all other factors being equal—for example, computer expertise and education—older people suffer the effects of poor usability to a greater degree than younger people do.

Why don’t more organizations and companies that have Web sites make a greater effort to provide the best user experiences for an aging population?  After all, as David Weigelt, President of Immersion Active, states, “Adults age 50 plus make up the Web’s largest constituency and outspend younger consumers online 2:1 on a per capita basis.” Plus, including older adults in our design and testing cycles can improve the user experience for almost everyone else. (The same is true of including people with disabilities.)

Ten Myths About Not Needing to Make User Interfaces Friendly to Older Adults

I have spent the past couple of years educating Web site owners about why they should make their Web pages more usable by older people. Unfortunately, many businesses don’t see why they should pay special attention to this heterogeneous group of older adults. I’ve heard many different excuses regarding why they’re not focusing on this demographic, which I’ve grouped into the following set of ten myths. (While my focus has been on Web site usability, the points I’ll discuss apply to the usability of other user interfaces as well.)

Myth 1: Older people don’t use the Internet, Web, or mobile devices.

Reality: Data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project,PDF shown in Figure 1, demonstrates a clear and steep increase in the numbers and percentages of people online who are age 50 and older. For example, 53% of those age 65 and over and 77% of those age 50–64 were online as of April 2012. The same source shows similar increases in “device ownership” by older adults, measuring their adoption of cell phones, smartphones, notebook computers, tablets, and ereaders.

Figure 1—US adults online by age
US adults online by age

Myth 2: Our users, customers, or readers aren’t older adults.

Reality: Yes, they are. Especially once you define older as 45 plus. (This is true unless your audience is quite narrow—for example, as with Justin Bieber fans.) The 2010 US CensusPDF showed that 42 million people (13.7%) were 65 or older, and 122 million people (34.4%) were age 45–64. In other words, nearly 50% of the entire US population was age 45 or older in 2010.

Myth 3: General accessibility and usability guidelines are good enough.

I’ve heard Web site owners say: “The WCAG covered this.” “People 50 and older are just like everyone else.” “You’re not actually old until you’re 85 or so.”

Reality: The WCAG guidelines may not be sufficient to accommodate such conditions as the aging eye’s need for increased brightness and contrast.

As we age, it becomes much more likely that we will experience diminishment of one or more of our physical abilities: vision, hearing, or mobility. As reported by Lighthouse International, one out of every six Americans age 45 and over (17%, or 16.5 million people) reports vision impairment, even with corrective eyewear. Worldwide, 246 million people suffer from moderate to severe vision impairment. (This number excludes another 39 million who are actually blind.)

The major causes of vision impairment are cataracts, glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and diabetic retinopathy (DR). Although cataracts are commonly treated with surgery in the US, the other conditions are neither treatable nor reversible. According to Lighthouse research, the incidence of glaucoma, which is related to diabetes, is expected to increase by almost 50% by 2020.

Myth 4: We don’t get much business from the Web.

Reality: If your Web site is unusable, it certainly follows that you won’t get much business from it. And according to Jakob Nielsen, in his 2011 Alertbox, “How Long Do Users Stay on Web Pages? you don’t have much time in which to win people over. “Users often leave Web pages in 10–20 seconds… The average page visit lasts a little less than a minute.”

If you don’t have a reasonable Web presence, you’re failing to reach a lot of potential customers. Do you know how people find and choose providers in your domain? It is reasonable to assume that this differs across domains and demographics.

Myth 5: Except the oldest cohort, everybody is already Internet savvy.

Some Web site owners believe, “Moving forward, everyone will be a digital native, so we won’t need to bring them up to speed or cater to them.”

Reality: If nearly 60% of people 50 and over are already online, that means 40% aren’t. Squinting at the US census, this “40% not online” is close to 85 million people. Why would anyone want to ignore almost 85 million people?

Obstacles to the entire population being online include several deficiencies: a lack of money, not having high-speed Internet access, no training, and no ongoing support. Many people who are now in the workforce are not particularly computer literate—not having gained computer experience or competency either at school or in the workplace. Plus, there are the inevitable age-related changes that creep up on us and can make us seem less capable than we used to be.

Many of the computer user-interface design concerns that apply to an older population also apply to people with low vision, people with low literacy, and second-language learners. There are lots of individuals who will continue to need extra support. But who would argue that these populations should simply be left behind?

Myth 6: Making a Web site usable by older people may insult them and drive away our customers.

One Web site owner actually said, “We don’t want them to think that we think of them as old—even if we do.”

Reality: Making people feel incompetent, frustrated, or stupid will certainly drive them away. Enough said.

Myth 7: Making a Web site usable by older people will make it too simple for everyone else.

Sadly, some Web site owners have used the expression dumbed down here.

Reality: Imagine a world in which user interfaces received criticism for being “too simple”! Simplified does not equal boring. It’s not as though Web users in general have been requesting more complicated navigation schemes or harder-to-read pages. You don’t need to be patronizing. In fact, simple language is a general recommendation for Web sites, according to Ginny Redish and others.

Myth 8: Our designers know what they're doing.

Reality: In certain circles—for example, those populated by people over 50—it’s quite common to hear complaints about products being designed by the technological equivalent of young whippersnappers. Many older people feel that current designs were not meant for them. Designers often have their own ideas of good design and best practices and may be unaware of—or choose to cherry-pick from—established guidelines. In most cases, designers have not focused on the older population, have not conducted usability testing with older adults, and have not yet themselves experienced age-related changes. Although there are various efforts underway to foster age-sensitivity among designers, as at Middlesex University’s Design for All Research Group,PDF we have a long way to go.

And designers, alas, are not often at the top of the corporate food chain. They are more often subject to the whims of marketing, engineering, and accounting managers.

Myth 9: We don’t have the time, money, or expertise to set up and maintain a Web site that is tailored to the needs of older people.

Alas, we are probably all familiar with this one, aren’t we?

Reality: In support of the position that “You can’t afford not to support usability,” it would be great to be able to offer return on investment (ROI) figures from several sources. You know, where ROIs range from only 83%—down from 135%—to over 700%. Unfortunately, there are so many variables at play that these claims seem a bit risky.

Well, as everyone knows, making sure from the outset that a Web site is usable is much less costly that fiddling with it, trying to make it usable later on. Plus, the ongoing maintenance of a usable site would probably cost about the same, and it’s more likely to already be browser agnostic and mobile ready.

Unfortunately, it’s quite difficult to come up with actual case studies. There is, of course, the example of Legal & General—site visitors doubled, maintenance costs were 66% lower, and organic search traffic increased by 50%. But that was back in 2005, and the site was so unique in scope and focus that it’s a bit of a stretch to consider this case relevant for most projects. (Plus, the fact that this case study still gets cited as the sole best argument in favor of accessible design is not exactly encouraging.)

Myth 10: We don’t even know any older adults would who want to participate in our studies.

Reality: Shame on you! If it’s somehow the case that you and all of your associates are lacking in older family members and friends, there are lots of places where you can recruit participants. Besides professional marketing agencies that can do your recruiting, there are senior centers, libraries, retirement communities, volunteer clearinghouses, church communities, YMCAs, and other community options.

In our experience, older adults love being asked to participate in studies. As with most people, as long as you treat them respectfully, listen to them, and accommodate their needs, older adults are usually pleased to be part of something and to feel like their opinions matter.


Many regard the WCAG 2.0 and other guidelines as being extensive—or even exhaustive—so might expect them to provide all the answers about how to design age-friendly user interfaces. However, these guidelines may not go far enough in covering special groups such as older adults. And they are simply recommendations, which companies often ignore.

As research yields further insights into the needs of special populations such as older adults, perhaps we’ll be able to develop more inclusive guidelines. Eventually, we may find that, with the development of methods such as adaptive computing or new technologies that don’t even exist today, we might not need to pay such particular attention to the details of our user interface designs.

For now, we must contend with deep-seated resistance to our factoring older adult users into our designs. We need to counter myths—including those that I’ve presented in this article—with convincing arguments, strong persuasion, and the truth. We must educate members of the business, non-profit, and government sectors about the on-going need to design age-sensitive user interfaces—and the value that these organizations can derive from doing so. 

CEO and Principal Consultant at WiserUsability, Inc.

Cupertino, California, USA

Kate FinnKate Finn has worked on user interfaces and usability since 1983. Early in her career, she conducted research on natural language–understanding systems and automated speech recognition. She was at SRI International for six years, where she created prototypes of graphic user interfaces for sophisticated intelligence systems. When working on multimedia and collaborative workstations, she co-edited the book Video-Mediated Communication (1997). Subsequently, Kate became a usability consultant, working primarily on Web sites. In 2011, Kate and Jeff Johnson formed Wiser Usability to focus on age-friendly design. In 2017, they published their book Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population. Kate received her PhD in Computational Linguistics from Georgetown University. Recently, she obtained a Certificate in Gerontology to better understand the unique capabilities and needs of older users.  Read More

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