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Older Users Online: WAI Guidelines Address the Web Experiences of Older Users

Age matters with wine and cheese, and also with the user experience of older people on the Web. As we age, we experience increasing impairments that impact how we interact with computers and websites. This article provides a peek into some of these issues, and points to existing solutions for making websites accessible to older people, along with people with disabilities.

The Web Accessibility Initiative: Ageing Education and Harmonisation (WAI-AGE) Project aims to promote education and harmonization on the accessibility needs of older users. It includes an extensive literature review to learn about their requirements and will better explain W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) educational resources to web designers, developers, and older users. WAI-AGE is a European Commission-funded project of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

An Aging Population

Compared with any other period in human history, the next few decades will see an unparalleled growth in the number of elderly people. The United Nations estimates that by 2050 one out of every five people will be over 60 years of age; in some countries the proportion will be even higher. It is estimated that the European Union will experience a demographic shift from the year 2000 when 15.7% of the population was over 64, to an estimated older population of 17.6% in 2010 and 20.7% by 2020. In Japan, the change is even more dramatic with 20% of the population already over 65 in 2005, and forecast to increase to 27% by 2015.

Age-Related Impairments Affect Internet Use

With increases in age, often comes increased visual, auditory, physical, and cognitive impairments. The Royal National Institute for the Blind in the UK has estimated the number of older people in the UK affected by declining eyesight (significantly affecting daily living) as follows: 65-74 years: 15.8%; 75-84 years: 18.7%; 85+ years: 45.8%. Some specific declines include:

  • Changes in color perception and sensitivity (often making darker blues and black indistinguishable)
  • Pupil shrinkage (resulting in the need for more light)
  • Contrast sensitivity
  • Decreasing ability to focus on near tasks with a loss of peripheral vision

All of this impacts the ability to view a web page, perceive the information displayed, and notice small changes that may be applied as a result of selecting certain links.

With the increasing amount of audio and video on web-based news sites, entertainment sites, and social networking sites (such as YouTube), hearing loss can significantly affect an older personís access to this type of material if alternatives are not provided. Estimated percentages of the older UK population who experience moderate to profound deafness are: 61-80 years: 18.8%; 81+ years: 74.7%.

Arthritis, which affects 50% of Americans and Australians over 65, along with Parkinsonís disease, are primary physical debilitators of older people. Both arthritis and Parkinsonís are likely to cause difficulties using a mouse or other pointing devices, as well as using the keyboard.

There are many different types of cognitive deficits. Among older people, dementia, including Alzheimerís disease, appears to be the most common. Prevalence rates of dementia with age are estimated at 1.4% for those between 65-69 years, rising to 23.6% for those over 85 years.

Many older adults may not experience dementia or Alzheimerís, but might experience mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or subjective memory loss. Common experiences associated with MCI include:

  • Trouble remembering the names of people met recently
  • Trouble remembering the flow of a conversation
  • An increased tendency to misplace things

These factors likely affect how people use websites. For example, it may be difficult for some older people to understand the navigation design of websites, or to remember specifics about how to operate different user interfaces.

One of the issues with age-related functional impairment is that older people are likely to develop multiple impairments. Twenty percent of Americans over 70 reported dual sensory impairment. High levels of dual impairment are shown to increase the risk of difficulty with the “instrumental activities of daily living.”

As these impairments generally develop slowly, they are often not recognized as disabilities. Furthermore, many older people do not want to acknowledge the ageing process, and deny or disguise any functional or sensory impairment. In Australia, over half the population aged 60 years and over has a disability.

There is a false perception among many people that older people are not online. This is a myth: older people are the fastest growing web demographic. In the UK, recent surveys indicate that 30% of all those over 65 have used the Internet, up from 18% in 2006. With more reasons to be online, from communication to government to shopping to banking, we expect this proportion to continue growing.

Requirements for Elderly Users Identified From Literature

The W3C WAI has completed an extensive review of previous studies of older people online, and particularly the requirements for web design that would enhance their ability to use the Web. We reviewed the following types of literature:

  • Discussion of the general functional and sensory limitations often experienced as part of the ageing process
  • Collections of broad recommendations for making websites more accommodating for older users
  • Studies focused on the impact on web use of particular limitations experienced by older users
  • Studies looking at specific design aspects of websites, or specific types of sites and the general impact on older users

After reviewing this wide range of literature that considered age-related functional impairments and issues facing older web users, we are able to make some general observations about web experience of older users in these studies.

1. Information overload was one of the most common problems identified for older users. Particularly problematic is:

  • Too much material on the page, making it harder to focus on relevant material
  • Advertisements and movement distracting the users from their goals
  • Hypertext navigation providing nonlinear paths through the information
  • Different layouts, navigation structures, and interaction between sites

2. The experiential requirements for older users, rather than the technical aspects of sites, featured heavily among the recommendations:

  • Content and presentation-related aspects of the Webósuch as color, contrast, and spacingóreceived the most emphasis from the authors reviewed
  • Navigation-related issues, such as broad versus deep menu structures and the many ways in which links are portrayed, received significant emphasis from many authors

Many aspects of good usability emerged in the recommendations; they were not specific to older users, but are general usability principles for all users.

3. Web inexperience is currently an influencing factor in many studies and received a lot of discussion. When inexperience is combined with functional impairments, the combination can be overwhelming for some users. Inexperience will be significantly diminished as a major factor over time as additional older people gain access to the Web, and build experience. Additionally, many of the “younger older” users have been using the Web for years. However, new web applications and uses may create a new form of inexperience as the Web continues to evolve.

Some gaps were identified in the studies we reviewed including:

  • Hearing loss and deafness were clearly identified as a common sensory loss associated with ageing. However, these were not covered by the collected recommendations for meeting the needs of older users on the Web, nor in the reviewed research on age-related web use.
  • Existing web accessibility guidelines for people with disabilities were not acknowledged or discussed in most of the broad sets of recommendations for designing web pages to meet the needs of older users, nor were they discussed in much of the scientific literature.
  • In fact, we observed not only a lack of knowledge/acknowledgment of web accessibility guidelines, but a strong tendency to ìreinvent the wheel.î
  • Assistive technologies or adaptive strategies (and associated requirements) that might help accommodate impairments were seldom mentioned, possibly reflecting the fact that age-related impairments are seldom considered disabilities, just signs of “getting old.”

WAI Guidelines Cover Web Experiences of Older Users

After collating the requirements of older users identified during the literature review, we compared these needs with the accessibility guidelines developed by WAI:

  • WCAG-Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
  • ATAG-Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines
  • UAAG-User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (for browsers and media players)

Our comparative analysis showed that the majority of the presentation and navigation-related needs identified in the literature, such as contrast, text size, line spacing, and link identification, were covered within WCAG 2.0, along with the identified technical requirements such as the use of CSS. Some of the other needs, such as simplified interfaces, could be met by browser modifications.

WAI guidelines actually cover a broader range of age-related impairments and their impact on web use than the literature. Specifically, WAI includes the needs of people with hearing difficulties, a significant issue for older people. It also provides solutions so that non-mouse access to web pages are properly supported, which should assist older people with arthritis and other dexterity-related impairments.

Improving the Understanding of Users and Designers

To address some of these gaps in knowledge and awareness, and to better help designers meet the needs of the increasing number of older users, the WAI-AGE project is revising some of the existing WAI documents, such as the involvement of users with disabilities in the design process, and the business case for web accessibility. Involving older people and people with disabilities throughout the design and development process is essential to the understanding and full incorporation of their needs.

Additionally, some new documents are planned, including one to assist designers and developers to understand the relationship of WCAG 2.0 to older users’ requirements. Another document will help older users and their teachers better understand how to adapt the browser to accommodate impairments, and what assistive technologies may be of benefit.

We hope that the results of this project, including the literature review itself, will help researchers target new areas that still need investigation with respect to use of the Web by older people, such as hearing decline and cognitive issues. We also hope that the project will help researchers gain a more comprehensive understanding of WAIís work and build on it further as some of the needs of older users are better understood.


The literature review undertaken by the WAI-AGE project identified significant overlap between the accessibility needs of older users and people with disabilities. It also determined that WCAG 2.0 meets most of the identified requirements of older web users. However, there is an ongoing fragmentation and redevelopment of new standards rather than adoption of existing ones. One of the aims of this project is to connect the two communities and the associated research and investigation to encourage further development and support of existing accessibility standards.

The literature review also shows a need for more research in specific areas of internet access by the elderly-for example, age-related hearing loss, navigation styles and preferences, and the use of adaptive strategies for web browsing.

The project invites participation by experts, trainers, researchers, and users interested in promoting accessible web solutions. The preparation of pages that meet the needs of older users, as well as people with disabilities, would be much easier to achieve if authoring tools, including content management systems (CMS) and blogging software, conformed to ATAG and helped with the generation of accessible websites. With the propensity to work longer, ATAG conforming authoring tools would also enable better working environments for older people.