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Designing e-commerce for the (older) masses

Research tells us that the fastest growing online population is the baby boomer generation. Here are some usability tips to help you ensure that your site appeals to older adults so you can tap into this huge market.


Earlier this year, Inc magazine asked dozens of CEOs, venture capitalists, and technologists one question: If you were starting a business right now, what business would you start? Nearly half mentioned the opportunities associated with the baby-boom generation. These business leaders said that older adults represent a huge untapped market.

In a previous article, I examined how customer behavior can help pinpoint site usability problems. In this article, I will focus on how to improve site usability for the older generation.

A growing online, wealthy user segment
If baby boomers make up a substantial portion of your target e-commerce audience, there are two statistics you should know:
  • Older adults have money to spend. For example, adults aged 55-64 have an average net worth of $530,200, compared to about $65,900 for adults under 35, according to "Recent Changes in U.S. Family Finances: Results from the 1998 Survey of Consumer Finances," a study published in the January 2000 edition of the Federal Reserve Bulletin.
  • Older adults are getting online and spending that money in record numbers. Forty percent of adults aged 50-64 were already online last year, with a projected compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14 percent for that group over the next five years, according to Jupiter Media Metrix’s "Marketing and Branding, 3Q 2001" report, published this past January 2002 (to view report, you must log in for guest access). Jupiter also predicts a CAGR of 26 percent for adults over 65—five times the growth rate for adults aged 18-35.

But here’s something you may not know: Despite the huge opportunity older adults represent, many Web sites are unintentionally designed to repel the very customers that might prove to be the most profitable. One reason is that many Web sites are designed and tested by younger people—and that often leads to site layout and organization that isn’t easy to follow by older adults and seniors.

Making sure your site appeals to all
Poor design is always worrisome, but it is especially serious when a site’s content would otherwise appeal to the target audience. Research indicates that information that baby boomers find appealing includes:
  • Health care
  • Genealogy
  • Stocks and finances
  • Travel
  • Sweepstakes and contests
  • Greeting cards and other methods of connecting with loved ones (though not through instant messaging or chat)
  • Other online information from companies whose offline brands are already familiar

If you haven’t considered how your site design might be alienating older visitors, consider the following points as opportunities for improvement and for increasing profits. Keep in mind that there are many issues to consider when designing a site for older users and shoppers, and these are just a few important aspects.

Increase readability
As we age, we experience a reduction in visual clarity, making it difficult to distinguish slight changes in shade and hue. To help ensure readability, use large text—preferably nothing smaller than 12 points—and make sure that it contrasts well with the background. Stick with the basic fonts, such as Arial, Verdana, and Times New Roman. Use color as a redundant cue, but never create a situation where success is dependent on the perception of color.

Reduce eyestrain
Most bifocals are designed for reading printed material at downward angles and at distances of about 16 inches. By contrast, typical computer screens require an upward viewing angle and are normally about 24 inches away. You can help minimize eyestrain and fatigue by ensuring that each Web page has plenty of white space, and by removing all items that are visually distracting—such as blinking elements and excessive animation. You should also remove items that have little to do with the page content, such as hit counters.

Many people, including older adults, find it easier on the eyes to print interesting content and read it offline. Accommodate this desire by making pages printer-friendly. If possible, allow printing of content directly from the normal navigational path instead of providing a separate option to view printer-friendly pages.

Facilitate click success
Since older users make up one of fastest growing online segments, it follows that, as a group, they are also among the least experienced. That, combined with the fact that dexterity often decreases with age, means that links must be easy to click. Some textual links will be naturally larger due to increases in font and point size, but graphical hot spots should also be enlarged for older adults. Include more space between links so users won’t click on a link they don’t want.

Maintain high consistency
Unique ways of doing things may appeal to some people, but going out on a limb with your site design may alienate a large portion of baby boomers. Older adults and seniors will enjoy your site more if you focus on clarity over cleverness. You can facilitate clarity by sticking with well-established conventions for page layout, navigation, and site structure. This will help increase the success and enjoyment of all users—older adults included.

Flatten the site
In general, the deeper a site is, the more easily users can become confused about where they are in the site. A flat, broad site structure will typically be easier to use than a deep site with fewer options per level.

There are several strategies for flattening a site, three of which I'll mention here:
  • More information per page. In my experience, more per page is a viable option for seniors. They seem to be more comfortable with more content per page and seem more likely to take the time to read. In fact, there is almost a sense that they are getting a better value: more content per click. (Be careful, however, that your pages don’t become too dense.)
  • Pop-up windows. In general, I avoid pop-up windows, although they sometimes become necessary to help make a site seem flatter. If you must use pop-up windows, limit the navigation to a simple “Close Window” button and make the new window much smaller than the parent window. When a new window obscures the parent window, the effect to new users is simply that the all-important back button has become disabled.
  • Drop-down menus. In general, drop-down menus are difficult for older adults and should be avoided. Not only do they obscure available options, but also seniors typically have a difficult time clicking on the appropriate option, let alone understanding how they work.

Instill confidence
Older adults and those who are new to the Internet are especially concerned with privacy issues raised in the media. You can help allay fears by looking for any opportunity to instill confidence in your company and the security of information. Ensure that the user can easily find information about the company, including your privacy policy and, if appropriate, corporate biographies to help create a personal connection. Taking a step further by joining organizations such as TRUSTe and the Better Business Bureau will also help reassure site visitors.

Two words of caution
In concluding our examination of Web site usability for the older population, I am compelled to issue two statements of caution. First, if your primary audience is young, be careful not to go overboard in catering to the older generation, as you could inadvertently "turn off" the younger user base. Do realize, however, many improvements made for older adults will likely benefit younger users as well.

Second, if you truly want to make your site accessible to baby boomers, do solid research before making any changes so you'll be sure to get started on the right foot. Then check your assumptions by testing your designs with older adults.

If you truly want to make your site accessible to baby boomers, make sure you do reliable usability and site-user, demographics research to make sure you get started on the right foot. A good reference site is AARP’s research site. Then check your assumptions by testing your designs with older adults.

Dr. Kevin Scoresby is president of The Scoresby Group.

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