Study finds elders have a tough time surfing
By Marty Beard
The older you are, the slower you drive and the harder the road signs are to read, right?
For older people, it turns out, getting around the internet presents similar challenges.
Because the internet is designed for younger people, by younger people, itís harder for older folks to use, according to a recent study from the Nielsen Norman Group.
"Given that most web sites are produced by young people who probably take it for granted that all web users have perfect vision and motor control, we weren't surprised that the seniors had a tougher time with the tasks than the younger test participants," says Jakob Nielsen, principal of the Nielsen Norman Group.
Itís important to note that while the web is not quite senior-ready, it has plenty of reasons for becoming so, and sooner rather than later.
Seniors are coming online at increasing rates.
Already there are currently about 4.2 million people over the age of 65 online in the U.S.
The study found that seniors make more mistakes and take longer with basic internet tasks.
In the study they completed assigned tasks 52.9 percent of the time, compared to 78.2 percent of the time for a control group, and it took them longer as welló12 minutes 33 seconds versus 7 minutes 14 seconds for the control group.
Additionally, they made 4.6 errors on average per tasks, compared to 0.6 errors in the control group.
By the researchersí reckoning, the web is twice as hard for older surfers to use than for younger web surfers.
All this raises questions about why internet usability is lower for seniors. The answer is simply that the web just isnít made for seniors, and seniors havenít grown up with computers, unlike most web users age 30 or younger.
Web sites can remedy the problem of low senior usability by taking some of the same steps that they must take to make sites accessible for the disabled. They can improve readability and navigability.
The report recommends that web sites offer a clearly visible Ė preferably in large text Ė way for seniors to reach a large-text version of their content. Web sites that actually target seniors are advised to display large text by default, 12-point type at the minimum.
But beyond simply reading web sites, seniors have problems getting around them, when it comes to finding what they need and remembering where theyíve been.
The fix for those problems is a bit more complicated, however, than merely enlarging font size.
Nielsen recommends that hyperlinks be in large type, with lots of space between them, so that older users donít accidentally click on the wrong link. This is especially important for seniors with motor-skill difficulties.
Sites that seek seniorsí traffic should do away with navigational devices such as pull-down menus that require precision with the cursor, Nielsen says.
Ultimately, the report finds that seniors find sites designed with them in mind to be more satisfying.
Yet the report found that senior are generally more patient when it comes to some aspects of getting around the internet.
"What did surprise us is what good sports the seniors were about it. They tended to see the positive parts in generally negative experiences. They enjoyed a good challenge," Nielsen says.
April 18, 2002 © 2002 Media Life
-Marty Beard is a staff writer for Media Life.