April 16, 2002, 12:00 AM

Seniors twice as slow on web tasks and their numbers are growing

Seniors took 70% longer to perform several common web functions than control groups, says Nielsen-Normal Group. An aging population has implications for web site design, but many sites today don’t see the future, the consulting company says.

 

Seniors asked to do four tasks on the web including shopping as part of a usability study took twice as much time as a control group of non-seniors, according to new research from web design advisors the Nielsen-Normal Group.

In the study, seniors aged 65 and over were asked to perform four tasks on the web: fact finding, retrieving data, comparing information on a single topic and buying an item online. Seniors completed a given task on average 52.9% of the time vs. the control group at 78.2%, and they took an average of 12 minutes, 33 seconds to do it vs. the control group`s average 7 minutes, 14 seconds. The study was conducted on four Japanese web sites and 10 U.S. sites, including Wine.com, Travel.com, and others.

Though the study didn’t break out data on seniors and online purchasing specifically, the results across all tasks have forward-planning implications for marketers, says principal Jakob Nielsen. Seniors are one of the fastest-growing populations online, mirroring general population trends: by 2050, the world population of persons aged 60 and older will for the first time exceed the population of children under the age of 14, according to the United Nations Population Division. Yet many web sites now make no accommodation for seniors’ reduced perceptual ability and fine motor skills, says Nielsen.

The study yielded 40 guidelines for web site designers and marketers. Among them are: adding features that allow users to enlarge text size to compensate for declining vision, improving navigation to accommodate short term memory loss, and finding alternatives to site features such as drop-down menus and very small buttons that require fine motor skills to manipulate the mouse.

“There may be a little bit of prejudice that older people don’t know about computers and won’t shop web sites. This is 100% false, and very damaging, if you look in the future,” Nielsen says. People who retire in 20 years, unlike most of today`s retirees, will have used computers in the workplace and will have a good understanding of computers, he points out. Yet the physical challenges of age will be the same for that group as for today’s seniors.

“Usability improvements now will benefit not only seniors, but also younger users who will one day become senior users. It’s never too early to start designing for the future,” says Nielsen.

 

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