A few years ago, a consumer products manufacturer introduced a series of products designed to be simpler and easier for older consumers. They failed miserably for two main reasons.

  • Firstly, older people do not want to be thought of as old. And old is hard to define. It is most likely to be 20 years older than you are, regardless of your own age.
  • Secondly, older people are just as likely to be ‘feature hungry’ as younger people. Most of us listen to a very small number of radio stations or use a limited range of washing machine programmes but somehow we like the idea of storing twenty pre-sets or dozens of wash/dry cycles.

On the other hand, older consumers are likely to have different preferences (chintz anyone?) and reduced capability in vision, hearing, dexterity and reaction time. 

So here are six tips from the World Wide Web Consortium accessibility guidelines WCAG 2.0 that really resonate with me.

Provide alternative CAPTCHAs on the same page

Personally I prefer sites without CAPTCHAS but I accept that bots are a major problem. 

However, the odd fonts, spacing and confusing backgrounds do confuse us older folk with reduced visual acuity. 

Easy alternatives including real human contact or at least a different modality (for example audio as well as text) can make a big difference.

Make content accessible through keyboard use and tabbing

This not only helps old folk with shaky hands but also helps young folk with shaky hands or users in environments where it’s hard to keep still – walking?

Sitting on a bus? Of course you need to ensure that the tabbing order is sensible for the task. On a touch interface the layout of the fields may not matter but tabbing back and forwards is a no-no.

Provide ways of reducing or minimising distractions

One of the most noticeable differences between TV programmes aimed at 5 to 15 year olds and older audiences is that the screen is full of potential distractions, often with flashing banners, animations, loud noises and other ‘cool’ effects’. 

On a website, being able to slow these down or switch them off is a big plus for people, who really need to concentrate!

Allow users sufficient time to read messages or make it possible to freeze them

In the early days of online banking, I chose far too long a password to enter into the gizmo, which my bank provided. 

With its nasty rubber keys, I really struggled to type it all in before it reset. If allowing sufficient time is a problem, at least warn users so they don’t lose what they have been struggling to enter.

Use error prevention techniques to minimise errors

Various error prevention techniques can be used ranging from showing an example of what has to be entered and how (Name: eg Mr G Brown) to flagging input errors immediately and allowing them to be corrected (not clearing the whole form).

Make your site tolerant of older equipment/software

I recently gave one of my five year old grandsons what I thought was a slightly old but perfectly serviceable MacMini. 

It turns out that since its uses a PowerPC chip it cannot run later than the 10.1 version of FlashPlayer. CBBC and BBC iPlayer require version 10.2 or later. I can’t update the Mac OS, even if I buy new software. 

This is an irritation for me and him but if it was your website that I was trying to buy from, you would not be getting any money from me!  (By the way, if any techies out there have a solution, we’d love to hear it!)

Of course, not all older users should be considered disabled but as with automatic doors for wheelchair users, which also benefit folks with wheeled luggage and buggies, we can all benefit from accessible websites.