The Internet and the Elderly

For many of us, browsing the Internet has become a daily task that we carry out with the same unconscious ease as channel surfing from our couch. The meaning of words like URL and Homepage are as obvious to us as the words carrot and pencil. It is easy to forget how new and novel the Internet actually is. As early as 10 years ago, the Internet was a new technology that not many people used or knew anything about. Is it any surprise that the elderly are still intimidated by, and often clueless about basic Internet use?


Webcredible recently conducted 16 usability testing sessions comparing the website usage of elderly users (i.e. over the age of 65), with that of younger users (i.e. under the age of 40). The 40-minute sessions involved asking participants to find information on a range of government websites. Here are some of their findings:

6 of the elderly participants regularly failed to scroll down a page. These participants to often miss information that was directly relevant to their task

Elderly users were less likely to understand technical language. They were at least twice as likely as younger users to not understand the following phrases: ‘Homepage’, ‘URL’ and ‘Browser’

Elderly participants were more likely to click on elements of a page which weren’t links

Of the 8 elderly participants, 5 expressed a strong aversion to downloading documents from the internet because they were ” worried about bugs [i.e. viruses] and things”

Elderly participants required over double the average time of our younger participants to complete a task. Some read all of the text on a page before deciding on their next course of action

7 of our elderly participants reported anything less than 12-point type as being too small to read comfortably. Only one of them knew how to resize text through the browser

Webcredible suggests:

Designers should investigate innovative ways to communicate the fact that a page is not finished and requires scrolling

Technical terms should be avoided if possible

Links should be identified in a consistent and obvious way (e.g. blue, bold, underline, red on mouse-over)

The attention-grabbing features on a page (e.g. headings, pictures, icons, instructions and bullets) should be links

Visited links should change colour

Provide an HTML-version of as much content as possible and do not require users to install software

Make content as concise and clear as possible – consider providing two versions of the same content

Sites should provide a ‘ Make the writing bigger ‘ link with accompanying illustrations/icons and always use high contrast to display text

Provide explicit instructions by using the imperative forms of verbs (e.g. ‘Go to more details on…’, ‘Find a…’, etc.)

Complete article from Programmer’s Heaven

I think, besides small type, the Internet is not inherently unfriendly to older users. Rather, the problem is simply a knowledge gap. Older users were already retired during the Internet revolution, so were not forced to learn computers at work. They are also more set in their ways and less likey than young people to eagerly explore and learn new technologies.

So here we are in 2006, and the elderly are suddenly finding themselves on the phone with government agencies, airlines, credit card companies and retailers being told to go “online” to get the information they need. I think free computer classes, at-home tutoring, and other learning opportunities are a better way to fill the knowledge gap than to actually make significant changes to how browsers look and function. The elderly coming out of the workforce in the next 10 to 20 years will not have the knowledge gap that today’s elderly do.