Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Why accessibility for older generations is critical

By Froso Ellina, Product Design Manager, VMware Pivotal Labs

As social distancing continues to be a crucial tool in combatting the further spread of coronavirus, there has been a significant surge in demand for online products and services. While many consumers may have been accustomed to accessing their bank account, shopping for food and other products, or accessing the news online via the web or a mobile app, there is a significant proportion of society who are now doing so for the first time.

This is especially true amongst older generations. According to Age UK, two-thirds of people aged over 75 and three out of ten aged 65 to 74 don’t use the internet. Now that social distancing has made online platforms one of the main ways in which we access products and services, the imperative to make these platforms accessible to all has become all the more pressing.

What happens as we age?

While the ageing process is different for everyone, we all go through some fundamental changes. It’s therefore important we understand these changes in order to empathise with them.

  • Sight – Vision starts to deteriorate from the age of 40. The lens within the eye suffers from “presbyopia”, which makes it harder to read in proximity and to read smaller text. Colour vision also declines with age, as older eyes receive only 1/3 of the light compared to younger viewers. Digital products often don’t use enough colour contrast in order to help people distinguish between shapes and text.
  • Hearing – Hearing also declines in our 30s, 40s, or 50s. As we get older, we suffer from hearing loss and it is harder to detect very high and very low-frequency sounds.
  • Memory – There are three different kinds of memory, and they’re affected differently by the ageing process: procedural memory (remembering how to do things) is generally unaffected; short-term memory can be afflicted without any impact on long-term memory, but this can still make it difficult for people to acquire new skills easily when there’s a certain amount of complexity involved; and prospective memory (remembering to do something in the future) also suffers.

Designing digital experiences to include older users

  • Typography – When adding text to a product or service, it’s important to consider both legibility and readability. Legibility is concerned with being able to recognise, interpret and comprehend letter or words; while Readability focuses on making the reading experience as comfortable as possible. Accessible type design is both legible and readable. In order to be accessible for users with ocular degeneration, digital products and services should use a font size of at least 16 pixels as a default (depending on device) and they should give people the option to increase the text size as preferred.
  • Navigation – Sometimes it may not be obvious how to navigate between screens or around them, as navigation buttons are not always visible and navigation models are not always consistent across the entire interface. Navigational changes or splitting tasks across multiple screens should therefore be avoided as it may cause users with a diminished memory capacity to struggle to complete a task and abandon it altogether.
  • Error messages and communication – Older web users can have difficulty reading or understanding error messages, either because placement isn’t obvious or the wording is vague. Any error messages need to be simple and clearly spell out exactly what the problem is and how to fix it, as older people often keep a list of steps and instructions about how to use websites they need or often visit.

The power of agile

Design needs to be human-centric in order to deliver real value to end-users. This requires regularly engaging with the widest range of potential users, gathering feedback and using the data to constantly make iterations on existing designs.

Through the power of agile methodology, designers repeatedly check products and services are effectively built for purpose, as well as identify and address any assumptions or unconscious biases which manifest in the product.

Now more than ever, the design of products that aim to connect, inform and assist will be put to the test. While we all hope for an end to the coronavirus pandemic, let’s see what we can take forward in product design to ensure inclusivity for all.