At the CSUN 2011 conference I gave a presentation called “Improving Web Accessibility for the Elderly”. The presentation considered how many people over the age of 60 use the web, how much they use it and why they use it. It outlined some common issues older web users encounter and the general lack of awareness by them about how they can control the presentation of web content.
My CSUN 2011 presentation reported on the results of research into the use of the web by older sections of the population that I am currently doing with Peter Hindmash and Russ Weakley. Two articles containing some findings from this research are also available on the DingoAccess blog:
Mature Age ICT Users Survey 2 (Results of physical/real world surveys)
Following the PowerPoint slides (via Slideshare), there are extensive speaker’s notes which provide a pretty good transcript of what I said for each slide. These notes contain links to several online resources that were referred to in the presentation.
Thank you for coming
This talk is in three sections:
- In the first, I will be looking at how many people over the age of 60 are going online and what they are doing.
- In the second, I plan to outline some of the issues we have identified that serve as impediments or barriers to greater use of the web by older users
- Finally, I want to suggest some possible solutions and hopefully leave enough time for us to discuss them at the end.
At the outset, I would like apologise if some of you find the title of my talk, “Improving Web Accessibility for the Elderly” a little offensive.
It can be difficult trying to find the correct words to use when considering this subject:
Older or elderly, mature or senior, all mean much the same, but not to everyone.
I caught a bit of flak recently for referring to people over 60 as elderly. But as someone who is chronologically enhanced, if you like, I fall into the age category that I am considering, and …
I am not particularly worried by the terms older or elderly, but most certainly it is not my intention to cause anyone any concern.
I am primarily concerned with early “older baby boomers”, that is people who are now mainly in their sixties, and those from what is sometimes described as the “silent generation”: Although I am not too sure why the word “silent” is used for a generation that struggled through the great depression and World War 2 and gave us the quiet retiring Elvis Presley not to mention Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg as well as great leaders like Martin Luther King.
This talk is basically about the whys and hows of Internet use by people over 60, but not him of course, because as we all know Elvis is pumping gas and living in a caravan park somewhere way out west where the web does not reach.
During this presentation I will be drawing on some research I am doing with a couple of friends, Peter Hindmarsh and Russ Weakley, into the use of the Internet by this section of the community.
76% of the adult online world is under the age of 55.
If we exclude people under the age of 18, the “PEW Internet and Lifestyle Generation 2010” study found that 13% of the internet users in the US were older boomers (that is between the ages 56 and 64) and a further 8% were over the age of 65.
These numbers are lower than the percentage of the total adult population represented by people of these ages.
However, the proportion of people within this age group who are going online is increasing all the time.
In the US, the “PEW” surveys have shown a significant increase in the percentage of people over 65 who use the internet, rising from 15% in 2000 to 38% nine years later.
In Australia, similar growths in web usage by older sections of the population have been reported. The Australian Bureau of Statistics survey of 2006-07 found 28% of 65-74 year olds were web users, up from 20% in 2004-05.
But in spite of this increasing rate of use, the majority of people who are baby boomers or older are not online.
In developed countries like Australia and the US, government and business is increasingly looking to the Internet for service delivery.
Undoubtedly the internet and web offers some clear benefits in terms of cost and improved efficiency. However as more and more essential services go online, there is a real danger that a significant number of older people may be unable or unwilling to access them.
For me, one of the greatest concerns is the risk that older people may become increasingly alienated from the process of government.
Over the last few months, Peter, Russ and I have been looking at the use of the internet and mobile phones by people over the age of 60.
This research has three main components:
- An online survey to gain an overview of the technologies used; what they are used for; and the common problems older web users might encounter.
- A real-world survey with participants using the same questions as those in the online survey. In the physical world we were able to eye-ball the participants and so confirm they were of the right age and weren’t just playing around. One of the aims of the real-world survey was to help validate the results of the online survey.
- And finally, we did qualitative interviews with the real-world survey participants during which we discussed some of the difficulties they might experience when using the web.
In both the online and physical-world surveys, email was identified as the most common use of the Internet, but in this talk I will be mainly focusing on how they use the web.
But, first a quick comment on the recruitment of participants.
The online survey was promoted through twitter, blog posts and via seniors and pensioners associations in Australia. All of the participants were self-selected and a little over half live in Australia. Of those participants who indicated their age, 70% were between the ages of 60 and 70.
The physical-world survey participants came from two sources:
- The community, made up of neighbours, acquaintances and people randomly approached the University of Sydney during the summer program of courses, which are popular with older sections of the community. When the community participants were approached they were asked if they were over the age of 60 and use the internet. People who replied they did not use the internet were not surveyed.
- And second, residents of three small retirement villages run by the Uniting Church in Sydney. All the retirement village residents live independently. During recruitment, these participants were asked if they use the internet and/or a mobile phone. However, for the purpose of this talk I am only using the responses of internet users. The retirement village participants were generally older than those recruited in the community.
Overall, 48% of the physical-world participants are aged between 60 and 70, and 35% are over 80. The oldest physical-world participant was 93 and she uses the web everyday and is one of the more capable users of the technology we interviewed.
When we look at how often the survey participants use the web:
- 87% of the online respondents indicated they use the web every day.
- Whereas, the figure was 68% for all the physical-world participants, (as a point of interest, if we look at just the retirement village participants the figure is considerably lower at 33%)
In spite of the differences between the two groups in age profile and how often they used the web, generally speaking what the online and physical world participants did on the web was fairly similar
In both the online and physical world surveys, the participants were given a number of common reasons for using the web and asked to indicate how often each reason applied to them using a scale of three responses: ‘Often’, ‘Sometimes’, and ‘Never’.
This table contains the results for some of the questions as well as the percentage of participants in each category who said they did an activity either ‘Often’ or ‘Sometimes’.
Finding health related information was the most popular activity, with 84% of online participants and 71% of those from the physical world doing it at least sometimes. And, as can be seen from these figures, internet banking and booking tickets were also pretty popular activities.
Overall these results appear to be slightly higher than those obtained in PEW surveys of 2009 and 2010, although the difference is not very great. What is perhaps more interesting, is that the PEW results for each activity amongst the other age categories were also pretty similar, with one big exception, the use of social networking sites.
So it seems to us that in general, people over the age of 60 who use the web, do so for much the same reasons as their younger counterparts.
Today, it sometimes seems that everyone must be linkedin, tweeting or putting something on their facebook wall for an ever expanding list of “friends”. The PEW Generation 2010 Report identified ‘Using Social Media’ as the most popular online activity for the Gen Ys, that is people between the ages of 18 and 33, this group are also sometimes referred to as the ‘Millennials‘.
However, a passing comment in the report about the increase in the number of people over the age of 74 who are using social networks, was really hyped up by the media, bloggers and marketers.
The Management blog, for example, trumpeted “Older Web Users Flock to Social Media” citing a report in the New York Times.
This article boldly declares “adults 74 years and older have quadrupled their social media presence“.
Statistics are a funny thing. What this article doesn’t tell you is that this quadrupling is in fact a move from just 4% to 16% of web users over the age of 74, and that the percentage of people in this age group going online had actually fallen slightly over the same period.
When you read the PEW Generation 2010 Report itself, you find they take a much more sober approach: Quote, “Younger internet users remain the most active participants in the Web’s social services” End quote, and then a little later, “83% of Millennials use social network sites, significantly more than older generations, especially those over 55: While half of Younger Boomers use social network sites, only 16% of adults 74 and older have done so.” End quote
And, this is 16% of those who are online!
Here are a couple of alternative titles for this article:
“Older Web Users Meander Towards Social Media”. Not quite as sexy. Or, “84% of Older Web Users Avoid Social Media”. Definitely not much hype there, and terrible for marketing the importance of social media.
Not surprisingly, there was a difference in use of social media by the participants in our online and physical-world surveys: 35% of all online participants indicated they use social media sites every day, compared with just 13% of the physical-world participants.
In both groups, about a third of participants reported using Facebook at least sometime; mainly it appears to keep in touch with their family. But when we look at the use of some of the other social networking tools, there are noticeable differences.
- 63% of online participants reported using flickr compared with just 6% of the physical world participants
- And, with Twitter it was 28% for the online participants and none of those from the physical world.
The differences in these results may be explained by the simple fact that the online participants were “online”.
During the last couple of years, the US and Australian governments, along with many others, have organised studies, camps and taskforces to explore ways of using the new social networking and interactive web technologies. The aims are often noble and lofty:
- To increase openness by making government information more widely available
- And to encourage more active collaboration from people wishing to contribute to public life.
However given our results relating to the use of social media by older sections of the population, as well as those obtained by other researchers, I think great care will need to be taken when moving in this direction, or governments will risk alienating a sizable proportion of the people they are trying to engage.
It might be reasonable to assume “baby boomers” should have little difficulty adopting new technologies.
After all, the formative years for the “older boomers” were marked by an explosion in personal freedom, social experimentation, better education and greater wealth. At the same time there was growing concern for the welfare of others and greater engagement in socio-political processes. Bob Dylan told us “The times they are changing” and Martin Luther King spoke of a better future in “I have a Dream“.
However, when it comes to using computers and the web, the ability of “early boomers” is highly varied…
Although virtually none used computers during their formative years, some as a result of either interest or their work environment became active participants in the personal computing revolution. For many of these computer literate “older boomers” the move to the interactive, interconnected media of the 21st century has not been particularly difficult.
But those “older boomers” with limited exposure to computers can face significant problems when suddenly confronted with the need to “go online” in order to access goods and services that used to be readily available in the physical-world.
As we get older, our capacity to bind information together in memory during encoding and then retrieve those associations at a later time can be impaired.
As a result, the “older boomers” with little or no past knowledge of computers to build on are more likely to find learning how to use these new media more difficult than their computer and web literate counterparts.
Age itself, of course, is not a disability although it is associated with an increase in the risk for a range of disabling illnesses, including Parkinson Disease and Alzheimer,
Also, as a natural consequence of the ageing process there is often a decline in episodic and working memory and our hearing, vision and fine motor skills tend to diminish. These declines are usually gradual and often go unnoticed.
Perhaps one of the most obvious manifestations is the growing arm syndrome experienced by many, including myself. You know, the need to hold a newspaper or map book a little further away each year, until, in my case at least, my arms were no longer long enough and the realisation that I need glasses was finally accepted.
One of the questions in our online and physical-world surveys looked at the difficulties people might encounter when using websites. The participants were asked to indicate if they experienced a range of typical problems, ‘Often’, ‘Sometimes’ or ‘Never’.
Perhaps it will come as no surprise that most people said adverts or announcements that pop-up without warning were the main problem. During the physical-world survey, the vitriolic asides by some participants clearly indicated this mainly related to advertising.
What I found interesting was the relatively low score given to the size and colour of text, with just 12% of online participants and 6% of physical-world participants indicating this was ‘often’ a problem. This just didn’t gel with what I have observed when doing task-based usability tests.
So we decided to explore this issue further in the interview component of our research
The interviews were conducted by Peter Hindmarsh and me and we used this mock-up of a page from an imaginary site for seniors as a discussion prompt.
Now the mock-up clearly has some text size and colour issues, but I should stress that we made it clear to the participants that the aim was not to discuss this particular page, but to get their general opinions of the pages they come across when using the web.
At the beginning of the interviews, we asked the participants to describe some of the main problems they experience when using the web. The responses covered a wide range of issues including quote:
- “Silly little pictures on pages that are about nothing“,
- “All the fancy stuff that keeps moving, I hate that“,
- “Finding the required link for what I am after” (with particular mention of the tax site)
- and “Lots of main navigation choices, sometimes too many and labels that aren’t clear“
And of course, advertisements got a fair hammering, while text size was mentioned by 32% of the participants.
However, when the people were specifically asked in a later question if they had difficulties with the colour or the size of text on pages, 48% said that text size was a problem at least some of the time, and 23% mentioned colour.
When discussing the use of text on web pages, the comments from participants included:
- “Size of text is always a problem for me“
- “Sometimes words are too small but I have no problem with colour. I just accept what comes up“
- “It depends on the colour. I don’t like ‘laid back’ colours.” (by laid back this person meant subtle colours like light blues and yellow)
- “Coloured text on colour background can be a problem“
And this final comment in relation to the presentation of text seems to sum up an underlying feeling that many participants had:
- “It’s sometimes a problem: Sites are designed by young people with good vision“
When discussing the problems they might have using the web, many of the web users we interviewed appeared to dismiss or discount their difficulties as just a result of getting old. In effect: blaming themselves for the inability of websites to meet their needs.
In my experience, this is in stark contrast to the common reaction of many people with long-term disabilities who rely on assistive technologies like screen readers or magnifiers to access the web. For example, if when I am testing the accessibility of a site, a screen reader user is unable to access the content on a page, they are most likely to say the site is at fault and might even add an explanation such “without any words how am I supposed to know what that image is for!”
Most providers and developers of web content appear to give little consideration to the needs and abilities of people over the age of 60: And those who do, often make the mistake of lumping them all together into a single generic group of “the elderly.”
Furthermore, Peter Gregor from the University of Dundee and others contend, quote:
“The human interfaces to most computer systems for general use have been designed, either deliberately or by default, for a “typical”, younger user. In a similar way, most research and development in the field of information technology to support people with disabilities has concentrated on the development of special systems, and accessibility features focused on younger disabled people.”
In a very interesting article, “Designing for Diversity” these researchers argue that traditional approaches to User Centred Design tend to homogenise user groups in order to more clearly evaluate design decisions. And they assume, abilities, or the lack of them, remain static over time.
It is now clear, that capabilities can vary greatly between individuals and as we get older this variability increases. Furthermore, the capabilities of older people are dynamic; they change over time and these changes occur at differing rates.
Peter Gregor and his colleagues maintain the developers of software systems need to Design for this Diversity by adopting a methodology of “User Sensitive Inclusive Design” that places great emphasis on the variety of user characteristics and functionality. And importantly, recognises the “Dynamic Diversity” of older members in the community.
Our research underscored the range of abilities among older people when it comes to using computers and the web. Some of the people we interviewed appeared to have little experience in using the web, while others, including the 93 year old lady mentioned earlier, live online.
However it is a mistake to assume that just because someone uses the web all the time that they are masters of the technology or even know how to do some basic things. For example, several of the every-day users of the web we interviewed, including some who had previously worked in IT, did not know how to increase the size of text on a web page.
During our interviews, the participants were asked what they normally did when they found the words on the page too small to read: 39% were confident they could make the text bigger, describing how they would use the browser zoom or text size controls, and in the case of two participants, they said they used the onscreen text enlarge buttons when they were available.
However, most of the participants had very little idea what to do, and came up with a wide range of strategies they had used in the past.
Some of the comments included:
- “If I have to read it, I will try getting closer to the screen or getting someone else to help.”
- “Go to another site if I can’t read it“. This was a very common response
- “Check my glasses, then I don’t know“
- “I copy and paste it into a document and then increase the size“
Interestingly several said they knew how to increase the size of text with other technologies with comments like:
- “When using word I can make it bigger, but can’t work out how to do that on the web.”
- “I can make it bigger with PDF because they have that percentage thing, but can’t do it with websites.”
And this comment from a man in his sixties
- “I have printed out pages that are important and then made them bigger with a photocopier.”
On my DingoAccess blog, there is an article about this person’s experiences (Elderly Person Who Doesn’t Want Email) and how he believes the web has actually diminished his access to government services.
I now want to look at some of the ways we could make sites a little easier for all people to use, particularly those of advancing years. I am going to start with a few general issues and then look specifically at the question of how can we help users control the presentation of content on the page.
I have already referred to the decline in episodic memory and working memory as we get older, and how this can make it difficult for people with little previous experience of using computers to learn how to use the web.
All web users, old and young, find sites with poorly constructed navigation systems hard to use. Good site navigation relies on:
- Clear labels and signs so the user can find and understand the options available.
- Good feedback such as changes in colour, or the use of breadcrumbs, so that the user can confirm their actions, see whether they made the right choice, and recover from any mistakes easily
- And, thirdly reliable functionality or performance – that is, a navigation system that is easy to use and will function with different browsers and devices. Not a system that requires the user to have some additional software installed.
When the online and physical world survey participants were asked to indicate the main difficulties they had using websites, more than 80% said that finding what they were looking for was “often” or “sometimes” difficult.
The diminished ability to encode new memories as we age means that many older web users are likely to find idiosyncratic, “creative” navigation schemas hard to learn and use.
For much the same reasons, when it comes to the design of sites and web pages, consistency should be a key consideration.
The increasing use of templates for web pages means that they often have a consistent ‘look and feel’. However, it is not just about ‘look and feel’; we need to ensure this consistency extends to page elements such as the labelling of buttons and the design of forms and data tables.
An important part of consistency is the need to adhere to web conventions. In particular, wherever possible use the default blue for links and keep them underlined. I know the subtle piece of grey text in the middle of paragraph of black words might look cool, but does it scream “I am a link to more information“? Also, please make the link text meaningful.
When it comes to information architecture, one of the perennial questions is whether or not the site structure should be shallow or deep – that is should the visitor be able to get to everything with just two or three clicks or is it okay to ask them drill down through the site.
Balancing these two views can be even more difficult when viewed from the perspective of what is likely to be better for older users of the web. In general, it appears that shallow hierarchies work better for the elderly, but at the same time we know that older users can become overwhelmed by pages with too much content and confused when there are a lot of choices.
When the online and physical world participants in our survey were asked to indicate if they felt that there was too much information on web pages, about 70% said that this was ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ the case.
Whether your site is shallow or deep, make sure you provide the user with a variety of options: With any reasonable sized site, don’t force the user to only rely on the navigation system. Provide alternative methods for locating information such as a site map or an effective search facility. As one of the people we interviewed put it, Quote:
“It is always good to have a complete sitemap; without it, it can be harder to find things.”
There are many online resources about the usability benefits of writing for the web; and the suggestions they contain are important for improving the accessibility of web content for all people, including those over the age of 60.
In summary, it is really about recognising brevity is often the key to understanding and making sure:
- Your content has meaningful headings and subheadings
- You write short paragraphs
- Use unordered and ordered lists to present information
- And, avoid the use of specialised language or jargon.
As we get older, the ability to perceive the differences between colours, or colour contrast, can fall quite dramatically. For some people, it can decrease by as much as 80% by the time they reach 80, compared to what it is for a 20 year old.
It appears that websites are often designed by people with the 20:20 vision of a twenty year old. And, I am amazed at how many developers still don’t know that there are minimum colour contrast requirements and surprised that they are unaware of simple tools like the TPG Colour Contrast Analyser that can make the process of determining which colour combinations are acceptable so damn easy.
I guess all I can say about this is to make a plea for designers and developers: to think about the colours they use; check the colours they use; and, if your precious combination of colours doesn’t pass muster, well just get over it and pick some new ones!
As we have seen, about a third of web users who completed our online and physical world surveys indicated they had problems with the colour or size of text on web pages at least some of the time. And, about half of those we interviewed said text size was a problem for them. For example, one person commented:
- “Maybe 30-40% of the time the writing is too small“
Most browsers now have a variety of controls for either increasing the size of text on the page or zooming-up the whole page. However less than half of the people we interviewed were aware of these browser tools. And I suspect that this lack of knowledge is not just confined to people over the age of sixty.
There are website developers who are concerned about accessibility issues, and some sites do provide users with advice on accessibility related matters like how to increase text size.
This information is often obtained via an “accessibility” link in the footer of the page.
David Sloan and others from the University of Dundee have examined the value of accessibility options and basically found that nearly all of the older people they studied had never changed the default settings of their system and most failed to either notice an accessibility link on the page or recognise its relevance. (Source: Accessibility statements are inaccessible to older web users)
During our interviews we also asked participants what they thought the accessibility link might mean.
Only 10% of the participants appeared to have even a basic idea about what the term might mean in relation to the web.
Here are some of the responses
- “Don’t know what accessibility means, don’t think I have ever seen that before“.
- “Never seen it and no idea what it means.”
- “I have seen the word, but don’t know what it means in the context of a computer.”
- “So small it just looks like it isn’t important, you know the fine print.”
And here is a suggestion as to the meaning of the word “accessibility”.
- “How easy it is to find things – you know access information.”
As you know, some sites also provide onscreen tools for adjusting the size of text. So we also asked about these and only two of the people we interviewed recalled ever seeing tools like this before.
The value of these tools has been questioned by others before, including Roger Johansson some years back in the article “Scrap Text Resize Widgets”.
During the last few minutes of my talk I want to gaze into a crystal ball and briefly look at options for helping older users overcome some of the problems we have discussed and thereby gain greater confidence in using the web.
In the article, “The Potential of Adaptive Interfaces as an Accessibility Aid for Older Web Users“, David Sloan and others talk about the fundamental challenges in supporting older people who acquire an impairment gradually over time. He nominates three:
- Making a person aware that they have accessibility needs
- Making them aware that a solution exists to accommodate those needs
- And providing them with that solution
In his article Sloan explores the role that could be played by automated and semi-automated adaptations. He outlines a concept that would effectively bypass the first two points by having technology at the system level identify the problem, be it diminishing vision or control of the mouse, and then automatically make adjustments to the system or interface to meet these changing needs of the user.
This is a very interesting article and a recommended read, however in it the authors recognise that there are some key issues that still need to be addressed and the concept still has a way to go.
I would now like to briefly mention three other ways users could be given greater control over the presentation of web content and I acknowledge the assistance in preparing this section of the talk from two developers who do care about these things, Chris Bentley and Russ Weakley.
First off, we could just leave it up to the browser.
Modern browsers have a range of ever more sophisticated tools that visitors can use to control the presentation of content. With Safari for example, clicking the “Reader” button in the address bar pops-up a version of the actual page content in resizable black text on a white background. Decorative images and advertisements are stripped out but so is the navigation.
A second approach I would like to suggest is the use of an integrated personal preference tool.
In this concept, developers would place a standardised personal preference widget or tool at the top of the page. This tool could be used by site visitors to choose their own font style and size, and the colour combinations. These preferences would travel with the user through the site and could be retained for when the person visits the site again in the future.
In the dichotomous analogy of ‘give them fish’ or ‘teach them to fish’, this is the ‘give them fish’ approach and while it might be an effective way of giving more control to site users, the one draw back is that it relies on sites having the widget. If the user goes to a site without this widget, they will be no better off.
The final option will also require the use of some sort of widget or device. Except in this case, the tool would be used to automatically identify the operating system and browser that are being used and then deliver advice on how to control the presentation of page content that is tailored to each user’s specific environment.
There is no real reason why a web user needs to know what operating system or browser they are using, but as we have seen there are good reasons for people to know how they can use the browser to control at least the size of the text on the page.
This is more in keeping with the ‘teach them to fish’ approach, for if enough sites have a tool like this, users should over time gain the confidence to use their system to change the presentation of page content regardless of whether a site has the tool or not.
What ever approach is taken, two of the fundamental questions raised by David Sloan, which were discussed earlier, remain like the elephant in this room: First, making a person aware that they have accessibility needs; and second, making them aware that a solution exists to accommodate those needs.
As we have seen, the gradual onset of impairments as we age is often ignored by older people. And, many of those people who are aware of their diminished capabilities don’t know where to look to find the solution.
The answers to these questions I believe are to be found in raising community awareness of the problems and providing readily identifiable access to the solutions.
In marketing terms, it comes down to better branding. We need the tools, but just as importantly we need a sexy icon and a good catch phrase that people will remember.
Thank you and we have enough time for comments and questions.