Closing the Usability Age Gap

In this post, we discuss some of the things the separate Generation Y from older generations, and how we can create a great user experience for both demographics.

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Closing the Usability Age GapImage by krisdye

Like others of my generation, I grew up side by side with computers. I remember trying to come up with sites to visit just so I could use the internet. We had computer time in class. By age 15 I had my own laptop. So of course, being on the internet is like breathing (both easy and a necessary part of life).

For older generations, like my parents, things aren’t so obvious. We teased one of my high school teachers when we told him to look something up on Google and he said that he didn’t have it and would probably have to download it first. My boss had a hard time comprehending why he needed to buy both a domain and hosting for the website he was trying to put together. It’s overwhelming for me to help my mom build a website because she just doesn’t understand why marquee headers, colored scroll bars, and trailing mice are tacky and embarrassing.

Slowly, but surely, they are catching on. More and more adults are joining Facebook and creating their own web pages. We want to explore what makes them different from Generation Y, and how to please both audiences for maximum usability.

Natural Explorers vs. Show and Tell

Generation Y travels at full speed and never slows down, even on the web.Image by thatguyfromcchs08

In order to make your site usable for all ages, it is important to know how these two demographics function.
People ask me all the time how I know how to do so much on a computer. The answer is: I don’t. Using technology requires a trial and error approach. I understand that when I am doing something for the first time, I need to look at all of the available options. Then if I don’t know the answer to my problem, I Google it. I go at a fast pace and never look back.

Older adults who are still trying to adapt to a computer and don’t know much about the internet want to be shown how to do everything. A slow pace, step-by-step instructions, and repetition are often essential for teaching them the ropes. They always ask me “how did you do that!” or “I didn’t know you could do that!” so they may not be aware of special features you have to offer unless it is shown to them.

Optional Tutorials

If your website offers a product or service, consider a tutorial of sorts. Show what the process is and the best way to go about getting stuff done. Be sure to include tips and tricks or other cool features users will be interested in. Make this available for users to refer to whenever they want with an easy to find link. However, don’t make this mandatory. If someone doesn’t want help, this will be more annoying than helpful.

Email vs. Phone

Different ages get in touch differentlyImage by nichollsphotos

While younger generations enjoy the ease of email, older generations are looking for a “real” person to help them. I like the idea of an email because it means less interaction and more simplicity; the answer to my problem is documented in my inbox for easy reference. My boss, however, looks for a phone number to contact. He wants to be able to ask as many questions as he wants and have them answered instantly. Make yourself available to both groups by including both forms of contact.

Helpful Additions for Any Age

If you are explaining a process, use both pictures and words.  If I want to figure something out, I will look for the fastest way possible, and pictures will help me to achieve this goal. Pictures by themselves are not always self explanatory, which is where the words come into play. Also, text only explanations can sometimes be confusing or misleading.

If you have links or icons, use an alt tag so users know what it’s for when the mouse hovers over them. My mom is a big fan of this and will even read them out loud. Plus not everyone is willing to click and see what something does. Some of my friends even ask me to poke them on Facebook so they can try it out before using it on someone they don’t want to be embarrassed in front of!

What are your experiences?

How have you met the needs of different generations through design? Tell us below!

About the Author

Andrea G

Andrea is a student at the University of Georgia studying Agricultural Communication. Andrea enjoys anything to do with the internet, especially blogging. She doesn’t think all generations older than hers are completely inept at using technology; her dad practically taught her everything she knows. She is the creator and writer of; a blog that remembers the childhood memories of generation Y.


  • Richard Reply

    Really enjoyed the post. It is very easy to just ‘understand’ what you do because you do it. Its great to try and get into a different perspective and understand why and how other people do what they do =D

  • yul Reply

    Sometimes drawing an idea is the simpliest way to be understood by the others.

    Nevertheless, you’ll have to use some well-known graphics, to avoid misunderstood.

    Use text for main actions (actions you know that your users are often looking for : a category on your site…), & icons for something more specific (for example explaining how to use something on your website) maybe a good practice.

    Of course, it depends of your targeted users.

  • Andrea G Reply

    Haha that’s a question people ask me all the time; it’s not talking to crops or cows like most people jest, but more like talking about them! I take my communication classes (PR, advertising, telecomm, journalism) with the journalism college and then agriculture classes (poultry science, turf management, foodscience, etc) with the college of agriculture and environmental sciences. So its like a specialized or “niche” communication degree, and I love it because of the variety. Someday I hope to be the communications director for a commodity group or agribusiness… and the craziest part of all is that I’m from the suburbs!

    Glad you guys liked the article :)

  • John C Reply

    Really nice article.

    Definitely check out CJR’s interview with Clay Shirky, where he talks about (the myth of) information overload and the use filters to find what we want. He specifically says that it is harder for older generations to “unlearn” or downplay the filters that have helped them in the past.

    One thing that I am always conscious of is that older generations equate searching with knowing where to find something, whereas with, say, a search engine, this part is done for you. You instead focus on being as unambiguous as possible about what you want. Knowing where to look is usually irrelevant since Google does that part better than you.

    As far as interfaces go…I love it when a site has a clear next action. And when I explain an interface to someone, as I often have to do, I usually try to explain the “why” as I imagine this is easier to remember than just the specific action. But some people don’t want to hear it. Processing information, storing concepts, and just generally organizing our thoughts is a very personal things. Seeing how people do this on their computer is often an insight into how their mind works in this regard. But the only common threads I’ve seen are that people are mostly bad at it, preferring familiarity to a clear hierarchy, and also everyone’s different.

  • Jakob Reply

    >>If you have links or icons, use an alt tag so users know what it’s for when the mouse hovers over them<<

    Please use the title tag for that (the “hover-over-texts” are called tooltips). The alt tag is for having a text replacement in case an image cannot be displayed.

  • Janko Reply

    Great reading. I am also having trouble to explain to older clients why this, why here, how to use it and so on. And I couldn’t agree more on the fact that talking in person or by phone + pictures are the best way for them.

  • Niki Brown | The Design O’Blog Reply

    Great article! Sometimes it also helps to sit down with users of that age group and watch them use the site…then you have a better idea of how they navigate the web.

  • Andrea G Reply

    @Jakob: Thanks Jakob! I was having a hard time coming up with the right word for that. Mystery solved

  • Ray Gulick Reply

    When I was in school we didn’t need no fancy internet…
    No wait, wrong comment, wrong article.
    Great post (for a youngster)!

  • Ben G Reply

    Hey Andrea, great article!

    I work for a non-profit organization who has a very broad audience and some of your comments are spot on in reference to appealing to both the tech savvy & not so tech savvy…


  • Matthew Kammerer Reply

    @Niki Brown | The Design O’Blog: Very good point. Lately I’ve been watching how teachers use their smart board and wonder if they have ever been trained to use them :P.

    @Jakob: Ah hah! Good call.

    @Ben G: Great to hear the article was helpful for you as well. I wonder, what organization do you work for?

  • Aaron Irizarry Reply

    Great read.. good insight.
    Educating others only benefits in the end.

    ~ Aaron I

  • David Hamill Reply

    I’d be careful not to be too patronising in your consideration of older users.

    My advice is not to read too much into age. I’ve seen 70 year old men fly around complex share dealing sites that would make you wee yourself.

    Instead of thinking about age, think about attitude towards computers. People of your age are in the unique position of not being able to avoid computers. But just a few years above you there are lots of people that just don’t use them.

    On the other hand, there are people like my dad who are nearly 60 and built their own computers before you were even born and don’t need a 20 something patronising them about their age (so I was told on many occasions).

    I agree that as your users get older the chances of them being technophobic increases. But be careful about thinking old = inexperienced internet user.

  • David Leggett Reply

    @David Hamill: Well put David. As you said though, people in there teens to late twenties have a hard time avoiding computers in their day to day routine. Wouldn’t you agree that as you consider older demographics, this attitude of needing a computer will be fewer and more far between?

    @Andrea G: I liked your Explorers vs. Show and Tell point a lot. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to show parents or grandparents how to do something versus my approach of simply Googling the answer.

  • David Hamill Reply

    @David Leggett: Yes I agree, but by just saying ‘older users’ you isolate the older people who are pretty web savvy and also the younger users who aren’t. It’s best just to call them’ inexperienced’ or ‘less-confident’ web users.

  • Joe Cheray aka wildheart4vr Reply

    Found this by way of 8164 blog.

    I am generation X’er and was born before the internet as we know it today as well as before PC gaming and console gaming as we know it today. However like most adults in my age group we have had to adapt to technology just as fast as others before us only in a more lightning fast pace.

    I can run circles around gen y with what I know about the internet and digital design. I once was more or less told I was too experienced for an internet and basic computer competency class I had to take for my major in college. I learned to keep my mouth shut and listen when and where possible and learn as much as I can about everything out there from email to Internet Marketing, to blogging.

    I have seen the evolution of media and how we access it evolve from the rotary dial phone, TV with no remote and hand maneuvered antenna, turntable, 8 track, and Atari to iPhone, flat panel TV’s with digital cable capabilities and a remote, portable media devices like iShuffle, iPod Nano, SanDisk to name a few and last but not least the Wii, X box 360 and PS3. Not to mention World of Warcraft and many many other PC games out there today.

    I can handle the basic upkeep of my PC like virus scanning,spy ware scanning, disk cleanup and defragging. I know how to burn music, am proficient at Paint Shop Pro and can set up a blog in less than a week complete with everything to make it Web 2.0 accessible. Not bad for a 37 year old Stay at Home Mom. Oh and I can take my PC apart and switch out components as well.

    So yeah be careful when you stereotype age groups I noticed you completely left out generation X in this post and what they have had to deal with in adjusting to new technologies and the internet. It seems as though our generation gets over looked except when they want to rehash the whole Kurt Cobain from Nervana suicide. Then generation X gets thrust into the spotlight as the troubled youth generation due to our drive to question authority and our music preferences back in the 80’s. Does anyone remember the whole satanic messages in metal songs from artists such as Ozzy and Twisted Sister as well as Motley Crue controversy brought about by Tipper Gore?

    So that is my rant my apologies to do it on a blog I just found, but this post compelled me to comment.

  • Michael A. Reply

    Thanks for your article. It’s a good introduction to a very complex topic. I want to add to the discussion something I’ve observed, mostly through personal experience, that might strike a cord.

    It is a simple idea, but I think one that has deeper implications. It came to me after months of frustration trying to help my mother perform even the most basic tasks on her computer. First let me tell you that my mother is a highly educated (Yale Medical School), intellectually curious and prestigious Psychoanalyst. In short, she’s brilliant. Yet, to save her life, can not figure out how to attach a document to an email.

    How could this be the case? She’s an M.D. and technology/science is not foreign to her. The answer came to me when I considered the fact that my father, who is also a Yale Medical School educated Psychoanalyst (they met there), is a wiz when it comes to computers. The answer must lie in something that is different about the two of them. Ahhhh….the answer:

    My mother isn’t interested in the least in computers or the internet and thus doesn’t want to learn. My father is, on the other hand, and it comes naturally. This lead me to the belief that either desire or necessity is a key factor in ability to learn, not just age or generational customs.

    Hope that makes sense. Thanks!

  • van Reply

    a communications student might think they enjoy a richly varied context of connections in comparison to family or community of origin but the ivory towers of academia have always been a closed system that tends to view outsiders in discounted terms. useful insights await beyond the virtual and literal walls of academe. as time and distance from academia increase, you might find it’s worthwhile to ponder visual/verbal, or analytical/experiential dichotomies, just for starters. and that there (still) is a lot of life that doesn’t happen on a computer or hand-held screen that will inform you as a designer and communicator, as time goes by.

  • elektrischkite Reply

    Thank you David Hamill for your comments on this posting. I also found it condescending.
    Furthermore what it fails to address is critical design elements that account for older adults. For example: White type on black background. Using this for body text is not nor ever has been a friendly design choice. Also: Using pixel type and other non-scalable type. W3C specifically recommends using ems fonts, and yet, I look at sites all day long that are Flash, pixel fonts, and PHP templates. This article easily could have gone deeper into design aspects had its author spent less time with denigrating anecdotes.

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