Search our Blog

Search our Blog

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Designing for Older Adults

Older adults who weren’t a part of the technological revolution in their youth may need design adaptations to encourage tech adoption.

More than 59 percent of older Americans use the internet, and 78 percent have a cellphone. Surveys show that they want to engage with technology and enjoy its benefits. But rarely are products designed with older adults in mind.

Tech adoption among older adults is concentrated in those with the most education and income. With 10,000 baby boomers entering the 65-and-up category every day, it’s an unparalleled marketing opportunity. However, developers need to keep in mind that 80 percent of those over 65 have chronic conditions, and age often affects vision, fine motor skills and cognition.

Health, Aging in Place Top Desires

Older Americans identify a pair of areas that they feel would be made better with technological innovation: health and aging in place.

On the health care front, there are already a bevy of products to assist seniors. Smart pillboxes alert the user when it’s time to take medications, and medical alert systems are standard in care facilities. Fall detection has taken a giant leap forward with Apple’s iWatch. Remote patient monitoring devices abound, and health tracking apps and devices have become routine.

It’s no secret that older adults prefer to stay in their homes as long as possible. Technology is increasingly able to help support that goal through personal response systems, smart doorbells and motion-sensor lights that provide added security. Keyless locks, smart thermostats and smart detection devices eliminate the need for constant monitoring of the home environment.

Web Accessibility Guidelines

However, all of these products are generally designed by younger generations, often for younger generations. When it comes to designing for older adults, the web is ahead of the game.

In June 2018, the latest Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) were officially recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to make web content more accessible, primarily for those with disabilities but including all users and devices, such as smartphones.

There are four essential principles in the latest guidelines:
  • Perceivable. Information and interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
  • Operable. User interface components and navigation must be operable.
  • Understandable. Information and the operation of the user interface must be understandable.
  • Robust. Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.
Professionals who work with older adults would do well to check if their own websites are easy for seniors to find and navigate.

Start at the Beginning

Thankfully, recent years have brought many best practices to the web. Developers are sharing what they’ve learned about designing for an older cohort with less exposure to tech overall and numerous physical limitations. While not everyone will grow hard of hearing or become crippled with arthritis, the trick is to create a design that meets the needs of as broad a group as possible. 

One designer writes that her first hurdle was to avoid assumptions. She detailed what she learned on UX Planet, a dot organization (.org) “resource for everything related to user experience.” 

She writes that designers need to realize seniors “may not understand things like scrolling or search functionality.” They may also fail to recognize common abbreviations and acronyms. Icons and symbols won’t be as clear, so always pair them with text on a plain background. A good practice is to involve older adults from the beginning to test design and function. Their feedback can be much more useful than what a designer thinks is optimal.

For instance,  a hamburger menu can be confusing. Say what? Wikipedia explains that a “hamburger menu” is the same as a “hamburger button, so named for its unintentional resemblance to a hamburger.” Its function is to toggle a menu or navigation bar collapsed behind the button with what appears on the screen. It’s better to use clear signposts to return along your route, and to include a prominent home button.

Fonts and Color

Many designers stress the need to use a sans serif typeface (one that lacks the tiny flourishes at the ends of letters such as L [serif] vs. L [sans serif]). This page is typed in Calibri, a sans serif typeface. Avoid using multiple fonts (style, size and weight of typeface).

As we age, our lenses may become hard and allow less light to enter the eye. Cataracts or macular degeneration may worsen vision. Blues become harder to distinguish and should be avoided for important elements. Color should not be used to convey a message. Check designs with online visual impairment simulators and convert designs to gray scale to check for legibility.

Designs can also offer personal adaptations. Many older adults like to be able to increase the font size. Some with certain visual impairments can benefit by changing a page from black letters on a white background to yellow letters on a blue background.


Simplification can be vital for many seniors. It’s easier to slowly make changes on a site to allow users to adapt, and to make the information on each page cover a defined set of information that doesn’t require scrolling. 

Older users can have a hard time seeing and touching the correct button when they’re small or placed close together. It can happen to anyone. (How many times have you accidentally hit the wrong button and deleted something?!). 

Computer “breadcrumbs” are useful. Just like Hansel and Gretel, electronic breadcrumbs can help us find our way home.

Adaptations for Dementia Help All

While designing a site for Dementia Diaries, a project detailed in this month’s Coffee Break section of Senior Spirit, designers aimed for the highest accessibility on a tight budget. Users and contributors would have every stage of dementia, which is more likely as people age. 

Web developer Rory Gilchrist built a site where people with dementia could record their own stories and read the stories of others. What he learned has implications that reach far beyond this population. 

Gilchrist found key lessons covering:
  • Content
  • Layout and navigation
  • Colors and contrasts
  • Text and fonts
  • Images
  • Multimedia use
Extensive points on each of these topics are available in an article in Smashing magazine, which is well worth reading in its entirety. 

As a final note, Gilchrist reminds developers not to shy from announcing that a website has made every attempt to be dementia (or senior) friendly. It can be a welcome relief to find a resource that is simple to navigate and easy to read!


Click below for the other articles in the June 2019 Senior Spirit


Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors

Print Friendly Version