Ted Hickman

Digital non-natives: how to build websites with over 50s in mind



Not all over 50s are the same. Some people over the age of 50 are so computer competent that they can show their children. However, when we design, we do not design for the exceptional. We design to make our site accessible for everyone, including those facing the challenges of a digital world they were not born into. There are also some harsh truths to face when growing older, as our hearing, sight, and fine motor control decline. We, therefore, need our web designers to show more consideration when it comes to those who are not especially well versed in digital.

Why is an article such as this necessary? Well, the average age of a web designer across the globe is 37. The internet became mainstream 31 years ago. The people designing the online experience do not have the experience or mindset to understand how life online might feel a little foreign. Therefore, this article seeks to demonstrate how you can adapt website development to be more accessible and inclusive of an age group that spent nearly £15 billion online last year. 

Designing for reduced vision

Human eyesight is at its peak at the age of 30. After the age of 40, most adults experience a rapid decline in vision. For most, this means age-related long-sightedness, where your arm needs an extension lead to help you read small text. However, as we age, we also lose some of our perception and sensitivity to colour. Consequently, coloured text on a similarly coloured background becomes much harder to read.

There are some obvious choices here for the web developer. First, the size of your font needs to be at least size 12. Second, you need to use contrasting colours, making the background distinctly different to the text. Text over an image is likely a poor design choice, and text should be on a block of colour.

Making the sound clear

People over 50 are also likely to experience some decline in hearing. For those over 60, the reduction in hearing can be sharp, with over 50% reporting some difficulty hearing or deafness. Consequently, video or audio content on your site can be challenging. 

The answer is simple: close caption software that automatically creates subtitles. If you want to increase the levels of accessibility, you might also want to include a transcript. Explainer videos often include a lot of vital information in quick time. Watching the video and following the captions closely enough might be too difficult. Consequently, a transcript can allow the user to browse the audio at their own pace.

Not-so-nimble fingers

While some over 50s will work at a desktop or laptop, it is more likely your user will be on a smartphone or tablet. Mobile-friendly sites are already designed to consider the problems of people with sausages for fingers. However, your dexterity declines, along with your hand-eye coordination, as you grow older. Therefore, hitting small links with the tip of your finger feels frustrating.

Designing an accessible website for those with poor dexterity means using a lot of white space between hotspots on the screen. Also, rather than linking with words, using an onscreen button is a great option. When thinking about your design, consider the impact of arthritis on a person and how this individual might still use your website.

Reluctant mindset

A person over 50 is more likely to abandon an online task than the rest of the population. It is not that they lack resilience or open-mindedness; they lack the experience and tools to puzzle out innovations. When dropping someone in a foreign land, it is good to give them a map to find their way. We are naturally conservative when we are uncertain, so having the security of a relatively standard navigation system helps. 

Web developers are naturally inclined toward innovation and seeking new and fancy ways of displaying the most information and options possible. When designing for the over 50s, it is best to curb these impulses and instead lean into some of the standard functionality that will be more intuitive.

You also need to avoid being too funky with your copy on your site. While having acronyms and jargon might make you feel innovative and tech-savvy, they will leave your non-native flummoxed and excluded. Plain English is often the best way in all parts of the business, especially when you seek to be inclusive.

Making so everyone feels welcome

It is easy to be dismissive of these generalisations. We all know plenty of people who would feel offended by the characterisation offered here. Many boomers have an excellent mindset, looking to grow all the time, especially with technology. The suggestion here is not that the over 50s are incapable, but that some may struggle and therefore making your site accessible to all may require some time on these issues.

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