Three reasons why we need to invest in web performance for seniors

Despite the fact that the over-65 demographic is poised to generate a new ecommerce boom, current websites still discriminate against seniors by posing serious usability problems, including slow load times. Today, I want to talk about what kind of performance expectations older users have, how optimizing your pages could result in a 35% revenue increase from these consumers, and why investing in performance for older users benefits us all.

Seniors online: A snapshot

As more and more boomers enter retirement, the definition of “senior”  is changing rapidly, and this change is very much present when we look at the growing number of internet users aged 65 and up. It’s not so much that more and more seniors are going online as it is that a huge, already-online demographic is entering a new age group.

The growth rate of over-65 internet users is 16% year over year, compared to just 3% YOY growth for users aged 30-49 — yet these ostensibly more tech-savvy seniors are not significantly more satisfied with their user experience than they were more than a decade ago. According to a new usability study by the Nielsen Norman Group, seniors’ task completion success rate is only 55.3% compared to 74.5% for users between the ages of 21-55. That’s not good.

This isn’t a them problem. It’s an us problem.

Back at the turn of the millennium, it was easy to dismiss — and possibly even gently mock — online seniors as a fringe group of internet users who confined themselves to AOL and Matlock fan sites. Today, people over the age of 65 are using the internet in ever-increasing droves to access healthcare, travel, news, shopping, and financial resources. The Nielsen Norman study states that this group is poised to explode as the boomers begin to retire en masse, and this explosion will soon generate a major surge in online commerce.

The study also states that current websites still discriminate — however unwittingly — against older users, by posing usability problems such as dramatic design changes, small fonts, moving interface elements, poor navigation cues (i.e. links that don’t change colour after following them), and slow load times.

Human aging, memory, and web performance

According to the Nielsen Norman study, users over the age of 65 are 43% slower at using websites than younger users. Declining vision and dexterity are two culprits. Memory degradation is a third. The study tested users’ ability to recall items introduced early in the test sessions. Users aged 21-55 had an average recall score of 63%, whereas users 65 and older scored just 43%.

However, despite taking more time to use websites, seniors have higher performance needs. Older users need even faster pages than younger users, in order to maintain their flow through a transaction.

While the study doesn’t provide numbers as to ideal load times for older users, here’s a rough guesstimation, based on the usability scores cited above and previous Nielsen Norman response time findings:

Load time expectations

We already know that slower pages lead to increased agitation and poorer concentration in younger users. These effects are felt even more deeply in older users, who are already more likely to be uncomfortable exploring new-to-them websites.

The study also found that while seniors are more likely to be slower and more methodical than younger users in approaching online tasks (95% versus 35%), this didn’t correlate to greater success in completing tasks.

Here’s why we need to invest in performance for seniors:

Reason #1: Because it’s good for business.

To quote from the Nielsen Norman report:

“Let’s translate these usability metrics into business terms: If you redesigned your website to give seniors the same user experience quality as younger users, you could expect to get 35% more business from them, based purely on the higher success rate. (Most likely, usage would increase even more as tasks became faster, less error-prone, and more pleasant to perform.)”

Given this, it’s not too far-fetched to extrapolate that improved performance also offers benefits to non-commerce sites: increased productivity, conversions, and customer satisfaction/retention, as well as fewer support calls.

Reason #2: Because internet accessibility is no longer a nice-to-have. It’s a must-have.

More important than business value, investing in performance for seniors matters because they’re human beings. In our culture, internet access is no longer a frill: it’s a necessity. Simply put, the “haves” gain better access to needed online services than the “have-nots”. This is a major determining factor in quality of life.

To put a personal spin on all this, I don’t like the idea that, if my mother is researching a medication’s side effects, she’s not able to find crucial information online. Or that she’s unable to take care of her personal finances if weather, health, or other circumstances keep her housebound.

I also hate thinking that my extremely intelligent, competent mother is more likely to blame herself for not being able to use a website effectively — seniors blame themselves for usability problems 90% of the time, compared to 58% for younger users — and is statistically twice as likely to give up on a task out of frustration.

Reason #3. Because someday this will be us.

As web savvy as we might be today, aging will take its toll on our memory, our dexterity, and our ability to complete multi-step tasks. And this effect isn’t something that just clicks in on our 65th birthday. Usability degradation starts around the age of 25 and declines by 0.8% each year.

It’s a humbling thought, but aging and usability is already an issue for most of us. The heartening fact is that, collectively, we’re in the privileged position of being able to do something about it.

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