There’s more to communicating with older people than adding a photo of a grey-haired surfer to your comms. If you want to reach the economic powerhouse of Australia, think typography, think layout and think legibility.

We’ve all seen it. The ad or email for an older audience that uses a stock shot of a pink-haired, tattooed 60- or 70-something ‘about to live their best life’ by getting ready to parachute or surf a wild break.

Although I do have a tattoo chosen should I need one for my older years (Jane Austen punching Mark Twain in the face), I really hope that by then, companies and governments will have learned a bit more about how to effectively communicate with me.

Why are comms for over 55s written and designed for younger eyes?

First, some stats. Baby boomers make up a quarter of Australia’s population but hold more than half the nation’s wealth. And they’re responsible for more than half of all consumer spending.

So why are our typography, our customer experiences and our language so at odds with what older people need?

Given how important the over 55s are as an economic cohort, it’s baffling that marketers in the health, wealth and banking sectors aren’t more focused on making their comms more readable and accessible to this grey powerhouse.

Eighty-page superannuation PDSs set in six-point font. Poor background contrast. Condensed typefaces with both thick and thin lineweights. Endless slabs of tiny justified text. It all adds up to literally impossible reading for eyes affected by loss of acuity in poor light, loss of focus and loss of vision field.

An interesting experiment

And let’s not forget the customer experience. My team carried out an experiment last year where three of us rang almost every major provider of wealth services in Australia posing as a particular older persona – I was a single older lady (I thought of myself as ‘Pearl’) considering moving my little retirement nest egg.

Even my 40-year-old ears could barely hear some of the call centre staff – let alone my fake 71-year-old ears. The vast and confusing phone menus were tough to navigate and understand. And when I finally managed to connect with a human to ask my question, they redirected me once, twice, three times then sent me to a website – to download an 80-page PDS in a tiny font full of words like ‘whilst’ and ‘heretofore’. 

Imagine the real-world impact of this on an older woman calling to put her entire financial future in your hands? Would she really take the leap with a provider she can’t hear and whose material she can’t read?

So, what to do, what to do?

The US National Institute on Aging notes three big things that influence the effectiveness of printed health materials for an older person: the reader’s reading level and subject knowledge; the clarity of communication (e.g., how the text is organised); and the feasibility of taking action (e.g., how well the reader can remember or follow instructions).

So, here are a few comms adjustments I think would make a world of difference if you want to communicate successfully with older customers.

Think grey
If a greater proportion of your revenue comes from the over 55s, how about making your brand, your fonts, your colours and your customer experiences work for them? And as a starting point, not a last-minute thought.

Think simplicity
Of design and copy. Chunk it down, avoid complex diagrams and repeat important information to compensate for any cognitive decline.

Think type
Older eyes find reading hard. Use at least 70 per cent contrast, non-glare finishes, consistent stroke weights, simple serif letterforms (the serifs help guide the eye across the page), and upper and lower case versus all-caps – because ascenders and descenders help people recognise word shapes. Make the print bigger. And space it out. And think about using fonts with a larger x-height (the ‘body’ of the letter) as these are more legible for older people. Finally, limit italics, which squeeze the letters together.

Think customer experiences
Older people often lose confidence when it comes to navigating complex services like health, wealth and banking. So make sure it’s extremely simple – that every single channel is optimised for people whose hearing and eyesight may be somewhat compromised. And train your phone staff in how to talk to older people.

Think action
Remember that older people can lose context faster – so single-minded calls to action, repeated often in the material, are crucial.

In essence, to actually serve your older audience, design and UX matter. Hours spent choosing the perfect image of a baby boomer dropping in on a gnarly break don’t. 

Kimberley Gaskin, Director, Six Black Pens

© Six Black Pens 2020