In many wealthy countries, people aged over 65 are the fastest growing demographic. As a global society we are living longer and remaining active later in life. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Institute, in 2019 73% of people over the age of 65 were connected to the internet. The US Census Bureau reports that people over the age of 65 have the highest household wealth of any age group.
Digital products often fail this growing and wealthy demographic. As Don Norman observed, bad design abounds, in both physical and digital products. Current interaction designs often feature illegible text, tiny targets, startling sounds, and other features that make the online world unfriendly to older users.
Our recent research explores how seniors use technology and offers recommendations on how digital products can be improved to meet their needs.
We have conducted three rounds of user research, with a total of 123 participants aged 65 and older. Our studies were conducted in the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, and Japan over a period spanning almost 2 decades. (See summary of findings from the early user research with seniors.)
- 2001: Usability testing of 17 websites with 44 seniors
- 2013: Usability testing of 29 websites with 31 seniors
- Usability testing of 12 websites and 6 apps with 18 seniors
- Focus groups to learn about seniors’ attitudes towards technology, with a total of 20 participants
- Contextual inquiry study where we observed 10 seniors interacting with websites, mobile apps, and tablet apps during a technology help session at a senior center
Our qualitative research sessions used sites and apps from a variety of genres, including:
- Ecommerce (Amazon, Target, Whole Foods, Home Depot, Instacart, Maytag)
- Health (WebMD, Mayo Clinic, Center for Disease Control, rxlist.com)
- Banking (Chase, Charles Schwab)
- Government (National Institute of Health, Medicare.gov, Government of Canada)
- Tourism and travel (National Parks Service, Airbnb, United Airlines)
- Media and entertainment (Spotify, Apple Podcasts)
- News (NPR, Washington Post, Globe and Mail, Canadian Broadcasting Company)
- Social media (Facebook, Twitter)
Defining “Senior Citizen”
We use a simple definition: seniors are users aged 65 years or older. We had no upper end, though the oldest participant in our research was 89 years old.
Of course, this age range is a simplification. It’s not as if people change all their behaviors on their 65th birthday. The human-aging process starts when you turn 20; people in their 40s already have sufficiently reduced eyesight to require somewhat larger font sizes than eagle-eyed designers in their 20s.
Our testing with middle-aged users has shown that between the ages of 25 and 60 people's ability to use websites declines by 0.8% per year.
On one hand side, we need to consider the impacts of human aging on usability long before age 65. However, on the other hand, in some contexts, 65 is too young to be considered a senior citizen. As we live longer, people in many countries retire later in life. In our most recent round of research, we mainly recruited study participants who were at least 70 years old.
Changes Over Time
Since we first conducted usability studies with seniors 18 years ago, both the digital landscape and the characteristics of older adults have changed. (While common prejudice might suggest that seniors are slow to change, there have also been substantial changes in the findings since our follow-up user research with seniors in 2013.) Seniors are growing skilled at using the internet and apps. Their expectations for digital products are evolving and the devices that they use to access the internet have changed.
A Changing Group of Seniors
The Baby Boomer generation is now reaching retirement age. This generation, born between 1946 and 1964, is far more likely than past generations of seniors to have had more substantial experience with information technology. In years past, very few of the seniors we recruited for our studies had used computers during their working careers. In our most recent study many seniors had used computers and the internet at work for years before retiring. Although technical proficiency among all users is fairly limited, digital literacy among seniors is rising. Because of this higher level of digital literacy, today’s seniors exhibit very different patterns of behavior than cohorts we studied in our past research.
When we conducted research with senior citizens in 2001, we observed that many participants were apprehensive and hesitant in their behavior online. Today’s seniors are more confident and more likely to adapt their actions online to avoid common annoyances such as irritating advertisements, time-wasting apps, and services that collect too much personal data. Some of the behavioral changes that reflect seniors’ increasing digital literacy include:
- Installing ad blockers on their computers to avoid “pop-up ads” and “especially the ads that play sound music”
- Modifying search behavior to skip sponsored results and advertisements
One senior noted that “I’ve learned to bypass those but it took a while.”
- Uninstalling time-consuming apps
One 85-year-old study participant said that she uninstalled most of the games from her phone because “that stuff would waste my time… You can waste a lot of time that way.”
- Deleting accounts with services that collected too much personal data
New Technology Changes Seniors’ Lives Online
In our first and second rounds of research, we conducted sessions using only desktop websites. In our most recent research, we gave participants tasks to complete on desktop, tablets, and mobile phones, using both the web and device-specific apps. Social media is an increasingly important piece of our lives online, so we also studied how seniors use different social-media outlets.
Here are some of the reasons the participants in our research use computer technology:
Why Seniors Use the Internet
Seniors in our studies used the internet to pursue their interests, follow current events, manage money, shop, research topics, and stay in touch with friends and family. Many commented positively on how the internet had helped them live better lives. One 87-year-old study participant said “going online has made me feel so much more independent.”
- “I use the internet to follow local and national news.”
- “I look up podcasts on things that I’m interested in, like travel or volunteering or film festivals.”
- “I pay all of my bills online. Everything is in one place.”
- “I order groceries online sometimes. I usually go and pick them up from the store but I’m thinking about having them delivered.”
- “I like that on the web you can be solitary and still feel a kinship to people. You can be a solitary socialite.”
Why Seniors Use Smartphones
Smartphone adoption is rapidly rising among older adults. From 2011 to 2016, smartphone ownership among people over 65 quadrupled. Seniors in our study used their phones to keep track of events, research information, enjoy hobbies, and to stay connected with loved ones.
- “My phone is partially a calendar and day planner to me. I keep track of a lot of events on here.”
- “I have a gardening app on my phone. I can take a picture of a plant in my garden and the app will identify what it is.”
- “I like to find new restaurants to try.”
- “I planned an entire vacation to Italy on my phone!”
- “I use Google Maps to get directions if I’m going somewhere new.”
How Seniors Use Social Media
Seniors primarily use social media to stay in touch with friends and family. Most of the seniors we observed preferred to browse through their social media accounts and only rarely shared content. Interesting, visually pleasing, and highly accessible content was most likely to be shared online by this age group.
- “My family lives all over the country but they’re all on Facebook. I use it to keep in touch.”
- “I use it [my phone] to check in with my kids. They’re on Instagram so I am too.”
- “Sometimes I post pictures of places I visit to Instagram.”
- “News stories usually pop up for me on Facebook. I use it to follow different news sources.”
Usability Challenges for Seniors
Time takes its toll as we get older. Hearing, vision, and manual dexterity decline as we age. Many digital products fail to take these changing needs into account: interfaces feature small text, poor color contrast, and tiny targets. Inaccessible design choices irritate users of all ages — we recently observed that small type caused problems and drew complaints even among teenage users. The design choices that irritate younger users create substantial barriers to access for older ones.
Small Font Sizes and Small Targets
Sites and apps designed by and for young people are often inaccessible for older users. As one study participant observed, “the internet is unfriendly to people with bad eyesight.” Readability has remained an issue for seniors throughout all our studies over the years. Websites and apps with tiny type are common. Interactive elements such as buttons, dropdowns, and links are often displayed at a small size that is difficult for older users to click on or tap. Although seniors found applications on mobile to be convenient, readability challenges on these devices were significant. Interface text on mobile apps was often too small and lightly colored for seniors to read comfortably.
Inflexible and Unforgiving Interfaces
Interfaces in websites and apps are often inflexible and unforgiving of errors. Many sites and apps accepted user inputs in only one form and seniors were frustrated by this narrow range of interaction. As one senior operated a finicky date and time selector on her iPad she said “This is so frustrating! Why won’t they [the app designers] just let me type the time or say it?”
Older users make more mistakes than younger users do. Study participants often commented on errors, saying “I fat-fingered that one” or “if only I could spell.” (It’s a classic finding in usability research that users blame themselves, but it’s more appropriate for us to assign the blame to bad design that’s insufficiently accommodating of the way real humans behave.) In our studies we often saw seniors thwarted due to simple query typos and punished for entering hyphens or parentheses in telephone or credit-card numbers.
Further, seniors often had problems reading error messages, either because the wording was obscure or imprecise, or the message’s placement on the screen was easily overlooked among a profusion of other design elements. When seniors encounter error handling, simplicity is even more important than usual. Focus on the error, explain it clearly, and make it as easy as possible to fix.
Exclusion from Online Content
Seniors often correctly felt that websites and apps were not designed with consideration for their needs and interests. One senior said that he felt “left out” of the online world because it was created “with someone very different than me in mind.” Another senior observed:
“You look at things that are on the internet and it’s skewed towards not my demographic. The younger people, this is their medium. People my age did not grow up with it. People my age are not in charge of it. Online, there’s a quest to be cool and old people are not necessarily cool.”
Our recent research shows that digital products still discriminate against seniors. Content written for and by older people is difficult to find — when this content is available, it often treats seniors as a niche interest group rather than a diverse and growing demographic. By embracing both accessible design and an inclusive content strategy, online businesses can vastly expand the amount of business that they generate from this population.
Full Research Report
The full usability report with 87 design guidelines for targeting seniors (users ages 65+) is available for download.