Accessibility is not only about disabilities. The process of aging and situational disability has a significant impact on how we perceive and interact with digital products. The article shows that, especially from the web development perspective, accessibility can improve the experience of all users.
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As Daniel Defoe wrote, there are only two certain things in this world – death and taxes. But when looking at it from the perspective of web design, we're going to focus on the first one.
As humans, we have a tendency to act as if we were immortal. We often forget about that we're all aging. Yep, whether we like it or not – we're all going to be like our parents (and grandparents) in the future. That means that we will see a decline in our physical and cognitive abilities.
But what do these "growing pains" have to do with web development?
Quite a lot, actually. They relate to the concept of accessibility, which is described in many countries with great respect and is the subject to many restrictive rights.
How does accessibility affect our lives as we age?
For many of us, though, accessibility is mainly associated with design that considers people with various disabilities - visual, auditory, motor, or cognitive. Fewer people are aware that everyone has become partially disabled somehow in their lives due to temporary injuries, broken arms, eye surgery, or even ear infections. We can experience situational disability even several times a day. Let's visualize it.
Try to remind yourself the last time you couldn't unlock the phone because your fingers were stiff from the frost or when you couldn't see the screen through the blinding light. Can you remember a moment when you couldn't write an SMS while driving the bus, or couldn't find a contact on the phone because you were holding an infant in your hands?
I think most of us have experienced something like that. Now that we've established that link between accessibility and age – let's dive a little bit deeper into how it affects the way we navigate online.
Accessibility and web design
Even in their forties, many people are tech-savvy and still have many great digital years ahead of them. Not meaning to be the bearer of bad news, but global research results are inexorably standing in front of our eyes.
The aging process, cognitive, visual, and dexterity abilities decline from around age forty or even earlier. According to studies on people aged 25-60, website user abilities drop by 0.8% each year. Research outcome evidences a decrease of abilities through longer time spent on websites and navigational problems that arise during the activity. Thus, by recalculating these data, a statistical 40-year-old will spend 8% of the time more on a specific task than a 30-year-old who will try to perform the same assignments. The difficulty will increase linearly to expect an extension of needed time by another 8% for a 50-year-old person.
Some will rebel against this claim, but 40 is the new 30 today. Today's 40-year-olds are different from the 40-year-olds ten years ago. Of course, this impacts aging processes. In some cases, technological and digital disability will either progress or slow down.
Today's 40-year-olds come from the generation of digital natives, which isn't without significance for how they experience technological development. This term was coined in 2001 by Marc Prensky for people born after 1980 who are all "native speakers" of the digital language we use to operate computers, video games, or the internet.
Digital immigrants, in contrast, were born in pre-digitization times and may find it harder to learn specific tools.
Now, which of these aging processes affect web accessibility design for older users?
We're now going to discover how design solutions can will help reduce emerging problems in the usability of websites.
How can you improve accessibility with better design?
Addressing Visual Accessibility
Vision problems are increasingly common nowadays. We know that spending many hours in front of screens significantly worsens eyesight quality and defects, causing the need to wear corrective glasses. Among the examined problems, we can find farsightedness, which mainly affects people aged between 42 and 44.
Our changing psychology will also influence how we understand, follow, view content, and take action. Let's recall all the madness of youth and how we look at it from the perspective of 10, 20, 30 years… There are some things we would never do again.
This also relates to the way we navigate on the web.
As we age, the way we scan screens slows down through risk aversion and a much greater fear of making mistakes. The older we get, the more carefully we read and study the content before taking the right kind of action.
So what can we do to ease the experience of website activities and navigate through them successfully?
- One of the most important tips will be to maximize the readability of the essential text by using simple fonts (like Arial, Frutiger, Helvetica, Lucida, Universe, or Verdana).
- We should avoid fashionable fonts, stylized like italics, light-weight or condensed, and of course, resign from using all caps entirely for body text.
- It is easier to scan information by using a uniform background, static text, lots of clear spaces, and allowing the user to magnify the content.
- Minimize clutter on your space and if you need to locate displays banners or pop-up advertisements, be sure that the ads wouldn't distract users from doing what they came to achieve on the website.
Research also shows that the older we are, the easier it is to get distracted. Thus, removing all unnecessary visual elements and excess ones is strongly recommended. We should especially get rid of those that become pure decoration, contextual ads, or animations that distract the user from achieving the goal.
Also keep in mind that having a CTA everywhere makes it lose strength. So, let's limit it to a few of the most important ones.
Imagine yourself as a guide on your website that shows the way around. Make sure that what you want to present and what you want to achieve is visible. In particular, focus on the navigation and control elements - links, menus, and buttons should stand out from the crowd. Clearly distinguish these interactive elements from non-interactive, clickable, and non-clickable by using different colors and states.
Also, don't be afraid to use stronger underlines - boldface or font size. Adequately used color can help you emphasize the most crucial information and thus not lose the user.
Colors are significant in design. We know how psychologically they can affect recipients. They can be associated with the appropriate senses, evoke moods, memories and stimulate action. They have enormous power, so we must pay special attention to their use while designing web accessibility for aging users.
So, let's use color in fonts, buttons, body text, illustrations, and boxes wisely.
Remember to check the contrast ratio with WCAG 2.0 requirements. It is essential and emphasized, especially in accessibility for people with visual disabilities.. When colors are posted on the website, you should consider their perception in performing appropriate tasks.
Taking users' motor skills into account
Users' motor skills also change with age.
For most people, arms, hands, and fingers movements are noticeably less precise than they used to be.
It also affects the way of handling electrical devices that have screens, e.g., touch screens, controller support, such as mice, keyboards, or touchpads, not to mention the activities required for this, such as extending, scrolling, tapping, and other multi-finger gestures.
How can we support these complex activities responsible for successful digital actions?
The most important thing is to make sure that the user can hit the target by using the cursor on desktop and laptop computers or tapping on the touch screens. This includes designing a space that maximizes clickable zones and maintains sufficient distance between clickable targets.
It's known that modern touch devices and the programs and applications themselves try to include instructions explaining the set of gestures used to operate them.
Still, despite this, their creators should, as a guiding principle, keep input gestures as simple as possible. This includes carefully designing or avoiding multilevel menus and multi-finger gestures on touchpads and touchscreens. It's recommended that developers plan the tap or swipe gestures based on one finger. Whenever such active action is taken, applications and sites should inform that the target has been selected.
Better design for Hearing and speech
Hearing and speech are perhaps the least perceived loss of sensory ability in aging.
As we age, we gradually lose our hearing, or our sense of it becomes dull. Research shows that hearing loss is 10% in users aged 45-49, 33% for people aged 60-65, 55% aged 75-80, and over 80, it increases even to 89%.
We can now talk about the gradual diminishing of this sense even from the age of 12... How can we support users in this inevitable process?
1. Whenever possible, try to minimize distracting background noise for our products.
2. Don't design them with background music or self-playing videos unrelated to your goals.
3. You should also provide multiple ways of obtaining information.
4. Supplement the videos with self-description, images with signatures, and alt texts.
5. Let users enter data by speech.
All of these recommendations can help us leave our users in a positive mood about the digital experience we offer.
Designing for various cognitive levels
Some aging processes appear or speed up at different stages of life. Like the hearing and speech mentioned above, some change slowly after maturity.
But surprisingly, cognitive processes also turn out to be slower and more prone to errors when we are still relatively young.
After all, we are now living in the era of information overload. We receive more information in a day than people in the nineteenth century received throughout their lives.
This information overload diametrically affects our cognitive processes, perception, understanding, concentration, speed, accuracy in decision-making and activity. And, how do these declining cognitive abilities influence the way we deal with internet activities? First of all, short-term memory capacity changes significantly. We aren't able to learn new things so quickly. It is becoming more and more difficult for us to recall simple things - the names of places, shops from which we buy, telephone numbers, or a recently searched place for the next vacation.
The recommended hints can then come to the rescue, self-filling forms of inputs based on our previously used data, or a system suggesting the most frequent searches, recently viewed, or automatic correction of errors in search engines.
Another cognitive challenge, also related to the era of information overload, is the ease with which everyone is dispersed today – it becomes more difficult to ignore distractions and focus our attention on specific activities. So, focusing on simplicity, minimizing the stimuli, and eliminating irrelevant functions and visual elements will come in handy in web design.
Visual parallax can look seductive and enticing on pages with a non-standard content view. But studies show that many of us, especially maturing and aging ones, perceive these types of merry-go-rounds as nauseous. Hence, it's worth letting the user stop these extra effects and enabling a simpler content browsing version.
The limitation of interactive elements is also essential. Today people are aware that they can't do several tasks equally well at once. Thus, limiting interactive elements from three to seven per page and the number of simultaneous actions to one is recommended.
Excessive creativity also doesn't support our age-increasing problems with solving complex operations. Have you come up with a new, custom icon for a shop, home, or sharing?
Unfortunately, such creativity may become tricky for understanding by a 30-year-old who has been on the web for a long time, let alone much older people. Don't reinvent the wheel. Let's use permanent and recognizable icons, signs of brands, or even the shapes of the buttons resembling a rectangle, not a triangle, trapezoid, or polygon. It's important to stick to constant and developed patterns, including placing the search bar on the top right side, the home logo on the top left side, and contact information on the bottom side of the page. These patterns are also associated with the ability always to find oneself while navigating the site and return to a safe starting point, even if we give up on breadcrumbs.
You can show operation status and progress in a completely different way. It isn't worth forgetting about the clear marking of headings, subtitles, links, and navigation elements, which, like a thread in the myth about Ariadne, will lead us straight to the starting point.
The last issue that slowly became famous thanks to UX writers' work is the vocabulary used on websites. Both microcopies and copies placed on websites should either be based on in-depth studies of the nature of the main users or a guiding principle - be understandable to everyone.
Even the most interestingly designed error alert about the problem with the UI of the website will not be understood by all users. So let's avoid non-common acronyms, technical jargon, fancy words only for young people or selected groups.
Let's explain concepts in human terms briefly, while conveying information in an active and positive way. Use strong words to label page elements. And, above all, write in a concise, plain, and direct way that your recipients are familiar with.
As we can see, accessibility is a vast subject. Many issues and tips can be perceived and developed in its area.
The most important takeaway is to free yourself from the thought that accessibility is just a contrast ratio and creating with disability in mind. Each of us needs and will need accessibility.
Therefore, inclusive accessibility can be extremely beneficial when it comes to website design.
Let's avoid poorly thought-out web design – at least until we discover the secret of immortality.
Johnson J., Finn K., Designing User Interfaces For Aging Population. Towards Universal Design, Cambridge 2017
Arch A., Web Accessibility for Older Users – Successes and Opportunities,
World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), Web Accessibility Initiative, France 2009
Firth Ashley, Practical Web Inclusion and Accessibility. A Comprehensive Guide to Access Needs, Apress 2019