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Please suggest current resources for designing UX for senior adults. W3C standards documents are about 6 years out of date.

With respect to contrast: white on black, or black on white. [I did an informal survey, and found that seniors preferred white on black.]

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    W3C has a lot more information about Web Accessibility and Older People including How Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Applies. – Matt Obee Aug 12 '14 at 10:43
  • Q1, I would think seniors would prefer black on white, after all, they grew up when print media was king. If you can't find any material for Q2, I would look into doing my own usability study with a variety of menus/layouts. – slyimperator Aug 12 '14 at 13:52
  • Sounds like I need to do a usability study. Zurb Foundation maintains a collection of particularly well done sites. I tweeted @foundationzurb to see if they maintain a subset of sites emphasizing UX for seniors. – John Robinson Aug 12 '14 at 19:59
  • Welcome to the site, @John. Please split multiple questions into multiple posts. Doing so works better for the Q&A format because if you ask multiple questions in the same post, there's no clear way to vote for an answer that answers one question well and another question erroneously. – Graham Herrli Aug 13 '14 at 15:47
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    @3nafish, yes a typo.It -> I in "I did an informal survey." Q2 moved. – John Robinson Aug 14 '14 at 16:33
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This is not as straight forward as you might think (although, for seniors it just might be). Let me explain. In most cases, especially on paper, black text on a white background works best. This has to do with the amount of light that hits the eye. A lot of light will cause the iris to contract. A contracted iris (a smaller pupil) will produce a sharper image, because the light is more bundled. White text on a dark back ground can appear fuzzy. This effect is called halation.

This doesn't mean that black text on a white background is always better. Maybe it occurred to you that a lot of software developers work with a dark background (and light type). Although the reading is less accurate, looking at a dark screen is also easier on the eyes. When you're in front of a computer for eight hours, you don't want looking at your screen to be exhausting.

In short: for elderly people I think black text on a white background works best in most cases. Especially since their eye-sight isn't what you would call eagle-vision. However: are you creating a reading platform for elderly people, maybe take the halation effect into account.

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    There's a major difference between paper and computer - one is the use of bifocals (which affects how one reads with paper in a different way than on a computer screen). The second is that the screen emits light - making it easier to read than does paper. – Mayo Nov 3 '14 at 14:34
  • I never said they are equal. In fact. I tried to stress out the difference with the example of the developer. Besides that. I think your light-emitting-aurgument is over simplified. Yes, the letters appear sharper, but it also comes with some disadvantages. Research suggest that the average reading from screen takes longer and is less accurate compared to books: ischool.utexas.edu/~adillon/Journals/Paper%20vs%20screens.htm – Ruudt Nov 3 '14 at 14:41
  • Yes. I've wondered a lot about the screen v print aspect. Is it because characters per line and line-height are usually optimized in print - or is it something else about the nature of reading on the screen? – Mayo Nov 3 '14 at 15:27
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Black text on a white background is universally more readable, and so is the best choice for an "older audience". The older the audience, the more appropriate larger text size and black text on white background. Consider that starting at age 35, this preference grows and grows, to age 80, at which point it is just the way to go with no exceptions.

It's not the law or anything, but take old eyes seriously - is it more important to have users or look swanky?

That being said, the larger and shorter the text (think a headline or quote) the more it could certainly be white on dark background for any audience. But the more words there are – if it is an article or even a long sentence, do black text on white background.

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    These are some sweeping statements, can you back any of this up please with references? I know at least two sexagenarians who make all their presentations with light text on dark backgrounds, and I'm surprised by your target of age 35. – Mishax Aug 14 '14 at 18:12
  • I did a research paper on this in the late 1990s and found that to be true (at the time). I estimated the cut off to be in the early 40s but the premise remains - that as people get older their preference changes. – Mayo Nov 3 '14 at 14:32
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    I am also surprised by these blanket comments. I respect your statement and the work you must have done for your paper but am I to believe you are attempting to qualify subjectivity as fact? If not you must have had a control size and a variable size. What were these? I would agree with a statement that larger text (to a point) would be easier to read than smaller but would argue that black-on-white in every setting sweeps white-on-black. Again, I would really like to read the actual paper and studies you used to write the paper. Otherwise, these statements are too subjective. – AzKai Nov 3 '14 at 21:41
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tl;dr: Time to dig out all those typography books again. ;)

I've found that very dark gray text and a white background, or a black background and very light gray text is better than pure black and white. It maintains the contrast you're looking for without the stark contrast of a 100% black and white. Use a larger text size—at least 16px = 1em for body text, but consider 18 if you're dealing with failing eyes—with a taller x-height, more open counters and judicious leading, or line-height, and you should be ok. (Georgia is great example of this BTW.)

A factor that can easily be overlooked is the line length of text you're expecting your users to read. Headlines and long form articles serve different purposes and the size of text can adversely affect your readability if line width is too short or too long.

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I believe that black text on a white background is universally the easiest to read. Using darker backgrounds can make text harder to read, even if the text is very light.

From my experience, older audiences prefer less colors on a page, but that doesn't mean that a designer has to stick with black and white. Grey, navy, dark red, or other muted tones that are darker would work just as well.

If your site is going to be primarily for older audiences, I'd definitely stick with a white background and black text, but create a little contrast by adding headings, captions, titles, etc, in different colors. This will help break up content and add a little visual stimulation to the page without over-doing it.

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  • Grey on white does not work you need contrast see for bad example meta.stackexchnage.com which is much less readable than here and other SO sites – mmmmmm Dec 14 '14 at 18:54
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I believe this answer is slightly out of context; rather, it lacks context. Your question is which do they prefer, however; our preferences do not necessarily reflect what is actually easier for us to use. Instead, humans tend to stick to 'what they know' and often not learn or accept new ways of doing things. This is because "we know how to do it the old way" or we perceive the old way as easier because we do not have to spend time to learn a new way of doing things.

Seniors (which is the politically correct term for 'older adults') may often find their particular preference is black text on white which--as another user stated--is more close to a newspaper or books and reflects what they 'grew up with'. However, if you've ever tried to read a newspaper in the dark you know how difficult that is and how blinding the white paper can be with one of those book-lights beaming down on it. This is not different from computers which, of course, have back lighting. If your website or application will be used primarily in darkly lit areas, you will likely find through usability tests that the usability increases with light text on dark backgrounds.

Either way, I would steer away from pure white and pure black. This is because the severity of the contrast can actually harm dyslexic users while they try to read (just as overly elongated x-heights or ALL CAPS also make reading more difficult by mere milliseconds).

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  • Paper has a fixed whiteness. My first choice is black on white with the ability to adjust the brightness so that the white is not excessively bright. – Patricia Shanahan Dec 14 '14 at 4:45
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I am almost 71 and wear bi-focal glasses which I definitely need in order to be able to read either on or off the computer, and generally need for daily living as well). I prefer dark text (black or dark grey) on a light background (either white or an off-white (such as the colour of the 'Your Answer' pop-up that appeared as I started my answer.) I HATE reading white text on a black background as for me it makes the job harder (this may be indiosyncratic and perhaps not all older people would agree.) Reading has never been hard (at least not since I was about 6) but its not quite as easy with white on black.

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I am not (at least I do not regard myself as) an older adult. But being in my mid-thirties I do have a problem with wide areas of inverted text while not having other problem with my vision. When reading inverted text for anything more than 30 seconds I do get an "afterglow" when switching back to anything "standard" (majority of web pages, majority of desktop applications).

I do not have this effect if the view (even inverted) is not 100% contrasting. In other words - white text on black bg = discomfort when switching back to anything not inverted. It stops if I have 20% black text on 80% black background.

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    This may be the case for you, but we can't be designing systems with just one person in mind. Subjective experiences need to be researched in more detail. Otherwise we'd end up designing for specific individuals rather than a broader target-audience. Your experience may be similar to 95% of the target population, or it could be just 0.005%. – JonW Nov 17 '14 at 16:14
  • I just wanted to add to the conversation my insight. And it seems that I am not the only one: here or here - open an animation in section "Negative afterimages" look at it for 2 minutes and then look at the bright part of the screen. That's exactly what is happening to me :) – wciesiel Nov 20 '14 at 15:01
  • If that is a common (or indeed known) condition then that would be a great addition to this answer. "X% of adults in the US suffer from..." sort of thing. That moves it from a subjective to a more objective answer. – JonW Nov 20 '14 at 15:37
  • I don't want to argue on it, my friend :) It seems to me that negative afterimage phenomena is observable by vast majority of people. But nevertheless - in absence of hard scientific data people insight might be valuable. That's what I would like to get when asking questions like this one. If I had hard scientific data I would be more than happy to share. Wasn't aware this sight is for sharing research-based information only - I am sorry if offended your sense of this site's purpose. Bye. – wciesiel Nov 21 '14 at 13:27
  • It's not a site for hard scientific data, but it also isn't one for pure subjective opinion either. There is a balance - and that is; objective opinion based on solid reasoning and research. – JonW Nov 21 '14 at 13:31

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