The over-50s are on the march. The baby boomers – roughly, those born in the late 1940s and 1950s – constitute a demographic bulge. Now they are mature, and constitute one of the wealthier and most influential segments of society.
‘The boomers are a huge market,’ says Dick Stroud of 20plus30, a specialist mature marketing consultancy. ‘The 50-plus age group buys 50 per cent of new cars in the UK, and 40 per cent of computers. They’re major purchasers of the arts, health, finance products and travel. On average they have 30 per cent more disposable income.’
Unsurprisingly, efforts are being put into creating dedicated products for them. Just over a year ago, Age Concern launched its membership scheme Heyday, influenced by the American Association of Retired Persons, which is a considerable presence Stateside. Also based in the US, Eons was launched last year as an over-50 social networking site, and it has launched Cranky, the first age-relevant search engine.
‘In the next five years, about one-third of the US population is going to be at least 50 years old,’ says David Weigelt of Immersion Active, a US Internet marketing agency for the mature, ‘and one-third of Internet users in the US are aged 50-plus’. It is a similar story in the UK, and although Stroud says there is a distinct drop in Internet usage after the age of 65, the 45-60 year olds are Web-savvy. ‘This age group has probably worked with computers and there is little difference between them and the young,’ he adds.
So are there any particular issues that designers should take into account? ‘The first is the fact of physiological ageing,’ says Stroud. ‘Eyesight and dexterity are factors. But the biggest difference is cognitive decline. Older Web-users like goal-centred navigation, and don’t like multiple inputs.’ But Stroud says these ideas work for the young, too. ‘Simplicity and clarity is the key – or it should be – for everyone.’
Professor Alan Newell of the University of Dundee’s school of computing also says that designers should consider cognitive impairment. ‘Designers need to recognise that people’s senses and cognitive ability start to decline at 35,’ says Professor Newell. ‘Someone at 50 has a third of the light hitting their eyeball than someone of 25. They will also find blue light more difficult. They won’t be able to see contrast as well, and glare will affect them more. Button size is a factor. Some don’t know how to scroll and miss the end of the page.’
It is a matter of minor human impairments combining with life habits. ‘The things you learn as a youngster are deeply embedded,’ says Professor Newell. ‘But if you’re 50 and you have to learn new things, it’s more difficult.’
Rob Corradi of digital design consultancy Preloaded agrees that simplicity is good, rather than Flash graphics, particularly as the audience is coming from the print paradigm. ‘An HTML site is easier to adjust for eyesight,’ he says. ‘Font size isn’t necessarily critical as the design can expand accordingly.’ Some of the work that Preloaded has done for this sector includes Dunhill, illustrating the boomers’ interest in the leisure market. But Corradi has also been surprised at how many other projects have attracted an older audience, proving that you can’t always predict the demographic.
As Shane Walter from Onedotzero says, ‘I haven’t found this age group to be immune to digital at all. Probably, people in their 50s aren’t really very different from people in their 20s these days.’ And they are as wide and varied as any kind of consumer. ‘For instance, you get early adopters in all age groups,’ says Janet Kiddle of over-50s specialist market research company Steel Magnolias. ‘Nevertheless, a lot more research needs to be done into the area.’
Rather than sitting at computers for fun, Weigelt says that the boomers tend to be more task-based. ‘They want the Internet to work for them and will not spend time on a website that is not user-friendly,’ he explains. ‘It takes more than large text to cater to these consumers on-line.’ Navigational design, messaging and a sense of tangible steps to achieve a specific outcome can all work better for this age group, he adds.
Given the age of the audience, there are some things to remember in terms of content. ‘If ageing is presented as a problem, people will resist,’ says Stroud. ‘If it is presented as a benefit, then no problem.’ This was the premise of the Prime Adventures website for The Adventure Company, which targets adventure travellers over 50. ‘The objective was not to patronise the elderly, but to maintain a sense of energy and experience,’ says Richard Anderson of Netizen Digital, the consultancy that designed the site. ‘However, there were special considerations, such as text size adjustment and a physical- difficulty rating system for the tours.’
It’s all about knowing your audience, says Professor Newell. ‘My advice to designers is: learn about your user. Find out what they want. Get them involved in the design process.’ And don’t forget, older people want beauty, too. ‘Too many designers give this age group a bland product.’ And the up-for-it boomers, who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, don’t want to be bored. l