Notes from Bristol Usability Group talk by Andrew Arch

I don't know whether it's just coincidence, but since I've been working in Bristol, there seem to have been quite a high proportion of geek events happening locally, which as well as being interesting, have given me the opportunity to meet some local folk. Last night was the turn of the Bristol Usability Group, which I was completely unaware of until Joe and Laura (separately) told me about it via twitter, correctly thinking that it'd be right up my street.

It was.

Last night's topic was Designing for Old(er) People and Andrew Arch, Web Accessibility and Ageing Specialist for the Web Accessibility Initiative: Ageing Education and Harmonisation Project (WAI-AGE) was presenting.

I've known Andrew for a few years now, since he worked for Vision Australia doing similar stuff to what we did at RNIB, and hadn't had a chance to speak to him in a long time, so quite apart from hearing his presentation, it was really good to get a chance to catch up with him. Especially since he was at the Standards.Next event I was at on Saturday but I didn't get a chance to talk to him then.

I took quite a few notes during Andrew's talk, because he gave a lot of information that I wasn't aware of, including lots of useful and interesting statistics, and assuming I can read my handwriting (not an absolute certainty, and the longer I get from having written them, the less likely it gets) I thought I'd transcribe (and share) what I wrote down.

It was an information packed presentation (and discussion afterwards) and I couldn't physically write any faster and so I know I missed some stuff, so any errors or omissions are mine alone.

Aging facts and figures

According to the UN, by 2050, more than 20% of the world's population will be over 60, however, some countries (such as Japan) have populations which are aging faster than others.

In the EU, it's estimated that by 2010 17% of the population will be over 65 and 5% will be over 80 years of age. By 2050 that number will rise to 29% over 65 and 12% over 80, which is a significant increase.

Age-related impairments


As we age, our hearing becomes less sensitive and we lose the ability to hear high pitched sounds and distinguish specific sounds if there is a lot of background noise.

Andrew gave figures of 47% of people aged 61-80 having some hearing loss which rose to 93% in users older than 81.


Perhaps the most obvious impairment as a result of aging. As we age we are less able to focus on near tasks, our colour perception and sensitivity decreases, as does our perception of contrast.

Most interesting to me was the prevalence non-correctable vision loss (that is, can't be corrected by wearing glasses or contact lenses). In people aged 65-74 the figure was 16%, rising to 19% of people aged 75-84 and 46% of over 85s.


Quite apart from conditions such as Arthritis, as we age we lose some fine motor control, which makes it difficult to, for example, write or use a mouse easily.

Approximately 50% of the population over 65 have Arthritis and 20% have what's known as "Essential Tremor" (slight shaking, but not as serious as Parkinson's) compared to 4% of people over 85 having Parkinson's (a figure I thought would be higher).


As we age, we lose some of our short-term memory and concentration, as well as suffering from information overload and becoming easily distracted (although some would argue that that's already happening in younger generations due to things like twitter and facebook, but I digress… )

As far as conditions go, (only) 1.4% of people aged 65-59 have been diagnosed with Dementia, rising to 24% of people over 85. However 20% of people over 70 are considered to have a "Mild Cognitive Impairment" (memory loss, etc.).

Multiple Impairments

Although it'd be nice to only have one thing go downhill as we age, unfortunately, aging tends to have a cumulative effect and older people often have multiple impairments, although it's clear that most don't consider themselves to be "disabled" (and nor should they).


Being online opens up many opportunities to older people (and everyone, really), such as:

  • social interaction and communication
  • access to information
  • e-commerce (although older people are more cautious about security issues)
  • access and/or participation in civic activities
  • training
  • employment, research and workplace opportunities

Demographic percentages

In 2006, the percentage of people online among the different age groups were:

16-24: 83% 25-44: 79% 45-54: 68% 55-64: 52% 65+: 15%

In 2008, those figures had changed to the following:

16-24: 93% 25-44: 87% 45-54: 78% 55-64: 63% 65+: 26%

These figures came from the Office of National Statistics, and counted people who said they'd been online in the last three months as "being online".

Getting online

Owning a computer lowers the barrier to getting online (as opposed to using a shared machine or going to a library), but there does seem to be an increased fear of "breaking" it (where it might be the computer, the internet or the entire world).

That said, there seems to be a snowball effect where older users encourage each other to use computers and/or get online. Age Concern also offer training for computer skills training for older people.

The needs of older users

There's a big overlap with the needs identified and catered for by the WCAG guidelines, but studies done seem to have been done by people who didn't have much awareness of WCAG and haven't built on previous work done.

Some things to take into account when thinking about the needs of older users:

  • They consider themselves old (not disabled)
  • They don't want to appear different (so might not change settings or use assistive devices.
  • It can be difficult to implement coping strategies (because of the reason above, or because of lack of recall)
  • They may not be aware that the options are there (because they've been taught to use their computer by younger people who don't know the options are there either because they don't need them)
  • Access technology can be (is) difficult to use

Guidelines for designing for older people

In no particular order:

  • Ensure text is readable by choosing a decent font size (my recommendation: no less than 75% of default (or 12px)), ensuring good colour contrast and choosing appropriate colours (apparently flourescent colours appear blurry to older users)
  • Make sure links are easy to identify and behave predictably
  • Have clear and identifiable headings
  • Make it easy for users to orient themselves within the site
  • Provide clear and consistent navigation, and include breadcrumbs, search and a home button
  • Be consistent with layout
  • Avoid information overload
  • Avoid italics and underline (because it makes text more difficult to read)
  • Left justify text (rather than right or full)
  • Increase line spacing and margins
  • Simplify forms, provide clear guidance and error messages and make it easy for users to correct errors (as an interesting point, apparently the now conventional red asterisk is all but invisible to older users, so the recommendation is to use the word (required) instead)

WCAG2.0 and Older People

Andrew recommends looking beyond the sufficient techniques to the advisory techniques for WCAG guidelines, as many of these techniques are more usability focused than pure technical accessibility and may be of particular benefit to older users.

WAI-AGE Project Ongoing Work

  • Educational resources for industry (designers, developers, etc.)
  • Educational resources for users
  • Pursuing standards harmonisation (between Silver Surfer guidelines and WCAG, etc.)
  • Encouraging participation by older users in standards development

Interesting Points from the Group Discussion

There was a really interesting discussion after Andrew had finished his presentation, with several attendees sharing experiences they'd had of testing with older users (or grandparents).

Tips for Testing with Older Users

  • Individuals may find it awkward to do their thinking out loud and/or feel embarrassed about their ability (or lack thereof), but observing a group of users can bring valuable feedback as they'll help each other and talk amongst themselves
  • Be prepared to achieve less in more time than you think - older people often talk more and are more likely to read every word of the site before attempting a task
  • Be aware that concentration levels will drop off more quickly than with younger users
  • It might be more difficult to recruit and retain older participants for multiple test sessions across lengthy projects because "I might not be here" (now there's a cheerful thought)

Collected notes and observations

A site that was redesigned to suit the needs of older users was tested with younger users and when given the choice, the younger users preferred it.

A lot of older users have laptops, and as a result have more experience (and are therefore more comfortable) using a trackpad rather than a mouse.

Buying or owning a laptop increased the likelihood of frequent useage (more portable, easier to use from the sofa, easier to show stuff to other people, etc.).

Older people will join social networks like facebook to keep tabs on their younger relatives, but tend to watch rather than interact.

Older men seemed to use the internet less than women (possible connection to it being women who tend to communicate more than men?).

It was more difficult to recruit male participants for user testing.

I have more notes, but they're less than coherent in the light of day (err, night now) and that's probably more than enough to be getting on with.