Boomers are the largest generation in history – so how do you make sure they can use your website?

Many people think accessibility is only for people who have disabilities.

However, the groups of people who benefit from accessibility are actually much broader than that, including:

  • people who are older
  • and all of us who have situational impairments when we are mobile (like not being able to read our mobile screens when driving, or type on a mobile when feeding a baby).

Demographically, our population is ageing. Boomers – children of the late 40s, 50s and early 60s, whose youngest members are now 54 – are the largest generation in history. They also have significant buying power – in the USA boomers have $6.3 trillion in home equity, so are a key market for all businesses,

So if older people are a key consumer group, how should you ensure that they can use your websites and mobile apps?

Digital technologies, and the accessibility opportunities they offer, have a huge amount to offer to people who are ageing.

To give one example: my mother is slowly losing her sight now she is in her 80s, which makes reading books – something she adores – harder and harder. Getting enough background light on the page requires getting the right lights to read, in all the places she wants to read, and angling them just right. Or it involves getting an iPad or Kindle and reading electronic books on a device with its own backlight, and which allows the text size to be increased to the size that’s easiest for her to read. Which do you think we did?

Despite this, I still find it rare that people think about accessibility from the perspective of older people.

So I’m hoping to spark some more conversation by sharing some highlights from my interview with Andrew Arch, who led the WAI-AGE work at the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative on the link between accessibility standards and ageing.

Our conversation touches on topics like:

  • are the needs of people with disabilities and people who are ageing the same?
  • do older people use screen readers?
  • do the colours you use on a site matter?
  • if older people prefer tablets and smartphones to computers, what is the main thing they dislike about browsing sites on touchscreens?
  • how do you get people to relate to disability as a personal thing, rather than a technical solution?

Find out more by watching the video below, or reading the transcript:

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Transcript of video

[Andrew]
In Japan, by the end of this decade, 35% of the people will be over 65. That means that one third of your users in Japan included in usability studies should be older people.

[Voiceover]
Jonathan Hassell interviews Andrew Arch on web accessibility for older people.

[Jonathan]
This evening I have Andrew Arch with me. Andrew, I think the last time I saw you must have been – it feels like 2009 or something.

[Andrew]
That’s probably right.

[Jonathan]
Yes. I think it was Techshare in London.

What you were talking about at Techshare was the work you were doing at WAI-AGE. For me, and the reason that I wanted to get you on camera, is that it still feels like a lot of people, when they think about accessibility, are just thinking about disabled people.

The research that you were doing was actually much broader than that, about people who are maybe a little bit older. Can you tell me about – why did you start with that work? What was your original impetus?

[Andrew]
The impetus for that, I mean before that moving to Europe, I was working with Vision Australia, the blindness agency, what’s now Virtual International Blindness Agency in Australia.

In Australia we had two blindness agencies. One was the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind that basically looked after school children. Then Vision Australia that looked after university and people who acquired visual impairments later in life.

The older you get the more likely you are to have vision problems, as well as the normal degradation of sight with contrast acuity and those types of things that go with it. If you don’t need reading glasses by the time you’re 50, if you haven’t needed them at school or earlier on, you’re going to probably need them by the time you’re 50. I have to remember to carry mine with me these days because I get in trouble from my wife if she has to read the menu to me in a restaurant.

[Jonathan]
It’s the one aspect of accessibility that I think, everyone can relate to because it’s the one aspect that is there in all of our futures.

[Andrew]
Blindness isn’t the only thing that goes on as you get older, Vision Australia was also looking after a whole lot of other needs. The shop sold all those things like the Oxo… Did you see…? It’s yours…

[Jonathan]
Exactly. It’s my example.

[Andrew]
The Oxo appliances because people’s dexterity was going, their strength was going, they needed larger print things. They needed things that were easy to use around the home, so the whole lot of that stuff and tried to help people continue their independent life longer, not just because of sight loss but all the other things that start to go wrong as we get older. I had an interest in that as well.

The European Commission is very, very interested in ageing because in a number of the European countries the proportion of people in the older age group, and we’re typically talking about over 65 when we say that, was going up dramatically.

Countries like Spain, is one that comes to mind particularly, where it was much higher than the UK and much, much higher than Australia because we’ve still got a lot of immigrants.

But the particular project then was looking at keeping in touch with the community, being able to do shopping online. All that sort of stuff helps somebody to maintain their independence for longer and is cheaper for the governments to keep people independent for as long as they can, rather than putting them into care.

The W3C had put forward a project to say, “Okay, we know all this stuff about people with disabilities, what we traditionally call people with disabilities and they’re usually people with seeing disabilities, how much of that applies to older people? Can we just say to accommodate our older people we need to do all the same things? Is there something different that we need to do and so on?”

That’s where that project came from that I was in France for a year and then in the UK for two years working on that.

[Jonathan] If there is one demographic which is actually growing…

[Andrew]
And growing online.

[Jonathan]
Growing online, absolutely, it’s people who are older. Can you maybe just summarise for people who are maybe watching the video, are there particular difficulties that people who are older are having? What do they mean for people who are trying to create products to actually appeal to those people?

[Andrew]
Well, a lot of what the W3C and the Web Content Accessibility guidelines have documented applies directly. But what we found, looking at what their needs were and excluding people who already had a disability from growing older, was that it was more a lot of usability stuff rather than the technical solutions. Things like marking up your headings correctly in a table didn’t apply because these people still had some sight.

They weren’t interested, most of them, in learning how to use a screen reader when they turned 80. There’s a few people who want the challenge of doing that, but they basically just want to use their computer they way the rest of the family uses it. In fact, one of the things that we found is that they didn’t want to be different from the rest of the family, they wanted to be part of the family and not to have to use some weird bit of technology.

[Jonathan]
Sure.

[Andrew]
Two things that I really particularly pick on is that the contrast acuity goes down as you get older and the lens also yellows in the eye. That means that they won’t necessarily want black on white, but once you start using combinations of paler colours, they were particular favourites of web designers in the mid 2000s, they just don’t work for people.

The other thing is, with the dexterity, is that if somebody can show them how to, they want to make the text a little bit bigger because the sight has declined. But also it enables them to click on things a bit better. While we tend to think of associating labels with text boxes and labels with radio buttons as being something that somebody using a screen reader needs, somebody with low dexterity who can then click on the label to activate a radio button, it’s a whole lot easier than trying to click on that tiny little dot for the radio button.

Some technical things do apply directly but a lot of it was more about the usability of the site, the consistent navigation, those types of things, consistent presentation, that made a big difference to them.

[Jonathan]
Coming up to slightly more recent technologies. We’re moving to almost the default way of looking at the web, not being a desktop PC or even a laptop PC these days, but it feels like pretty much everything is tipped towards these things. Tablets are now becoming more and more purchased by all sorts of people.

Certainly from my user research the simplicity of them seems to appeal to a lot of older people. Yet what I also found is that there are some real problems with it as well, especially around the dexterity issues. I mean is that stuff that resonates with you?

[Andrew]
Absolutely. I mean even myself, if I’m trying to fill in a form I find that I have to zoom it because my finger isn’t fine enough to touch the controls on an iPad, particularly on an iPhone. The resolution is great, I love reading off it, but if I have to interact with it, the interaction elements that I use, instead of the point of a mouse, the tip of a finger is too coarse.

Being able to expand those things or having reasonably large targets in the first place is fantastic. That’s one of the things that the W3C has documented quite well, is the overlap, that strong overlap between accessibility and the mobile web.

Other aspects of it are you’ve got, with a mobile device you end up with situational impairments for want of a better phrase, situational disabilities. You go outside in the sunshine, you’ve got contrast issues. You’ve got bright lights in your own eyes but you’ve also got glare off the screen, all those sorts of things. Again, contrast becomes an issue.

You try and watch a video at home, you’ll just listen to the music there. When you’re out, even if you put the earphones on, if you’re on a train or a really noisy place you still can’t hear them, captions become really important. Again, those types of things translate for people with particular disabilities, older people with multiple impairments and those of us using these in places where you wouldn’t have used a computer.

[Jonathan]
Exactly. I think that gives people who don’t have a disability, and maybe don’t even wish to think about themselves being older and how it might be for them in 20-30 years time, I think it actually starts bringing things home to them that the things that maybe accessibility specialists and advocates have been talking about for a long time, aren’t just necessarily for a group of “people who aren’t us”.

Have you found that over time people have started to understand your reasons for working in this area and why this is important?

[Andrew]
Yes. When I used to teach about accessibility, one of the things that I would try and do is, because I’ve always found that if you get people to relate to disability as a personal thing rather than some technical solution, they’re much more inclined to take it on.

Most people, even in developed countries where the stats show us around 20% of the people have a severe disability, most people don’t know of somebody. Even those one in five people around us who probably have a disability, they don’t know anybody, but I would try and get them to relate to their grandparents because of the impairments and verging in disabilities that come with ageing and say, “Did your grandmother use her computer?” A lot of them, an increasing number of people say, “Yes” to that.

It’s a growing demographic – we’ve got the baby boomers moving into retirement, expecting to continue to use computers. As more and more people travel, the older people who are still home, whether they travelled or not in the past, want to stay in touch.

[Jonathan]
Well, Andrew, just one last question before we end. Do you see something coming up in technology directions that we’re going in that you think is either a real threat, a real challenge to accessibility or maybe people find challenges quite easily, maybe a real opportunity for accessibility?

[Andrew]
The thing that I find exciting is the convergence that’s happening in the hardware: in-car devices, talking televisions, you can gesture at your television now. You can talk to your computer with your Smartphone, maybe not your computer yet without the extra software, but this convergence where assistive technology is becoming mainstream, I find that exciting. I think that given a little bit longer we’re just going to see this stuff, everybody is going to expect to use it because of their situational disabilities. That’s going to make life a whole lot easier for many, not everyone, but many, many people with disabilities.

[Jonathan]
Yeah. That’s a great point to end. Thank you very much, Andrew Arch.

[Andrew]
Right! Thanks.

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