Writing User Help for Older Users

Facebook’s users are getting older. A recent report found an 80% increase in users over age 55. The effects of this change are reverberating, and it’s not just that teenagers are fleeing Facebook like rats off an aging ship. This older demographic may require different approaches to user help. And that’s why the internet has seen a rise in videos like this one helping seniors adjust to the site:

Facebook isn’t alone. The number of older computer users is growing dramatically. In response, companies like HP have designed technology specifically for older users. And several businesses and non-profits, including one founded by this enterprising San Francisco teen, devote their time to helping seniors learn and use technology.

Gail Lippincott argues that “Technical communicators can play a crucial role in meeting the needs of this growing audience of aging adults by acting as user advocates for accessible documentation and interface design.” This requires understanding how older users might approach and use instructions. Considering research that older users are much more likely to reference a manual, this understanding becomes even more important. While many researchers caution against stereotyping all seniors, they have also uncovered some general tips for writing manuals catered to older users:

  • Consider Formatting: While many seniors are in terrific physical health, others need formatting accommodations to improve a manual’s usability. Larger type, easily-turned pages, and fewer distracting elements can help many users. Demiris, Finkelstein, and Speedie provide several recommendations for accommodating elderly users in web design, and many of their suggestions–such as limiting colors, providing several methods for completing tasks, and providing several ways of getting assistance–apply to user help as well, especially when it’s online. W3Schools also provides accessibility guidelines for older users.
  • Increase User Confidence and Motivation: Older users may assume that they just won’t get new technologies. While watching older people use digital products, researchers Abdusselam Cifter and Hua Dong observed that many weren’t motivated to complete the task and blamed themselves for the failure. Manuals that provide extra cues to increase motivation and confidence can help. Nicole Loorbach, Joyce Karreman, and Michael Steehouder found that adding “confidence” elements to a manual increased the number of tasks users could complete and improved their persistence when facing a difficult task. In the study, confidence elements included a section labeled “No prior knowledge of skills required” to convince users that they, like millions before them, could master the task. The manual also offered strategies for reading the manual and included steps helping users check the success of their work.
  • Provide More Context: Older users may need context that younger users take for granted, such as the purposes of technologies and particular tasks. Patricia Robinson writes, “Older users may not automatically fill in missing information that is obvious to younger users,” partially because their thinking patterns are based on “older technological models.” Technical communicators may need to provide additional information or explain metaphors and processes that might be confusing.
  • Involve the Audience: There’s no better to meet users’ needs than to get them involved. Consulting with seniors and testing documentation with them can only improve the product. Plus, it helps companies avoid patronizing older users by creating user help with titles like “Manual for Seniors Scared of Technology!”

As the blog Workplace Writing argues, businesses can’t afford to ignore seniors. And if they can’t get good help using new technologies, they won’t use them.

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