Closing the Usability Age Gap

January 22nd, 2009
Published on
January 22nd, 2009

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 I’m what’s called a digital native. To me, being on the internet is like breathing: both easy and a necessary part of life.

Mind the (usability) gap!

For older generations, like my parents, things online 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.

It all comes down to providing options:

  1. Show and tell options
  2. Optional tutorials
  3. Options to connect via email and phone

Natural Explorers vs. Show and Tell

In order to make a 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.

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

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 a website offers a product or service, a tutorial can help people of all generations understand how it works. A template shows 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

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 service available to both groups by including both forms of contact.

People of different ages get in touch differently.

Helpful Additions for Any Age

If I want to figure something out, I will look for the fastest way possible, and pictures help me to achieve this goal. But pictures by themselves are not always self explanatory, which is where the words come into play. Similarly, text only explanations can sometimes be confusing or misleading, but images can help clarify. The same is true when we design for people of different ages: sometimes two forms of communication are more helpful than either on its own.

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

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