Seniors eagerly embrace Internet

December 04, 2003|By Andrea Coombes | Andrea Coombes,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SAN FRANCISCO - Retired Americans are fast gaining ground on their kids when it comes to Internet use, but companies have far to go to make their Web sites suited to the needs of older people.

The online presence of Americans age 65 and older jumped 25 percent this year, to almost 10 million, while 55- to 64-year-olds upped their numbers by 15 percent, to almost 16 million, according to a new study by Nielsen//NetRatings.

"This segment of the population is becoming much more comfortable with the medium," said Charles Buchwalter, vice president of analytics at Nielsen//NetRatings.

Women led the charge, with those age 65 and older increasing their Internet presence by 30 percent, to 4.6 million, while men's use increased by 20 percent, to about 5 million.

Overall, 35- to 49-year-olds continue to maintain the largest online presence at almost 40 million, a 1 percent increase from the previous year, followed by those 25 to 34, at 21 million.

Once they're connected, wired seniors are more likely to go online daily, with 69 percent of those 65 and older doing so, compared with 56 percent of all Internet users, according to a separate study, to be released soon by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

But many companies' sites fail to reflect older Americans' increasing penchant for the Internet. Web sites are twice as hard to use for those older than 65 compared with those 18 to 55 years old, according to a study by Nielsen Norman Group, a consulting firm that focuses on Web site usability.

For instance, the 65-and-older group's success rate for completing assigned tasks, such as fact-finding, buying a product and finding information, was about 53 percent, compared with a 78 percent success rate for younger users. Also, older users made almost five errors per task, compared with less than one for the younger group, according to the study.

A variety of limitations contribute to the problem, from small type sizes and a lack of contrast - such as blue type on black background - that make reading difficult to small or short links and rolling pull-down menus that are difficult for people with less steady hands to navigate with a mouse.

AARP is holding conferences to study possible solutions. "A lot of sites are designed for other designers [and] a lot are designed for kids," said Mark Carpenter, AARP's director of Web strategy.

AARP, a consumer association for those age 50 and older, is telling companies "you have to connect with these older Americans. You have to adjust the experience to service them better, so they can interact with you," Carpenter said.

Some companies are taking notice: Fidelity Investments conducts usability tests with seniors. It and other companies are recognizing the market that awaits them, said Susannah Fox, research director at the Pew Internet Project. "Those seniors who are online are very affluent, and financial information is really important to them. Fidelity is grabbing that market by making sure their Web sites are very usable."

As a former Web site designer, Fox would often test her sites through her 90-year-old grandmother, an online user who "has arthritis, it's hard for her to grip the mouse. You need to have navigation that is not only easy to read but also something that someone with a slightly shaky hand can navigate."

As baby boomers age, they will accelerate the trend. "I call it the silver tsunami. The current crop of 50- to 64-years-olds is really wired," Fox said. "They're very likely to have Internet access and they're very likely to use it for all sorts of things in their lives," including banking, shopping and e-mail.

""We consistently found that 50- to 64-year-olds were downloading music. ... They are just as passionate as younger groups," she said.

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