Designing for Different Age Groups

May 3 2011 by Alexander Dawson | 24 Comments

Diversity is one of the things that make the web great, and every audience has its own needs and requirements. But what happens if that audience is comprised of a specific age group? Are you providing something fun and interactive for kids, or are you strictly an adult-only website (such as one that sells alcohol)?

Age is an influential factor on the web in terms of not only psychology, but also accessibility, usability, and user interface design. Many other variables can affect your designs, but we’ll focus on the difference that age can make in creating a website.

From 0 to 80 in Under 5 Seconds

The differences in how various ages use the web have never been starker than they are today. Because the web has become so integral to many people’s lives, a sort of age gap has arisen where different generations of users have developed different abilities on the web.

While much of our work depends on generalizing about age groups (and not everyone will fall neatly into one of them), our understanding is based largely on sensible, logical guesswork.

So, as long as you take the time to know how your target age group is affected, you should be able to dodge the pitfalls of catering to fringe users.

As usual, research is the order of the day. Study and analytics to the rescue!

Consider today’s elderly generation, many of whom are only now logging on for the first time. There are so many books that teach senior citizens how computers and the web work; there is almost a small society of people playing catch-up with this newfangled invention that we design for daily.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have infants and young children who will have never known a world without the web and who are learning the concepts and gaining dexterity online as we speak.

These people are real, and you have to make sure your website serves their needs.

Why It Matters

Designing for different age groups is important for two reasons. First, ignoring an entire user base such as the elderly alienates them from the experience. And let’s face it: all of us will get old, and we wouldn’t want to be treated like that.

Secondly, younger users will be tomorrow’s designers (or, from your client’s point of view, tomorrow’s customers). If they stumble upon your website and have an awful experience, that will likely stick with them and could shape their perception of the website or service. (However, access to some websites, such as ones related to alcohol and adult content, should be restricted.)

The four age brackets for web design (although you should expand them as required).

While this article distinguishes between children, teenagers, adults and the elderly, it’s worth noting that the difference in computing ability between a six and a ten year old will be dramatically different, so you can’t take anything for granted.

The best approach is to define your age bracket (and the younger the audience, the narrower it should be).

With this in mind, let’s look at the first age group and its implications for your website’s design.

Designing For Early Years

The impact of websites is most heightened with children. When the web was young, the education system saw computer skills as a luxury. Times have changed, and the skills have become central to our society.

Ten years ago, the average 10 year old would have quite limited computer skills; this is no longer the case. Through early interaction with the web, children as young as five and six (even younger) are gaining rudimentary experience with devices and websites.

But there is a variable that affects their experience more than education: physical development.

Very young children may find computers challenging at first. Image source: creactions

While computers have become ubiquitous in early education, children’s bodies and brains are still developing. Knowledge that adults take for granted may be limited. Their motor skills and ability to use mice and keyboards don’t match ours. Our layouts need to account for such limitations.

While adults may have some patience for errors, young children have none (or in many cases, lack the knowledge to overcome them).

Nevertheless, designing for children has a few advantages to designing for adults. Young children want to be entertained and don’t necessarily have a direct goal in mind, which gives us the opportunity to engage them through exploration and interaction (rather than just putting them on the fastest route to a solution).

If the journey is colorful and educational and engaging, then it will likely be a successful visit.

Children tend to play minesweeper with links, just clicking them to see what happens. But when they find a route that works for them, they are more likely than adults to stick with it; a trait referred to as learned path bias.

Children’s websites should be educational, entertaining and clutter-free.

So, how do we make our websites child-friendly? Best practices include:

  • Keeping the UI clean (children get distracted by visual clutter)
  • Using iconography (they identify with experiences that are recognizable)
  • Using vivid, exciting colors
  • Avoiding integrated advertisements (kids find it harder than us to distinguish content from ad banners, which quickly lead them away)
  • Consider using animation and sound (this is the only age group for which video seems ideal)
  • Relate content to characters they know (like from TV)
  • Provide games that educate and attract their attention
  • Reinforce their actions through emotion (telling them that they did a good job encourages repetition)

Designing For Tweens and Teens

As children grow up, motor skills and comprehension become less of a limiting factor. Older children and teenagers often gain experience with computers through school homework and recreation (for example, on social networks), although this doesn’t mean they know how computers work fully.

Technology is generally more prevalent with teenagers than with children; although even very young children now have mobile phones and laptops, albeit monitored by parents. Patience levels also increase.

Teenagers rely on technology to keep up with friends and for homework. Image source: duchesssa

Teenagers (and tweens) tend to be more resilient to targeted advertising and are less willing to explore websites (adopting a more methodical approach: seeking rather than discovering information).

Research indicates that the major difference between this age group and adults (and children) is that teenagers are more socially focused. While adults tend to use technology to achieve set goals, teens are preoccupied with interacting socially, being heard and partaking in group activities (such as in online forums). This gives designers an opportunity to engage with this audience.

While not all teens are the same (and despite some adults believing they are an entirely different species), design choices have more of a chance of affecting a much greater portion of this user base. Consider how these socially inclined users can contribute to your website and how they might spend their free time using your service and promoting it to their friends.

Also, think about how open they might be to new experiences, not being so tied to learned behavior.

Following popular culture is key to attracting teens.

  • Making a website teenager-friendly means:
  • Keeping the UI clean (a factor common to all ages)
  • Favoring graphical content to textual content (teens tend to read less online)
  • Using animation and sound (moderately, though — not as much as for young children)
  • Ensuring that the content isn’t so simplistic that it appears childish

In addition, research shows that teens have the same learned path bias as children, are more easily distracted by interactivity, are more social online, and are more driven by social trends (fashion and peer interests hold sway in web usage — there is power in numbers).

Designing For Adults of All Ages

Of course, people who have been alive since the web first reached a critical mass comprise a large proportion of our user base today. Many designers look to them for usability testing and when assessing whether their work serves the audience’s needs.

This can be problem, though, with increasingly younger people accessing our websites and increasingly older people becoming more web-savvy and wanting to use the web.

Adults are seen as the average web user. Image source: rajsun22

As with younger and older users, most adults have at least moderate experience using computers.

But that isn’t to say that all adults are computer literate. While most adults have computer experience, only those who are very interested in technology tend to understand how it works. For example, a Google survey showed that 90% of people didn’t know what a browser is, despite being able to use one.

Adults tend to be at their peak in dexterity and motor skills. Accessibility is still an issue, but most adults are at a stage when they aren’t so dependent on instruction, have little trouble making choices and don’t need advocates for their needs.

Adults in general are goal-oriented and tend to visit websites with explicit objectives (relying on search more than discovery), and they are usually more accustomed to (and forgiving of) quirks in the user experience.

But this comes at the cost of being less focused on social interaction and being averse to advertising (they filter out noise while scanning).

Usability and accessibility are critical, but that doesn’t mean the website can’t be clever!

Tailoring a website to adults is generally straightforward. If it is accessible and usable by modern standards, then it will likely be useful to them.

Unlike younger users, adults are much less drawn to animation and sound (favoring text over visuals).

Unlike older users, they put less value on research and study and more on getting answers as quickly as possible.

Ironically, then, it is more difficult to engage this age group than others.

Designing for Later Years      

Elderly people get it the worst with regard to targeted design. While much research has been done into human behavior and HCI for children (not to mention the investment to educate children in computers), the expanding age group of seniors — who are more familiar with a world without the web than with it — seem to be less catered to.

Elderly users tend to be the ignored. Image source: EPA Smart Growth

Seniors tend to experience a decline in dexterity and motor skills, which affects website usage. Many of them may be using the web for the first time, and because their developmental years were at a time when computers and the Internet weren’t part of mainstream society, they’re less likely to take on the technology as fast as other generations. In addition, the aging process means a decline in health (both mental and physical), which can affect online interaction.

Being elderly does have its advantages, though. Unlike adults, seniors are often focused on achieving set tasks, while still being open to explore websites and sometimes having more patience than children and adults.

In addition, they tend to be more focused on interaction and are more willing to research, read, learn and involve themselves in communities.

And having more life experience, they may have an advantage in solving problems and parsing technical content. Designers will certainly appreciate having an audience that is more likely to appreciate the nuances of what they provide.

Older users may be a bit set in their ways, so make sure everything is visible, clutter-free and well labeled.

Best practices for designing for elderly users include:

  • Making websites highly visible and highly memorable
  • Text should be large and easy to read
  • Links should be easy to click
  • There should be little animation or movement that might be distracting
  • Website navigation should be straightforward

Elderly users are open to having an emotional connection to a website; they are more likely to form strong opinions, and they are more susceptible to the effects of a negative experience.

When designing for this group, avoid putting the onus on them to correct errors, cut down on confusion as much as possible, and encourage social interaction through an engaging UI.

Age Matters in Web Design

Whether you are building a website for children, adults or the whole family, age affects how it will be used and perceived. Young children are still developing in mind and body, and seniors encounter issues of their own. Teenagers and adults have particular objectives when browsing the web and interpret information differently.

Only by looking objectively at who will use your website can you hope to attract the widest possible audience.

One of the central principles of web design is usability, and while it would be incorrect to assume that all of your visitors have the same ideas, goals and perceptions, we still have to generalize to some extent so that we can make timely decisions.

Keep your website accessible to the elderly, meet the criteria for adults, keep teenagers engaged, and make your work child-friendly.

Each internet user is unique, but several generations of users may want what you offer.

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About the Author

Alexander Dawson is a freelance web designer, author and recreational software developer specializing in web standards, accessibility and UX design. As well as running a business called HiTechy and writing, he spends time on Twitter, SitePoint’s forums and other places, helping those in need.

24 Comments

Don

May 3rd, 2011

I’m pretty sure the last time I disagreed with an article this much was another one of yours.

I don’t think you actually know how people think, how they interact with websites. I think you’re pulling this all out of your ass.

As a member of your “teen/tween” group, I think that everything you’ve said is wrong. Teens don’t just not read. We read everything we need to read, scanning is really important because we don’t want to spend time reading useless information. I also know that most of us get annoyed at useless sounds and animations.

As for elderly people, having worked with my grandparents on using websites, they get what they need to get on sites easily. They don’t get distracted by other things, they don’t need their websites simplified, nor do they need everything gigantic (their computers already do that for them).

In short, I think you’re wrong.

J Chaturvedi

May 3rd, 2011

Its True……….Nice Post !

Akhtar

May 3rd, 2011

I really enjoyed reading this article this evening. Maybe it’s partially due to me being a coffee lover as well.

Seriously though, that we SHOULD be reading, and not scanning. The art of blogging is dying, being replaced by the art of making-money-with-lists-of-things-on-a-website. But it’s not a myth that people scan. It’s an unfortunate reality. Maybe if websites and magazines resisted this trend more, people would read.

David Michael Fong

May 3rd, 2011

Good info Alexander. Funny, but I’ve only thought about your points on a subconscious level. Thanks for bring them to the surface.

Young

May 3rd, 2011

It’s been a while since I commented on SR…

As much as I’ve enjoyed a bunch of your past articles, Alex, I think I agree with Don in many ways. I couldn’t be so hurtful about it, but it’s true that useful content appeals to people much, much more than design.

The elements you pointed out are rudimentary sociology, if not mere stereotypes. You definitely don’t need to make things bigger for older people – most of them who surf the web know about ctrl+ by now. I agree that nav should be straightforward, but when is that not the case?

Teens do read a lot online, as long as they’re interested in the content. “Favoring graphics over text” was just a very poor way to go about pigeonholing the demographic. I’m also not sure how you could design something so simplistic that it appears childish – most of us would associate clutter with childish.

Of course for babies we should think about visual appeal, but it also depends on the concept. If you’re looking for safe interactivity for kids, just design a game or something. There’s no reason for them to connect to the rest of the world.

In short, I think the only “differences” between the age groups are stereotypes you seem to have, while the common elements are just another list of good web design practice. A bit of a waste, I have to say.

Alexander Dawson

May 3rd, 2011

@Don: I’m sorry that you don’t agree but I would advise you to perhaps re-read the article before jumping to conclusions. Rather than just proclaiming that I’m making everything up (which I can assure you I have not – my work is always researched heavily), you could in the future provide some evidence to backup your counterpoints. As it stands your comments aren’t helpful and don’t add to the discussion.

I never stated that teens do not read. I explicitly said “teens tend to read less online” – this in no way signifies that reading doesn’t occur. I also said animation should be moderate, not pointless or annoying. I never said the elderly are easily distracted (with exception to heavy animation) or that text should be gigantic (large and visible is very different). From an accessibility point of view, it’s a fact that elderly users are more inclined to suffer issues in general. Furthermore, I noted that elderly users tend to have more patience, and are more inclined to researching as they browse.

Your grandparents may not have issues, but it’s not evidence that an entire age group will be the same. From working in day care center’s assisting and teaching elderly individuals to use computers and the Web (as well as working in schools as a teaching assistant), I feel that what I’ve produced is justified – what I’ve written is also based upon research by the likes of Jakob Nielsen and independent usability groups.

Michael Tuck

May 4th, 2011

I started teaching over 25 years ago, mostly in US middle schools. I was there when schools made their first tentative steps towards bringing computers into the schools, first in “segregated” labs and then, slowly and timidly, into the classrooms themselves. Having that experience, and having helped raise a stepson beginning when he was 13, I can tell you that most — not all, but most — teenagers are reluctant readers at the best of times and even more so on computers. They tend to blast through Web sites at warp speed, scanning, glancing, clicking at anything that looks like it will take them somewhere they want to go or do something they want to do, but almost never reading content for any appreciable length of time. Everything I can say, or Alex has said, about teens are generalizations, and individuals’ mileage certainly varies. But most are eager to take advantage of socialization opportunities, they not only like, but expect, music/sound and animation or videos, and they have virtually no patience with large blocks of text. It’s also been my experience that when a teenager disagrees with something, they often take it as a personal slight even when it is meant as a general observation, and they often react with personal insults and slights — something I’m seeing in these comments.

Having said all that, Alex, you would do well to cite your research in links and so forth, and state even more clearly than you already did that your observations are generalizations that do not apply to every individual in the particular age group. Other than that, good article. I particularly found it interesting as to how many similarities there are among the four groups’ requirements.

Conroy@

May 4th, 2011

I have read article twice and tried to find out what Don was trying to conclude and i think on the whole Don seem to be out of line. Alexander i must appreciate you for writing on a different but effective topic. Another thing i like about you is that you are very open and ready to answer any criticism. Don must also appreciate this thing.

Seth

May 4th, 2011

I have to say that I agree that while I agree with the majority of the article it does seem a bit simplistic. I remember having rudimentary design standards set out in a Grade 9 information technology class ( I was 14 ) –

Animation can be good in small amounts but don’t go crazy
Sounds attract kids but FFS don’t play music in the bground
The more simplistic the better
Don’t put more than you need

and to be honest I find this article to be mainly a fairly repetitive exposition of what are extremely basic web design principles.

I attempt to say this respectfully – as the article is extremely well written and full of solid information – it just seems too basic to be of much value to a designer with any experience.

Jatin

May 4th, 2011

I generally have clients, who have visitors falling in-between teens and adults. But I personally believe that each and every design have it’s importance related to age.

thoi trang cong so

May 4th, 2011

Teens do read a lot online, as long as they’re interested in the content. “Favoring graphics over text” was just a very poor way to go about pigeonholing the demographic. I’m also not sure how you could design something so simplistic that it appears childish – most of us would associate clutter with childish.

Jo

May 4th, 2011

I agree with the first comment. Lots of talk about nothing. Stating the obvious in 20 different ways.

Jordan

May 4th, 2011

I agree that designing an experience that caters to your target audience or specific personas is important, but I’m not sure these demographic groupings are the most ideal way of segmenting your audience.

Also, I’m not sure the insights you’re providing can be broadly applied to the entire demographic. Especially the adults segment.

I wouldn’t recommend that UX professionals use these segments/ insights without doing their own user research & persona development.

In the end, I think generalizing each user group you established in your article does a bit of a dis-service to each – you’re almost calling out stereotypical insights for each group. (i.e. Seniors are stubborn, have arthritis, and are going blind – some seniors are very tech saavy.)

Pasqual Facundo

May 4th, 2011

Good read, also enjoyed the commentary above.

Ramesh Vishwakarma

May 5th, 2011

I like this article… it’s really helpful for designer

Tech84

May 5th, 2011

Good info, but i kind of think that the elderly are also the same with the more younger viewer, they like it less cluttered and they like it when they are presented with a lot of colorful images. Well that’s just my 2 cents worth from my observing..

Brian

May 5th, 2011

From the article I thought it succinctly highlighted a few given factors of four demographics. Was it the best segmentation? Possibly not. But this is a huge challenge, and one that will be on-going. I wouldn’t count on or ask one article to deeply explain a topic this broad.

Thanks Alex!

Bratu Sebastian

May 5th, 2011

The article is great, but there are more segments you need to think when you work in business ( especially when you make a website with interaction for more ages.

ineshi

May 5th, 2011

the only thing I want to know is why some people just want to insult. Comments means build, not destroy.

SusanM

May 6th, 2011

Listen, sonny. You call me “elderly” one more time and I’m gonna smack your condescendingly snotty little face. Aside from the nonsense about large fonts (get real, kid — I can adjust my browser’s font size or my screen resolution if I want bigger text), there is not one suggestion in your list for elderly users that isn’t a simple, basic design 101. Good design is good design. Period.

However, one principle of good design that seems to have escaped you is you have to respect the people who will use your site.

Hina Naz

May 7th, 2011

I appreciate the way of describing the concept many things can be done but not on single plateform that i know… Overall wonderfull…

Guy W. Wallace

May 9th, 2011

Unfortunately for the author – research by serious scientists – done for the US Army (which has those multi-generational issues and because the consequences are so GREAT if they get it wrong – took the time, effort and funds to research this) and others – suggests that this article is wrong. Speculation posed without any facts based on replicable scientific studies – is just all too prevalent – just as it manifests itself here – too the cheers of fans already persuaded before reading this piece. Sometimes reality is just counterintuitive – to something that seems to have face validity to many – as with this issue.

Here you find links to some of those studies for your further research and enlightenment: http://eppic.biz/2009/02/27/research-on-multi-generational-learning-in-the-workplace/

rob

May 15th, 2011

authors commments are very good and well described. However misses some key areas. Suggest readign about simplex 2 as a design basis

Henry

October 7th, 2011

Very Interesting Read thanks

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