Older web users and text size

Our research into use of the web and other information and communication technologies by people over the age of sixty is producing some interesting results. In this article I want to comment briefly on some of the responses relating to the size of text on web pages.

This research, which I’m conducting in association with Peter Hindmarsh and Russ Weakley, has three main components:

  • An online survey of ICT use by people over sixty to gain an overview of the technologies they use, what they use them for, and common problems the might encounter.
  • A real-world survey with participants of same age group using the same questions as those in the online survey
  • Qualitative interviews with the real-world survey participants, using different mock-ups of a web page to stimulate discussion about issues they might encounter when using the web.

We are still collecting and collating the results, however the responses from one of the participants I surveyed yesterday highlighted one of the common threads that are beginning to emerge.

In the online and real-world survey we ask the participants to indicate how often they experience a range of problems when using websites. One of the problems we cite is, “The size and/or colour of the words make them difficult to read.” With the online survey 124 participants answered this question, and;

  • 13% indicated they often felt this was a problem,
  • 46% indicated it was sometimes a problem, and
  • 41% indicated it was never a problem.

The findings of the real-world survey were very similar. The majority of real-world respondents indicated they never felt the size or colour of text was a problem when using sites. However, during the more qualitative aspect of the surveying a different picture emerged.

The mock-ups for the qualitative survey deliberately used text that was a little small but still within the general range what you see on many sites. One version of the mock-up page had icons at the top right of the page for changing text size and providing a high contrast version of the page (the icons were same as those used on other sites); Another version of the page had the word “accessibility” in the footer and no icons; And, the final version of the page had both the icons and the word “accessibility”.

During the qualitative interviews, the participants were asked in an open-ended question to describe the main difficulties they experience when using pages on the web. Although a few participants indicated they had no concerns, over 50% volunteered text size was sometimes a problem. Later however, when the participants were specifically asked if they had ever experienced any difficulties with the size of the writing on web pages and during the discussions, nearly all of the participants said that they sometimes found the text too small. This included some of the people who had initially indicated they had no concerns. The comments from participants included:

  • Not usually a problem, but sometimes the text can be hard to read because of the size
  • This is sometimes a problem – sites are designed by young people with good vision
  • Text is very often too small (but I can increase it with the browser)
  • Text can be small and on some sites colour can be a problem but generally ok
  • Small text is particularly annoying when there is plenty of space

The participants were also asked what they normally did when they found that the words on the page were too small to read comfortably. From the discussions, it appears that less than half of the participants knew that they could change the size of the text on the page. Comments included:

  • I use the browser to make them bigger if I need to
  • If I have to read it, I will try getting closer to the screen or getting someone else to help.
  • I have printed out pages that are important and then made them bigger with a photocopier.
  • I’d have a problem. I’d try another site, or maybe print the page out and see if that is better
  • You can use the zoom to make it bigger
  • Just use ctrl + to increase the size
  • Go to another site if I can’t read it
  • Tend to go past it. If critical you labour by getting closer to the screen
  • I wouldn’t know how to change the size

A participant I surveyed yesterday is in his sixties and he teaches at a university. He uses computers to access the internet and web everyday, makes online purchases and is an occasional user of social networking sites. In short, he is not what you would call a novice user. In keeping with the other survey results, this participant initially indicated he ‘sometimes’ found the text on the page too small. However, when this issue was discussed during the qualitative interview he said, “Maybe 30 – 40% of the time the writing is too small.”

This participant was the only one so far to notice the in-page tools (icons) for changing the presentation of text and said that when they were available, he used them to increase the text if he needed to make it bigger. I then asked him what he did if he found that some text he had to read was too small but the page did not have any in-page tools and he replied, “It depends, with my iPad I zoom, but on the (work) computer I copy and paste the words into a document and then use Word to increase the size.”

One of the interesting things to come out of this part of the survey is the apparent discrepancy between the quantitative and qualitative results when it comes to text size. Why did the participants appear to underplay the issue of text size in the quantitative surveys? Perhaps, the answer lies in a tendency by some people to blame themselves rather than the equipment when they encounter problems? This is not an uncommon situation with older users of information and communication technologies.

Or maybe, it is related to the gradual and unpredictable nature of age-related capability decline as described by David Sloan and others. Sloan argues that in contrast to people with more extreme disabilities, there are fundamental challenges to overcome when it comes to supporting older people with the most appropriate assistive technologies. One of these challenges is making the older person aware that they have accessibility needs, since age-related impairment is often easily discounted or ignored as being just an inevitable part of growing old.

With this awareness, we then have to work out what are the most appropriate solutions and how to deliver them.

Hear more at CSUN

I will be discussing issues associated with the use of ICT by older people and proposals to improving their ability to access web content in my paper, Improving Web Accessibility for the Elderly at the CSUN 2011 conference in San Diego.


  1. This is one of those oh so common issues that web developers deal with often. How much often are those in-page tools actually used by users? I’ve always kind of assumed that most people who need to regularly increase the screen size will use the browser’s or Operating System’s built in features to do so.
    Looking forward to seeing the full study and findings!

  2. It would be useful to have a comparison table showing which browsers offer ‘visual zoom’ in addition to ‘text zoom’ (e.g. Safari 5). Are elderly users aware of this feature in some browsers? Come to think of it, how, as a developer, do I add ‘visual zoom’ tool to a web page? I think we tend to minimise and tuck away those accessibility tools so much that many elderly visitors don’t even see them or appreciate what they do or offer.

  3. Roger, thanks for the study and your insights. Based on my user testing, your comment that some people “blame themselves rather than the equipment when they encounter problems?”

    I’m curious, do you know if there has been a study that asks the question “do you know how to resize text in your browser” across all age groups? In my experience, this is not an issue confined to older users; it’s common across all age groups.

  4. Fascinating. Thanks for sharing this! It makes me wonder how we make let older users aware that they can enlarge text within the browser. They go pretty far out of their way to read sites that have small text – printing and then enlarging it on a photocopier – that’s a lot of work!

  5. The solution is pretty simple if you ask me. You compose email containing a succinct cheatsheet of various browser zoom keys/key-combos. You email it to every 60+ person you know. It will be viral immediately, because forwarding email is something 60+-ers do well, especially when they are looking out for one another. In months, hundreds of thousands will have seen the cheatsheet and printed it out for reference.

    I don’t mean this as a joke at all. It will work.

    A rare moment of brilliance if I do say so myself.


  6. Roger, thanks for sharing this research. We can now start spreading this message around the globe: Increase the font size on your website to keep your visitors and save some trees! :-)

  7. Jeff, I’m curious: In what browsers is the key combination for zooming in not Control-+?

  8. For US accessibility advocates, the immediate relevance of this study is the new web access regulations proposed by the Department of Justice. If they select WCAG 2.0 Level A as the requirement for compliance instead of Level AA, there will be no requirement for contrast or resizing text. Those interested may want to follow this regulatory proceeding and weigh in as appropriate: http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=DOJ-CRT-2010-0005-0001.

  9. I’m sorry, but I can’t see any solution other than one that engages personal responsibility: Everyone, regardless of age or how afraid they are of their Windows computer, has to learn two keystrokes to increase and decrease font size. It isn’t developers’ problem. Embiggening your type for some mythical or imagined senior surfer solves little or nothing and causes its own problems.

  10. @Cliff: Probably none. I never use it, I only know the feature exists. That’s even better, the cheatsheet is 1 item.

    And Joe is right. This is a matter of browser education. If someone is prefers to have a text-to-speech engine read a page aloud, they surely know how to alter their OS’ audio volume if it’s too quiet.

  11. Thanks for the responses. I do think this is an important issue particularly as governments are increasingly looking to the web for delivery of information to people – all people. The question is what to do about it. Should we just rely on the user to discover how to increase text size themselves? If so, what about casual users who have very limited knowledge of OS or browsers. No everyone lives on the web.

    Or, do we provide advice? How, given that very few older users appear to use onscreen tools or have any idea what the word “accessibility”, which is sometimes in the footer, might refer to. I plan to write more about this in a future article.

  12. Older users know “magnify” not “accessibility”.

  13. Roger, could you pleas provide me within solutions to magnify on fly?

    Otherwise, do you know the government already get the full control over your blog?

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