When designing a website, it is always important to consider the needs of your target audiences, and when your audience is seniors, there are a number of factors that you will want to take into account in order to ensure that your site is as user-friendly as possible.

When it comes to web usability for seniors, a key factor is text size and readability. This makes sense, since our vision changes as we age and this impacts what we read both on and off screen.

Those who specialize in web development for the senior care industry (e.g. assisted living, skilled nursing, home care, and rehabilitation), may recall that many years ago it became a popular practice to use text-sizing widgets within websites in an effort to give users more control over the size of on-screen text and enhance readability. If you’ve ever seen controls like this floating somewhere on the perimeter of a web page you’ll know what we mean:

Text Size Widget, Increase/Decrease

These tools allow the user to resize on-screen text by simply selecting increase (+) or decrease (-) options. In theory, this feature provides a more user-friendly experience for older adults and others with diminished eyesight, and it soon became a common tool within senior-focused websites in an effort to make website text more manageable for their target audiences.

But does this feature still make sense for modern websites in 2019 and beyond? In the absence of any empirical research examining the usage of text resizing widgets specifically, we’ve outlined a number of key factors for decision-makers to consider when assessing whether or not this feature still holds utility for their web presence.

Ultimately, our assessment concludes that a text resize feature is unnecessary, and perhaps even counterproductive, for today’s seniors using modern browsers. Here’s why:

Browsers and OS Have Text Sizing Features Built-In

Current browsers and operating systems already have native built-in capabilities that give users the ability to customize the size of the screen to fit their preferences. Browser settings allow users to zoom the page to fit a user’s preferred viewing size, or even specify particular font sizes; there are also keyboard shortcuts that allow users to zoom page viewing size by simply typing Ctrl (or CMD for Mac) and (+) or (-) symbols.

Furthermore, many browsers, in particular Safari for Mac and iOS, now include a "Reader" view, which allows you to view web pages in a new, scrollable view without any additional content or clutter. You can even change the font, font size, and page color to better suit your reading habits and vision.

Internet Savvy Seniors Can Resize Their Own Damned Text

An old argument against relying on native capabilities to customize on-screen readability is that many users, particularly seniors, simply do not know how to use such functions. This is a valid point (albeit somewhat condescending), although its validity is quickly diminishing. Seniors are amongst the fastest growing segment of Internet users over the past two decades, and they are more comfortable using technology now than ever, including smartphones.

The likelihood is that users who have special vision requirements nowadays will know how to use the commonly available tools to aid with on-screen reading, making the addition of separate text sizing widgets redundant.

Lack of Standardization = Confusion

An inherent assumption with the use of custom/third party text sizing widgets is that users will actually recognize what they are, and understand their intended purpose. While offering tools intended to improve user experience may be well-intentioned, sometimes they can have the opposite effect in practice.

There is no well-established standard for implementing text sizing controls within a website’s user interface, nor is it a practice that is widely used across industries. Therefore, a user encountering a text sizing widget may very well be confused by its presence, if they notice it at all.

Furthermore, adding an additional non-standard element across your pages arguably diminishes usability by adding clutter that takes away from standard features, such as navigation menus, social sharing, and logins, not to mention calls-to-action, conversion forms, and other important messaging or interactive elements.

A Drain on Resources

Now more than ever, users demand fast-loading web pages, and page speed has an impact on user satisfaction, as well as search performance. Additional elements that load on your pages make your pages load less efficiently; in this light, the cost/benefit tradeoff for loading a widget of questionable benefit becomes less appealing.

Good Design Is Inherently User-Friendly

Above all, an effective website can address the needs of their target audiences by design. Fortunately, today’s best design trends are almost tailor made for those with aging eyes, using bold, chunky headings, larger text, and plenty of whitespace.

Website designers and business owners can ensure that their sites remain user-friendly for all audiences in fact by following a few simple best practices that promote web usability for everyone:

  • Use a default font size for content that is at least 12 point/16 pixels (larger for headings).
  • Do not block or disable browser functions that allow users to control text size.
  • Ensure that hyperlinks, navigation menus, and other interface elements are sufficiently large and clearly defined.
  • Utilize whitespace between interactive elements to minimize accidental clicks.
  • Avoid navigation schemes that move rapidly or require precise mouse positioning.
  • Make sure that your site is properly formatted and scales for ease of use and optimal readability on handheld devices.
  • Make forms simple, well-labeled, and easy to use; any error notices or required fields should be clear and unambiguous.

There once was a time in Internet history when a text resize feature made sense, back when page text was tiny and fixed, and browsers lacked the native functions to provide users with more control over the websites they visited. But that time has passed. As Internet users across the age spectrum have become more savvy about customizing their experience, the necessity for text-size widgets as a separate design feature has become obsolete. For goodness sake, not even the AARP uses it.

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