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  • Writer's pictureLindsay Chelf

How to design for an aging population

While younger age groups tend to be more familiar with technology and the internet than their older counterparts, the digital gap between generations has been narrowing drastically over the past decade. However, despite the increase of older Americans who use the internet, most websites, apps and digital devices are not designed to accommodate their wants and needs. More than a third of the U.S. population is at least 50 years old, and as that number grows, so will the percentage of users who may experience age-related changes to vision, motor control, hearing and cognition.

When surveyed on their digital experiences, older Americans indicated the following were the biggest hurdles they encountered on websites and mobile sites:

  • Hard-to-read text (e.g., too small, not enough contrast, etc.)

  • Lack of clarity (e.g., mysterious icons that don’t clearly represent what they’re supposed to symbolize, updates that drastically change layouts, etc.)

  • Lack of usability (e.g., clickable targets are too small, navigation is confusing, etc.)

  • Difficult controls (e.g., click-and-drag elements, double-tapping, pinch-and-spread gestures, pull-right menus, etc.)

If you have read any of our previous blogs on digital accessibility, you may recognize those issues as ones that individuals with disabilities also encounter. Think of the curb-cut effect: originally designed for those in wheelchairs, curb ramps have also proven useful to people pushing strollers, riding bicycles, rolling luggage and much more. What this means in terms of design is that when you design for those with accessibility needs, everyone benefits. This same lesson applies to design for older adults.

So, aside from following general accessibility and universal design standards, what else can be done to accommodate the particular needs of this demographic?

  • Where design best practices recommend a specific size or spacing for buttons or text, consider that the absolute minimum size or distance at which you should be creating those elements. For example, clickable/tappable icons and buttons should be at least 44 pixels apart to avoid accidental interactions.

  • Invite older members of your team to be involved in the design process of your website or other digital material. Most designers tend to be younger and aren’t aware of the usability issues that may arise for older users.

  • Avoid the use of confusing, abstract or complex visuals, especially if they are supposed to help users navigate the interface. The same goes for text, which should be accurate and straightforward.

  • Keep gestures easy to perform. For mobile sites, stick with natural hand motions to navigate, such as tapping and swiping horizontally, vertically and diagonally; on computers, this translates to simple clicking and basic mouse movements. Avoid gestures that require two hands or fingers or extremely precise movements, such as pinch-and-spread gestures or pull-right menus.

  • Avoid time limitations for performing necessary tasks, allowing users to work at their own pace.

  • Provide clear tutorials, instructions or contextual tips the first time a feature is accessed, as well as at any time the user requests during their interaction with your site. Younger users don’t mind exploring a website to figure it out, but older users tend to feel more comfortable knowing exactly what their taps and clicks are doing.

No matter their age, your users are going to enjoy attractive and efficient design. And remember, there’s no need to sacrifice aesthetics for functionality! When you follow accessibility guidelines and universal design standards, your final product will not only look nice, it’ll be nice to use as well.

Not sure where to get started with creating accessible design? AOE is here to help, so reach out today!



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