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User research with older people — practical tips and guidelines

How ageing affects us, why it’s important and actionable tips for running inclusive user research with older people.

As practitioners delivering user-centred design, we know that diversity in our methods, teams and research participants will help us achieve high-quality outcomes for our users and organisations. In particular, we work hard to avoid designs that make it hard for users to receive service and/or spend money via our digital products.

Yet, to paraphrase Gerry McGovern, it’s easy for our teams to be tribal and for the customer to be (or to become) a stranger. And when the customer is distant from our tribe we miss opportunities to innovate or to make more inclusive/effective design solutions. 

This can be true when thinking about a common demographic gap between UXers and older people. For example, when 74% of UXrs are between age 26 and 45 our understanding of the needs of people who are much older could be limited (depending on the make-up of our teams).

Contents

When do people become ‘old’?

Defining ‘old’ can be a challenge because of a wide variability between individuals and age-related changes. But age-related change starts sooner than you think, typically around age 25. Nielsen Norman Group has estimated that the time users need to complete website tasks increases by 0.8% per year from age 26. Whilst at age 40 the lens in the eye starts to become less flexible causing far-sightedness (presbyopia). Yet, wider age-related decline really starts to speed-up from age 50 onwards. 

Intriguingly, older people can have a bias not to consider themselves to be ‘old’. Certainly at age 50, but also when they are well into old age. This is because age-related impairments manifest themselves at different rates and severities. People who are relatively unimpaired when contrasted with their peers are less likely to regard themselves to be old. 

For user research purposes at Alzheimer’s Society, we define ‘old’ as 55+. We expect people 70+ to be living with more pronounced age-related conditions or behaviours (excluding those from the dementias).

How does ageing affect people?

Understanding and having empathy for the ageing process will help you in your research operations. This article will give you a sense of some of the opportunities for inclusive user research and takeaways for your study with older people…

Beliefs and behaviours

An older person with low confidence in digital skills
A participant in her late-70s was recruited using a live-intercept for the service under evaluation in this interaction lab. Whilst this participant was an actual customer, she still needed reassurance during follow-up screening and in the earlier parts of the session. This was because she was (wrongly) concerned about her abilities with technology and so her appropriateness for the study. The insights from this session contributed to the team’s confidence that the design solution was simple and usable, even for those who were older and/or had low confidence regarding their digital literacy.

Beyond an older person’s perception of their age, there are two general behaviours and beliefs which can be more common in digital user research: fear and confidence. Fear can present as worrying about making errors, appearing naïve, breaking something or concerns about privacy and data use. Low-confidence can cause older people to give up on tasks more quickly and at twice the rate than younger people. 

Takeaways: plan for longer sessions as participants may take longer to find the best result/option, re-check results from a process or take less efficient routes to complete tasks. Be prepared to modify your facilitation style to strike a balance between the capabilities of the participant and the study objectives.

Dexterity

Older person mobile phone dexterity example
A participant in her early-70s signing-up to a forum during a contextual research session. This participant struggled with screen glare and selecting the right characters on her keyboard when creating her email and password. In turn, this triggered many syntax validation errors which stressed the participant exacerbating their error rate (validation and minor typos) further. Accessibility insights from this participant revealed ‘deep usability’ truths applicable to any user. For example, simplifying the profile creation process to only ask for essential information only helped increase the overall sign-up rate for everyone, regardless of age or ability.

Precise motor control degrades as people enter their 50s, with diseases more common in older people, like arthritis, stroke and dementia hastening the effects of any decline. Likewise, hand-to-eye coordination becomes harder and the speed of movement slows.

Takeaway: holding and manipulating objects and coordinating gestures (like multi-touch, typing) can become difficult due to natural ageing and because of diseases more common in older people.

Hearing

An older person with dementia in a paired content review exercise
A participant in his late-70s in a workshop reviewing print and web content. During secondary telephone recruitment screening, we learned that he lived with some hearing loss. Consequently, it was even more important that we designed the session with small group sizes and a dedicated location free of distractions like background noise and chatter. These factors helped his attention stay focussed on content analysis and insights, rather than on the conversation itself.

Loss of hearing also accelerates as people enter their 50s (and is the second most common age-related impairment after arthritis). About a third of people aged 60-65 will have problems with normal aural communication, increasing to 89% by age 80.

Takeaway: plan for hearing impairments affecting your ability to screen participants by telephone, and verbal communication during your study. Consider the effect of a noisy location for research (especially for interviews).

Vision

Older user research participant in a dementia support group
A participant in his late 60s exploring a prototype in the office of a social support group. This participant also lives with age-related conditions including impaired vision (farsightedness) and dexterity (arthritis). Note how the participant has leaned-in to the screen so that he can see information more clearly. Insights about the time needed to complete data entry tasks when living with these age-related conditions helped the design team to reconsider the type, quantity and order of information entered by customers.

Besides increases in farsightedness, people will experience a progressive decline in their visual acuity, peripheral vision, sensitivity to contrast and colour perception as they age. Reading speed declines too, but especially for those who are older than 50. The pervasiveness of eye diseases like glaucoma and macular degeneration increases also. 

Takeaways: plan to create study materials that factor for low vision, consider screening for visual impairment and adding more time for research requiring processing of textual content. 

Cognition

Older user research participant with dementia
A participant in their mid-70s, who also lives with a specific condition affecting memory and information processing, in an interaction lab. Note the printed scenario prompt, set in large type, on the desk next to the participants iPhone. The distraction-free environment, printed reminders and a retrospective think-aloud helped minimise stress. The insights about the complexity of the prototype relative to his abilities motivated the design team to make a simpler solution for everyone, regardless of age.

Most cognitive abilities decline with age. But which, how quickly and by how much varies between individuals. Generally, expect a decline in an older person’s ability to…

  • use working memory
  • (e.g., complex tasks can become harder; forgetting earlier steps in a process),
  • ignore distractions and focus attention becomes harder,
  • navigate processes/systems accurately,
  • multi-task,
  • perform a task within the same time as a younger person,

…with impairment increasing with the participant’s age.

Takeaways: plan for longer (or chunked/stepped) research sessions and research locations without distractions. Consider retrospective (vs. concurrent) think-aloud protocols (to reduce cognitive burden).

Guidelines for user research with older people

These guidelines seek to balance aspects of best practice for any inclusive user research with areas more specific to older people…

Screening older people

Avoid ‘cold-calling’ — if you’re working from a database of participants then consider initiating contact for your study via email, or social media first. Then agree a day/time to call for secondary screening proper. This can mitigate any anxiety that older people may experience when contacted by someone who is unknown to them.

Tips: use an account from the organisation you’re working for (if applicable/appropriate). Include information like its: logo, address and a clear opt-out from the study and/or the database. Ensure you have a clear subject line. 

Establish your credibility immediately on first-contact — older people can be sensitive about contact by strangers. Establishing who you are, why you are contacting them and how you got their contact information is important with this age group. If recruiting/screening people in a public space, e.g., guerrilla research, then consider wearing official identification (if applicable and/or appropriate to the research).

Be more flexible in your methods of contact — remember that older people are more likely to live with a disability than the general population. For example, in the UK, 80% of disability is acquired and at an average age of 53. Telephone conversations have serious limits if the prospective participant is hard of hearing. Likewise, consider the typesetting of emails you send for people with impaired vision.

Tip: consider modifying branded stationery from your organisation to ensure aspects of inclusion. For example, a typeface of >12 points and higher contrast colours, in an email or letter.

Digital literacy — older people can assume that your study is looking for ‘experts’, or younger people. Preempt any false perceptions of personal shortcomings with technology and experience. Make clear that you are looking for normal people with a core of digital literacy (inline with the purpose of your study).

Tip: assess digital literacy by screening/scoring for frequency completing common digital tasks over time. For example, how often a prospective participant searches for information related to health, hobbies, travel or news and/or communicating with family.

A simple and adaptable user research screening question to assess digital skills and literacy. Adapted (internationalised) from the UK’s Government Digital Service. Download Digital skills/literacy user research screening question [Google Doc].

Check and assess diversity — remember that older people are not a homogenous group. They are often living with age-related health conditions which may be pertinent to your research (or which may affect your study design). Go beyond assessing fundamental demographics and screen for:

  • wider accessibility needs; especially those which related to user experience and your research plan. For example, arthritis in the upper limbs may affect the use of a prototype, a mobility impairment, the logistics to attend and diseases like dementia may affect both aspects.     
  • social needs; the participant might be the primary carer for their partner, or wish for a friend to attend the session with them. Try to support these needs so that the person is not excluded (or self-exclude because they assume that their needs wouldn’t be supported). 
  • digital adaptations; make sure to screen for any changes your participant might make to their technology (like changing default type size). Yet, remember that they might not be aware that adaptations are possible. Probe for the typical context of use and any frustrations or discomfort that they might be experiencing. Plan for and mitigate these in the session.

Tip: ask participants to bring their personal devices to the session along with any artefacts, like their ‘computer glasses’, that they’d use when using your digital product/service. Use these in these in the session to enhance the validity of your understanding and insights (or to replicate their settings on your own set-up).

Scheduling older people

Be flexible in your schedule — if possible work to your participants schedule. If asking older people to travel try to plan your research so that peak periods are avoided. Try to join-up session times with the time of day which works best for the participant.

Tip: consider scheduling your oldest participants in the morning and work towards the youngest in the afternoon. Generally, people in their 70s and older might have better attention earlier in the day.

Be flexible in location — consider the effect of asking older people to travel to you (especially to and across a city). For example, contextual research methods will likely yield more valid insights as well as removing the burden of travel from the participant. If a participant must travel to you then select a research space which is close to transport hubs and has considered accessibility in its design from the outset.

Tip: consider falling back on remote moderated methods so that you don’t exclude those for whom travel would be not possible, or too difficult, but who are otherwise suitable participants.

Transport logistics — older people can be more sensitive to the physical and mental demands of travelling to research locations. Especially when using public transport in a large city and during rush hour. Consider offering to meet the participant at the stop or station to reduce stress and wayfinding mistakes. Be mindful of any conditions that might affect a person’s ability to travel and factor for anyone that they may wish to bring with them for support.

Tip: if your situation allows, offer taxi’s to collect and return participants to the session. This can optimise recruitment, minimise no-shows and mitigate reliance on public transport as well as limiting stress on the participant (and the researcher!).

Expect a longer lead time — don’t assume that older people, including those who are retired, are time-rich. Many have very active social lives and schedules. Also, don’t expect older people to always be online/connected. It can take longer than normal to receive replies to messages, like email and direct social messages.

Tip: start screening as early as is practicable and expect longer gaps (days) between cycle] of communication with older participants.

Overrecruit — it’s often a good idea to recruit at least one extra participant for any study. This is even more true for older adults. They are more likely to be living with health conditions or have caregiving needs, which can cause last-minute changes to plans — often on the research day itself.

Tip: factor in at least one cancellation in your session plan. For larger studies consider over recruiting by ±15%. Also, consider falling back on remote moderated research and/or offering to reschedule.

Session reminders — create and send a clear and specific summary of the research. Go beyond essentials, like start/end time, and include transport suggestions, printable maps and photos of the entrance. Make sure to follow-up across mediums (email, phone, text, digital calendar) as the session approaches, as needed.

Tip: include specific reminders about things to bring, like hearing aids, computer/reading glasses and the type of session that they’ll be attending.

During user research time

Expected the unexpected — plan for last-minute cancellations, especially because of unforeseen medical and caring responsibilities. Yet, also factor for very early arrivals and/or bringing family members unannounced. Similarly, assume that at least one participant will need escorting from their transport to the study location.

Tips: have a waiting area set-up with refreshments, reading material and ideally near toilets. If possible, have someone ready to find, meet and induct early participants — any research administration completed between sessions can provide more flexibility in the scheduled session itself.

Create a familiar environment — make a space which is representative and adaptable to the needs of the participant. Set-up any technology to suit the participant (especially if you’re not using their device). Make them comfortable and try to remove any distractions. For example, check/set the default type size on a device, the lighting level (especially glare). Also any other potential distractions like noise and temperature (especially cold).

Tip: try to limit novel, unfamiliar or fatiguing variables which might affect data quality and ethics.

Set expectations early — remind the participant of the purpose of the study, its parameters and why their insight is needed. But make sure that you factor for any fragility of confidence; especially about their experiences with technology, breaking something and self-blaming if they feel that they are struggling. 

Tip: let the participant know that they take breaks at any point and remind them when any planned breaks will occur (in longer sessions). 

Warm-up and practice — spend time demonstrating any methods with an exercise so that the participant comprehends the study’s mechanics. This can help put them at ease, set expectations and improve the quality of the insights and outputs.   

Older person with dementia paired content review exercise
Two participants, one in her late 50s and one in her mid-70s, pair-reviewing web content. A thorough induction, including an icebreaking game and warm-up tasks, were conducted before beginning this exercise to assess the effectiveness of existing content about dementia.

Tip: consider asking for retrospective reflection, rather than concurrent ‘think aloud’ at certain points in any design activity or usability test. This can mitigate overloading participants with impaired cognition (and degrading the insights from the research). 

Allow extra time (but run to time) — older people may take longer to do things and can need extra facilitation (especially in group-based research) to stay focussed. Consider running longer sessions than normal, both for your administration tasks and for the user research itself. Yet, avoid overrunning — older people often lead busy lives, even in retirement, and so ensure that your session runs to schedule.

Tip: add an extra 15 minutes for every 1-hour of research with older people.

Avoid trying to cover too much — have fewer tasks, or interview questions, in a session than your might with younger people. Consider chunked, shorter, sessions, with built-in breaks. Or a single session, but with more limited objectives. Older people can also become tired faster and lose focus, as well as needing more time for a task.

Tip: remember your research ethics; participant wellness is more important than the study itself.

Stay on topic — be mindful of a tendency to chat, reminisce, or stray from a topic during your session. Listen to the participant, but stand ready to guide them back to the topic. Reassure them that their experiences are of interest and related to the research.

Tip: accepting some deviation can generate feelings of trust and security in the participant. Deviations from a task can also elicit useful insights which may be relevant to the study.  

Closing the user research

Like any user research, close your study with any summative exercises, remaining administration or answers for participant questions. However, be prepared to go further for older people…

Providing immediate support — you might have observed that the participant struggled with something related to the product, their system set-up or abilities. Plan to spend time at the end of the session to cover these areas, particularly if helping them with aspects of digital literacy and inclusion.

Tip: My Computer My Way, from AbilityNet, is a good resource for participants who would enjoy adapting their technology to make it easier for them to use.

Consider ongoing support — your product, service or organisation may meet real health or social needs for your participant. Consider how you can direct the participant to information, services or support from which they might benefit (but of which they were unaware). 

Tip: if appropriate, consider providing early/ongoing access to the development version of any product you are developing so that the participant can continue to benefit (and/or provide feedback).

Set-up reset — if you’ve been researching in a personal, or communal environment, make sure that you reset it to its original state. Especially if this might be difficult, or impossible, for the participant themselves. This includes any setting changes made to technology to enable the aspects of the study to run.

Logistics — finally, make sure that the needs of your study don’t adversely affect the participant’s calendar. Keep to time so that issues with return travel, health or social appointments are not created for the participant. 

Summary

Selected references

Chisnell, Dana & Redish, Ginny & Lee, Amy. (2006). New Heuristics for Understanding Older Adults as Web Users. Technical Communication. 53. 39-59. 

Hurst, Simon. (2015). How we recruited people with low/no digital skills on Carer’s Allowance. User research in government, Government Digital Service. Accessed: 31/5/2020.

Jackson, Daniel & Schofield, Guy & Olivier, Patrick. (2012). Engaging Older People using Participatory Design. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – Proceedings. 10.1145/2207676.2208570. 

Kane, Lexie & Pernice, Kara. (2018). UX Design for Senior Citizens (Ages 65 and Older). 3rd Edition. Nielsen Norman Group. 

McGovern, Gerry. (2010). The customer is a stranger. Gerry McGovern. Accessed: 31/5/2020.

Older Users and Web Accessibility: Meeting the Needs of Ageing Web Users. 2018. World Wide Web Consortium, Web Accessibility Initiative. 

Silva, Paula Alexandra & Nunes, Francisco. (2010). 3 x 7 Usability Testing Guidelines for Older Adults. MexIHC 2010. 

By Rik Williams

I write about how to collaborate to design simple, usable and inclusive information experiences that make the lives of customers easier. Read more in Categories and Tags.

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