accessibility aging Business large-print-keyboards The Internet usability Web Design

Usability Begins at Home – 3 Challenges in Usability Testing with Older Users

Have you ever gone to a web site and had a hard time navigating around the site? Ever try to purchase something online only to find the steps so confusing and unintuitive you give up and buy somewhere else?

Web sites that suffer from poor usability almost invariably also suffer from poor readership and sales. That's why a small, but growing number of companies are starting to put some time and money into usability testing. They are, quite shockingly, actually watching their users try to use their web site.

People age 60 and up are the fastest-growing user group on the web, and a large number of sites will want them as customers. In this post, I want to talk about a test I ran with an older user where the web site was actually not at fault – at least not primarily at fault – for a severe lack of usability. We will cover the three major challenges you need to address when doing usability testing with older adults.

The web site was targeted at a wide range of users, specifically including the elderly. I was running an informal usability test with two middle-aged users and one elderly user. The middle-aged users were experienced users of office software and occasional web users. They were able to walk through the tasks reasonably well, although it was apparent some of the labels were a little unclear and could use tweaking.

The first challenge of testing with older users and computer novices is use of the mouse. If you are not yet used to using a mouse, moving the pointer accurately can seem unnatural and disconnected. The use of mouse buttons can also be a challenge – in my experience, novice users will either often click the wrong button or stop and ask at every click - “should I right-click or left-click?�

How do you teach grandma, grandpa, or the nice lady who volunteers for the church how to use a mouse? Luckily, there is a software package almost guaranteed to work – and it's free- and you already have it. It's called solitaire. The only way to improve is through practice, but just about everyone seems to be able to pick it up after enough solitaire. I became comfortable with a mouse in a couple of days by playing GeoWorks solitaire on a blazing fast 286, it worked for both of my grandmothers, and it worked for this particular user.

The second challenge is visual. It can be very tempting for designers to make web sites “best viewed at 1024x768 resolution,� and it can be very tempting for usability researchers to make everyone use the same font and resolution settings, to eliminate independent variables. Visually impaired users tend not to care about your pixel-perfect design or your variables, and they will change the font and resolution settings. Your site (and your experimental design) had better be able to cope with it, or risk losing older people as customers altogether.

And, of course, your most important users are blind.

I was aware of both of these challenges when I began my test with my third user. She had little experience with the web but had used terminals in the 70s and 80s and was an avid player of solitaire, free cell, and other computer card games. In addition, her resolution was set to 800x600 and her fonts were set larger than normal, just as she would normally use.

The first task was to sign up for a user account. The user was able to quickly find the link and click to the sign up page.

The third challenge became apparent very quickly once she got to the form. She clicked in the first text box, and then began a slow, painful process of searching the keyboard for letters. The keyboard itself can be a usability problem!

Many of the older users you will encounter learned to touch-type on terminals, word processors, or typewriters and can transfer that skill to using the web. On the other hand, many, many people who were able to hunt-and-peck their way through their entire career find they are unable to do so as their vision deteriorates.

This was an informal usability study, so was not keeping time—but if I had been, the site would have failed miserably. My participant worked for a full half hour on the sign-up page, filling just 10 form fields. The effort required was obviously way to much, especially since use of this web application would require small amounts of typing on a daily basis.

How do you address the third challenge? You have two options:

  1. Eliminate as much typing as possible. Many users ignore your site navigation and immediately start searching, but you must continue to make all points in your site accessible by clicking down a hierarchy or other organizational scheme. Take a look at every text input in every form on your site – how much of that information is really needed? Make it very clear when some items are optional and others are required, and try to keep the number of required fields to a minimum. Will the world come to an end if not every user gives you their zip code?
  2. Address the problem at the root – replace the user's keyboard with a large-text keyboard. Now obviously, if you have a general-interest web site you will not have access to each user's home, and it would be expensive to distribute free keyboards through the neighborhood like Halloween candy. In some cases, however, giving a user a large-print keyboards that cost less than $10 may very well be worth a $20/month subscription fee, or thousands of dollars in direct sales. At the very least, if you expect to have a large elderly user population, offer large-print keyboards on your site or link to someone who does.

If you are looking for a large-print keyboard, I have found them at Amazon.

Search for large-print keyboards.