Ageing icons

UK researchers have shown that older people could make better use of computers if the icons, links and menu headings automatically grew bigger as the cursor moved towards them.

Older people often have trouble using computers. Researchers at Reading University have shown that such individuals could make better use of them if the icons, links and menu headings automatically grew bigger as the cursor moved towards them.

The researchers said that so-called ‘expanding targets’ of this kind, which grow to twice their original size and provide a much larger area to click on, could deliver a 50 per cent reduction in the number of mistakes older people make when using a computer mouse to ‘point and click’, and reduce the time that older people take to select a target by 13 per cent.

Although the potential advantages of expanding targets are well known, the study was the most comprehensive to date to focus specifically on their benefits for older people.

The research was undertaken as part of the SPARC (Strategic Promotion of Ageing Research Capacity) initiative, which is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Many older people can find it extremely challenging to position a cursor accurately using a mouse. In some cases, this may even discourage some people from using computers altogether.

Automatically expanding targets could be introduced through simple changes to software products. They not only have the potential to make it simpler and quicker to use computers but could also play a role in encouraging wider use of computers among older people in general.

The University of Reading study involved 11 older people with an average age of just over 70. Recruited via Age Concern, these volunteers were asked to perform a series of ‘point-and-click’ exercises during a 40-minute test session, using a laptop computer and a standard computer mouse.

This research studied situations where only one target expands at a time. Further investigations are studying how target expansion will work in situations where there are multiple targets on the computer screen.

‘Using a computer mouse is fundamental to interacting with current computer interfaces,’ said Dr Faustina Hwang, who led the research. ‘The introduction of expanding targets could lead to substantial benefits because older people would feel more confident in their ability to control a mouse and cursor.’

One of Dr Hwang’s PhD students is now investigating the specific difficulties older people experience when trying to double-click a computer mouse – an essential function in opening applications and other key computing functions.

The study also assessed the impact of expanding targets on the mouse and cursor control achieved by younger people (with an average age of early to mid-20s, recruited from Reading University). Expanding targets produced the same improvements in error rate and target selection times as for older people.

The 12-month study, ‘Improving Computer Interaction for Older Users: Investigating Dynamic On-screen Targets’, received financial support from SPARC of £42,703. Additional support was received from Reading University.