Planning a Website for Older Users

I’m working with designer Jon Schleuss on a website for the local chapter of the American Association of University Women, an organization to which I belong and which I support wholeheartedly.

Last night I presented information about the planned site to the board of directors. Knowing that one of the main goals for the group was to increase diversity among the membership, and that the average age of the association was 60, I was confident that a new, usable website would be something everyone would value. I don’t believe in stereotyping older people as lacking internet savvy (my mother is a popular blogger), but I’m also aware of the research that tells us that younger users rely heavily on the internet for information.

People under 50 don’t use phone books or printed maps. Half of all executives under 40 use Twitter. People under 30 may conduct their entire lives from their iPhones. People under 20 have never had a better information source than the internet.

So I was assuring the group that their goal of reaching younger university women made a functional website essential, and there was widespread agreement, especially among the younger women present.

So far, so good.

Then we looked at the site structure, and one of the older ladies saw that the directory was to be online.

“I hate the internet,” she said. “I spend too much time reading emails. I’d never go to a website.”

There was some real distress there. The rest of the over-seventies were looking pretty tense, too.

“You don’t carry a computer around with you,” one said. “What if I need someone’s phone number?”

There was a moment of silence while the rest of us — the ones who do carry computers around with us — readjusted our thinking to the idea of needing to look up a phone number and dial it on a telephone.

“I can’t find anything on websites anyway,” another objected.

“Maybe we can print it out, too,” someone said. “We can have both.”

I suggested that it would be easy to print copies on demand whenever someone wanted a physical copy, and one of the women asked whether it could be a PDF.

“I’ll have the file, ” I said, “so I can easily make a PDF for printing.”

“Can you copy something from a PDF and put it in an email?” the woman wanted to know.

We had a bit of a conversation about PDFs and what they’re for. On the other side of the room, the woman who hates the internet was speaking in scandalized tones about the fact that without a printed yearbook we wouldn’t know what the upcoming programs were. Those who weren’t still coping with the PDF question began discussing the difficulty of getting the programs set up a year in advance for the sake of the yearbook.

“You don’t need to set them up a year in advance if it’s online. You can change it any time and keep it up to date.” That was me, trying to make the website more appealing. I pointed out that it was easy to email things to people if the things were on the internet already. We finished with a clear split in the room: the Facebook crowd, who were happy, and the others, who weren’t.

My goal: to get everyone happy with the final product.

Here’s the original concept mockup that Jon came up with. The stock image at the top will be replaced by images of women of different ages and ethnic backgrounds, and of course there’ll be real content there, but this is what I had come up with in discussion with the president and secretary of the organization, and Jon carried it out nicely.

jon schleuss

We had already thought about the importance of using black text on a white ground for visibility, and also about having very straightforward navigation. Jon went with a good amount of white space, and clear headings on the sections.

After the board meeting, I think we also need to have very obvious navigation buttons, even more so than usual. We need to keep them identical on all the pages. Assuming that the reluctant users make the effort to get to know this website, we need to make sure than they can easily find those phone numbers whenever they want them.

Those of us who’ve been using the internet since the ’80s — whether that’s when we were born or when we first got email at work — have grown up along with the internet, and we know how it works. There’s no reason to expect people who retired in the ’80s and haven’t gotten fond of the internet in the interim to have that knowledge.

That doesn’t mean that older people aren’t visiting your website. In this particular case — and perhaps in yours as well — we know for sure that a lot of the potential users of this site are going to be pretty old. We should design the site with this in mind.

But it’s something to think about for many businesses. Right now, somewhere out there, someone is giving a PC to her grandpa and showing him how to visit that online fishing tackle store or music website. Is yours the next one he’ll try?

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2 thoughts on “Planning a Website for Older Users

  1. What a great post! Really well written and insightful.
    Thanks so much for sharing this.

    It definitely helps to know about these things when considering a website design for senior users.

    Keep up the good work!

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