Accessibility for Older Users: Part 3 of 3 – Guidelines and Involvement

Sunday, June 1, 2008 0:32 | Filed in Accessibility, Disability, Standards


And then they look at previous guidelines designed for older people. There have been more than half a dozen sets of guidelines published before — the only one of which I’d previously come across being Webcredible’s Usability for older web users, which I would still recommend as a useful starting point.

  • Scrolling and other mouse behaviours are learned behaviours and these, as well as things like pull down menus, scrolling lists become more difficult for some users
  • Understanding what is ‘clickable’ can be difficult: design conventions such as underlining links are helpful
  • Shallow information hierachies work better for older users
  • Older users prefer larger text

They also make the point — and acknowledge that the same point was made in a 2006 publication by David Sloan — that because WCAG is the de facto standard for web accessibility, most people aren’t aware of these various sets of guidelines. Which is why — I’m presuming that the W3C are involved in looking at these sorts of guidelines now as it will give them a little more ‘clout’.

In fact, that seems to be precisely the problem that David Sloan identified in 2006:

…from the ageing and technology researcher’s perspective, the WCAG appears to provide insufficiently evidence-based guidelines on design for older people, while from the Web developer’s perspective, these research based guidelines lack credibility in not referencing the de facto industry standard that is WCAG.Two cultures? The disconnect between the web standards movement and
research-based web design guidelines for older people (David Sloan)

The report then looked at literature relating to specific disabilities: problems with mouse use, problems with using multi-level menus, legibility of different font sizes and styles, and noting that a lot of the factors that are good practice in standard usage apply particularly here:

  • underlining makes text more difficult to read as it interferes with descenders (note that this might contrast with other advice to make it easier to find links by always underlining ‘em)
  • Minimise use of italics as they can be difficult to read
  • Left justified text is easier to read than other forms

Three of these I’ve heard before as general good practice guidelines. I’d not heard the underline one before, but it makes perfect sense, and I have encountered underline problems before, particularly as underlining makes the underscore (_) character virtually invisible.

They also reference Nielsen’s Law:

Users spend most of their time on other sites. users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already knowJacob Nielsen, Alertbox

…to point out that you should strive to use whatever is the most commonly used layout styles, design conventions and suchlike to make it easier for your users to understand.

There’s also an acknowledgement that the needs of older and younger users may differ somewhat, as one study suggested that older users want simpler, easier-to-use applications whereas younger users may want a more feature-rich application, even if it requires more effort to learn how to use it.

Involving the Elderly

And why not? Public bodies in the UK have a duty (the Disability Equality Duty) to ensure that those with disabilities are involved in the provision of services; why should the elderly not be equally included and given a voice.

A number of suggestions are made:

  • Have usability sessions with elderly participants
  • Consider during design that there is great diversity amongst the elderly
  • Consider tailored, adaptive and customisable user interfaces

…although to be honest from the guidelines reviewed, it still seems to slightly be taking the tone of web designers know best; in other words, give the web designers the guidelines and let them get on with it.

That’s not involving the elderly. What we need to achieve in this regard are groups like Age Concern, local groups and the like to be actively encouraged within their local communities to contribute to the design processes for their local area, telling people what their personal needs and preferences in web interfaces are.

Even the usability sessions seem very much to be along the lines of “let’s watch the elderly and then we’ll decide what they need”. That’s not involvement.

Of course, for small design teams, you might not have access to a handy pool of elderly ‘testers’ to call upon from time to time: that’s why it’s essential that the people who do carry out this sort of consultation exercise publish their results so that we can all benefit: web designers and web users…

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1 Comment to Accessibility for Older Users: Part 3 of 3 – Guidelines and Involvement

  1. Christophe from little Belgium says:

    June 6th, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    “[O]ne study suggested that older users want simpler, easier-to-use applications whereas younger users may want a more feature-rich application, even if it requires more effort to learn how to use it”

    I wonder to what extent this is really an age difference instead of a newbie-versus-poweruser difference.

    With regard to user involvement, I would also like to point to the USEM project (User Empowerment in Standardisation: This project develops materials to facilitate participation of users with disabilities and elderly users (usually organizations representing them) in standardization.

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