Age Matters: Considerations for Designing Across Generations
Seniors have become the fastest growing internet user group in terms of social media usage and intensity of internet use, with over 76% going online everyday according to Pew Research, with tablets being the leading way that older users access digital content.
Similarly, more children are coming online and narrowing the digital divide in households, with the age at which kids are getting a smartphone is getting younger and 73% of teens having access to smartphones or similar devices.
The question becomes how do we balance designing digital content for two demographics that are at opposite ends of the age spectrum, access content in different ways, and have different cognitive abilities and digital competencies? In reality, many of the design caveats for designing for children and older users are similar, if not the same.
Engage users with compelling content. Start with clear and concise writing and curating supporting images and other media. Look at the human aspect of your content and writing style. Design your content around the principles of accessibility and readability. Content should be accessible on a variety of platforms and devices, as well as in low connectivity situations.
Conduct an accessibility audit to make sure design and implementation is inclusive. Don’t overlook low-end devices. Website performance and download speeds play an important role in the overall user experience. Follow the UX writing principle of “less is more” and keep in mind that copywriting is interface design. Clear and concise writing takes time to craft and it is easier for users to read and understand. In addition, use appropriate writing tone when copywriting for the target audience. Images and text should complement each other to provide context to users.
Cognitive loading is an issue for everyone. Helping both young and older users with reading comprehension and recall only adds to the user experience.
Give users control over their environment and how content will be displayed. Allow users to override stylesheet declarations and avoid using !important in CSS which can prevent overriding of author or framework specific stylesheets. At minimum, give users the ability to change text size and contrast on the site. Both young and older users require high contrasts to properly identify content and navigational elements on the interface.
Having the ability to modify text size and contrast increases readability and minimizes computer vision syndrome to which improper viewing distances are a contributing factor. Controlling type size will allow users to adapt content to different reading situations and devices. Without the ability to modify text sizes or turning the ability to zoom on a device, users will create their own “hacks” to address readability issues.
If you are allowing users to modify text size, think about providing the ability to enlarge touch targets and button areas along with text and UI elements.
Navigation and UI Elements
Use single click or tap actions for menus and links. Avoid double tap/double click events that can be difficult to execute with imprecise motor skills. Both young and old users are able to interact more proficiently with touch devices as tap is an extension of pointing for children, while for older users there is a no noticeable decline in motor skills associated with finger taps or interactions. Children tend to tap and hold, rather than tap and release. Both young and older users can experience problems navigating content due to the abstraction of mouse movements and interactions. However, younger users are showing greater navigational proficiency (including scrolling) due to the earlier exposure to devices and increase in digital screen time.
As mentioned earlier, copywriting is interface design. Clarity of navigation and UI elements is archived through words and proper labels. Be clear first, clever second with navigation design and the use of icons. Provide context by writing descriptive links and avoid using “click here” as navigational cues. Children generally require metaphor driven navigation.
The one major difference between young and older users is attention span and exploration. Young users explore by clicking or tapping on everything to see what happens, while older users are more methodical and deliberate with their exploration.
Plan for repetition. Both younger and older users may need to backtrack through the content to recall, remember, reread or replay media elements. Help users backtrack by using breadcrumb navigation or “previous page/next page” combinations.
Environments and Use Cases
Think when and where users will access your content. Is access temporal or spatial? Most web surfing for younger and older users happens in the home and not necessarily at a desktop. Kids will utilize the mobility of a tablet and access content anywhere and everywhere (even under a bed or in a treehouse). Older users tend to access content in a traditional reading posture, in a reclining chair or in bed.
Content should be clear and concise to help users stay focused and understand. The demographics of who is accessing the web is expanding and brings new challenges when designing for a larger cross section of users, devices and situations. The concept of the “average user” is no longer exists. Users span multiple generations. Children and seniors are no longer outliers when it comes to design considerations for digital content and platforms.