A primer on conducting user research with older adults

Niharika Mathur
Dec 20, 2020 · 6 min read
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As technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous in our lives, the need to expand the boundaries of user groups and make them more inclusive is more required today than ever before. As user experience researchers, it is of utmost importance for us to check our biases at the door, look beyond conventions, and advocate for more empathetic research practices. One user group that is paid relatively less attention to are older adults, i.e., people above the age of 65. Designing technologies for older adults has been gaining momentum due to increased focus on aging in place practices and openness in the adoption of technology by people of all ages. During my experience of working with older adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), I learned various ways in which doing user research with older adults is different from younger and more technology-friendly populations. Throw in a global pandemic, and the user research experience becomes even more complex. In this article, I have compiled a list of ideas that might help User Researchers working with older adults.

1. Empathy is key

As User Researchers, empathy is a quality that we naturally incorporate into our dealings with users. However, understanding the experiences of technology with older adults requires an added level of empathy and patience. It is important to keep in mind that people who were born before a certain period in time did not grow up as surrounded by modern technology in the form of mobile phones and computers as we or our fellow research colleagues did. Therefore, the idea of machines and conversational agents that talk to them in a human voice and have an almost human-like presence can be slightly overwhelming at times. Add to this the added challenge of cognitive decline and feelings of isolation-induced anxiety due to increased age and the pandemic, and the responses of users can quickly become frustrated and stressful. It is in those moments that we need to be patient and empathetic and create an environment where they feel comfortable and supported enough to express their feelings.

  • It might help to explain the goals of the research study from a very rudimentary and basic level. Try connecting the technological ideas with their experiences over the years. For example, the concept of a Conversational Agent can be introduced as a helper or a butler seen in vintage movies. Or a quick payment screen can be portrayed as a portable wallet that one carries around.
  • You will be asked to repeat yourself several times, and when working in a remote setting, the complaints of audio being muted or not being audible enough will also come up from time to time. Providing these users with a comprehensive guide to using remote collaboration tools beforehand and being hands-on during the sessions will help with conducting sessions smoothly.
  • Do not assume that concepts such as “menus”, “share button”, “swiping”, etc. are common knowledge. It is understandable that over time and with the increased use of technology, skeuomorphism is being increasingly adopted by people, but the fact remains that older adults are likely to be unfamiliar with the evolution that younger users are accustomed to. Therefore, it will be helpful to either verbally or visually define any terms that might have the potential to create confusion.
  • Introduce a component of “informality” in the session in order to not make the users feel like you are only interested in their ideas as long as they help you in your research. Make a genuine effort to be interested in talking to them and hear about their experiences. A helpful tip to achieve this would be to share your experiences with them. Older adults are usually interested in hearing about your experiences as young adults and what makes you unique.

2. More visuals, less text

This is general advice, but the need for more visuals and less text becomes even more pronounced in the case of reduced cognitive ability on the reader’s part. If the sessions are online and the screen is being shared, it becomes even more important for the slides or presentation to have more of a visual component in the form of charts, animations, graphs, highlighted texts, or any other visual cues that are easy to understand as opposed to having them read a lot of text. This also helps with an increased understanding on the part of the user by eliminating the cognitive effort required to process text.

  • Have a succinct story structure to your sessions or presentations. A consistent storyline that gives out an enjoyable and lively vibe is always better than a session that feels more ‘mechanical’ will not lead to the users feeling comfortable and safe enough to open up.
  • Don’t be scared of making your experience silly or childish. In many ways, the sessions should be sprinkled with a hint of fun and a child-like candor that encourages them to respond in a similar way. Consider using animations and cartoons that remind them of their childhood shows or pop culture that they might have engaged with through the years.
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For one of our research sessions, my team used Rosey the Robot from The Jetsons as a metaphor for a conversational agent such as the google home.

3. Use consistent vocabulary

“Move the screen to the left”, “Swipe left”, “Zoom the screen”, “Pinch the screen” — vocabulary plays a crucial role in making sure your message is getting across clearly. The requirement for consistency in vocabulary is more amplified in the case of online and remote sessions due to the added pressure on older adults to adjust to newer technologies. Make sure to not use different words for the same concept that have the ability to confuse the user. Keep your use of words consistent and to the point.

4. Do not underestimate their willingness to try new technology

It is rather overt to assume that older adults are uncompromising towards new technology. When you begin to engage with them more and more through the course of your user research, you are bound to be pleasantly surprised at their willingness to understand and engage with technology. Do not be afraid of introducing them to the newest gadget you have laid your eyes on, albeit in an easy and simple way. Most of them will be encouraging of your desire to help them and will be more than happy to share their ideas and opinions. Do not underestimate their ability to understand technology and the desire to engage with it. Using metaphors to relate technology to their lives and explaining things in an uncomplicated way using visuals will go a long way in creating such a safe environment for them to open up.

5. Value the depth of their experience

Extending the idea from the last point, remarkably, older adults might turn out to be one of the most resourceful user groups you will engage within your journey as a user researcher. This is due to the breadth of experience that they have to offer by virtue of age. Many of them will have lived in different parts of the country and the world and engaged with people from various cultures and backgrounds. Others might have lived a more anchored yet resourceful life full of experiences that might be unimaginable for us. Leverage their experience, talk to them in a way that displays genuine curiosity, keep it simple and you will be surprised at how rewarding and satisfactory the experience of designing for older adults can be. You can also be sure of receiving honest feedback from them on your ideas in the form of either an outright dismissal or an overwhelming display of gratitude and emotions that will have the potential of reminding you why you do research!

Georgia Tech MS-HCI

Writings from the HCI Master's students at Georgia Tech

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