In 2004, Ginny Redish and I, along with Amy Lee, conducted a review of the relevant literature — research by other people — about designing for older adults (people over age 50). Doing this changed my thinking about universal design.
It wasn’t enough to generate design heuristics. We also came up with ways to operationalize them. That is, you can actually test to see if you have implemented these design practices by answering several questions about each heuristic.
Here’s an article from Technical Communication (which, by the way, was the runner-up for best article of the year for that publication) in which we describe the project, list the heuristics, and talk about some of our results in using them.
AARP, an American organization for people over age 50, commissioned Ginny Redish and me to give them a scorecard of how well the Web was supporting older people in terms of design. We weren’t to evaluated sites only directed at older adults, but do conduct a broad review of sites that regular people might encounter on any given day, regardless of age.
Ginny and I came up with an unusual method to do this review: persona-based, task-driven heuristic evaluation. Very simply, we tried to take on the personalities of one of two personas, Matthew and Edith, as we did tasks they would do on sites they would normally visit. And then we rated those interactions against a set of heuristics for good design for older people.
See the results. Though this report was published several years ago (2005), the findings are pretty solid.
Despite the reality of differences due to aging, research has also shown that in many cases, we do not need a separate design for people who are age 50+. We need better design for everyone.
Everyone performs better on web sites where the interaction matches users’ goals; where navigation and information are grouped well; where navigation elements are consistent and follow conventions; where writing is clear, straightforward, in the active voice, and so on. And, much of what makes up good design for younger people helps older adults as well.
For example, we know that most users, regardless of age, are more successful finding information in broad, shallow information architectures than they are with deep, narrow hierarchies. When web sites make their sites easier to use for older adults, all of their users perform better in usability studies. The key is involving older adults in user research and usability testing throughout design and development. Continue reading Involving older adults in design of the user experience: Inclusive design