4 ways to support an older website user

A cartoon of a man clutching a can labelled time


Designing for a more experienced user's experience

Sometimes no matter how perfect you think your design is, it doesn’t work out in usability testing. All of us know how frustrating this can be. To the point you are sat on your hands and chewing your lips to stop you from screaming at your participant: “It’s right in front of you! Just click the call to action!" So how do we recognise something as a usability issue and not an errrr, ‘user issue’? Or rather, how can we always be sure that an issue raised during testing, is actually an issue and not a result of an ‘ID-10T error’? Expertise and of course context is normally how we approach it. Or rather, how many people have said the same thing and has the facilitator provided enough task direction to the participant. Allowing us to assess and work out if the response is an anomaly or indeed a true issue. If the user is rather more ‘experienced’ in life and on the other side of middle age, it’s quite easy for us to attribute an error to their age rather than say their actual cognitive ability. But is there actually any science here? Or is it all ageist garbage?

Support 1.01:  Users visiting a website with a novel concept have no idea how to interact with it

Mental models represent how our mind shapes and makes sense of the world. Our brain creates ideas about concepts and an idea of how the world functions, including the relationships between other concepts and items. The concepts combine to create a mental model. It's based on assumptions made during experiences.  User experience focuses on understanding and matching-up mental models with conceptual models.  The conceptual model represents the actual design, website or interface that we actually use.  The aim is to achieve the best fit between the mental and conceptual model. If I shout charity homepage to you, you would immediately think of a typical layout. Clear ethos, clearly located donate button, engaging images, it's because you have a mental model of a charity homepage. Whereas if I shouted the word internet at you, you could imagine anything! You might imagine a Google search page, a collection of social media websites, and a group of computers connected to a server. These lead to a mental model of the internet. You have an idea of things that are inside it, the relationships between the items. We’ve evolved this way, using similar environments to work out how to act in a new one!

Hmmm, I have seen a berry that was bright in colour like this one; I’m not going to eat it because I know the other one was poisonous.

If a user is on the RHS website for the first time, having never visited a website offering days out and ‘experiences’ before. Their ideas of where information will lie will be warped and taken from something that is not related. That is, they expect the site to be just like the real world, or another website that is completely unrelated! Conclusions; someone with far less hands on experience with technology and an idea of how something should work fails to interact successfully with a new website. This also explains why there is a large market of ‘simple’ mobile phones targeted at senior users; as they fit their conceptual model of a phone more than a Galaxy Siii for example: http://cellphonesforseniorcitizens.blogspot.co.uk. Fix: Take this into account when recruiting participants, make sure you get a great balance of experienced and inexperienced users, especially those in an upper age threshold. This ensures you get representative, realistic observations and data.

Support 1.02: Older users need more time

There is a trail of thought that actually experience is only part of the story. One study (Westerman) looked at participants aged below and above 50. They found that when searching a database about fish on a website, participants looking for a specific piece of information were slower if they were over 50. However, they became faster during a subsequent similar task. BINGO! It’s down to experience and their conceptual model right? Wrong! Freudenthal found that as a similar progressive task went on, the more information the participant struggled to balance what they had already read and processed with what they were reading. Therefore it took longer to complete the task than a much younger group. That is, older participants struggle more as a testing session progresses. This means older participants need more time, and are forced to refer back to content much more than younger users.

Support 1.03: Older users rely on a shallow navigation

Spatial ability is how well we can remember the position of things on a map. Freudenthal did indeed find that the older participants are less spatially able and struggle to track their location. Conclusions: the deeper your navigation the harder someone aged 50+ will find it to navigate your site. Fixes: Typically a navigation that is broad and shallow will support someone with a spatial ability more than one that is narrow and deep.

Support 1.04: Making allowances in a testing for older users doesn't mean your design is bad

Sein and Bostrom found that those with a high spatial ability are better at creating a mental model of the website's structure. This means that actually people have a flawed conceptual model not because of their experience but because of their age! So how do we approach these issues? Well, this is all made worse by websites that put mega strain on cognitive load; flooding users with tonnes of information that blends in too much with its surrounding information. For more information see; ‘Simplicity? Complexity? Persuasion.’ for an idea of what this is. During testing sessions we need to consider it as a time thing. Take searching times with a pinch of salt for more experienced in life users, their ability to search is physically inhibited. To get better results, make sure your users can move back and forth in tasks, this helps an inhibited spatial awareness and makes it a lot easier to develop a conceptual model of the website you are testing. Most importantly, just because an older user doesn't complete a task as quickly as a younger one does not mean that your design is necessarily bad. They are often physically hindered in completing it. And remember, the deep end is much shallower for younger users.

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