10 Tips for conducting fieldwork with Senior Citizens in Singapore

Are you planning to conduct UX research fieldwork with senior citizens in Singapore? These ten practical tips will be useful, especially if you are conducting fieldwork with this group of users (55 and older) for the first time.

Pre-fieldwork

1. Schedule an appointment, distribute appointment cards/paper slips.

Finally, you’ve gotten your list of participants confirmed! You’ve called them, emailed/whatsapp them (if they’re digital savvy), or even conversed with them face-to-face at your recruitment booth — they have confirmed their availability. But, it’s really not that ‘confirmed’ till you issue them with something tangible.

You may want to prepare a set of official-looking appointment cards that have these fields/data in various languages:

  • Study details
  • Date and time of appointment
  • Participant’s full name (or preferred name)
  • Researcher’s name and mobile number
  • Organization logo

Issuing tangible card helps senior citizens to remember their appointments. During our fieldwork, we noticed that many of our senior research participants used the paper calendar or pinned our appointment slips on their fridges to remind themselves of the date and time.

Official looking documents in other languages to serve as appointment cards for scheduling interview/fieldwork sessions
Translate your materials

2. Call one day before to remind them of the appointment.

Even though we had issued physical appointment cards, we encountered several cases where seniors were not home when we visited. Some simply forgot, while others assumed the appointment was null and void because “no one had called me.”

Of course, you can never be sure of the response rate.

We should do our best to minimise dropout cases and maximise the time that our researchers have in the field collecting data. A simple call reaffirms your commitment to the participants and signifies respect for their time.

That helps you build trust among the senior participants, who care more about how to make the most out of their remaining time than about your research work.

3. Set up a protocol for what happens when nobody answers the door.

Brief your moderators /interviewers on what to do when there are no response from the participants. For instance, we usually wait for 15 minutes at their doors before moving off to our next appointment as that is our buffer time between each appointment. In the meantime, we will call the participants on their mobile line. More than often, they are just nearby getting their meals/groceries or just having their workout. However, we’ve noticed that some seniors only turn on and bring out their mobile phones if they are travelling far (i.e. requires taking public transport or going beyond their neighbourhood mall).

Also, do you want the moderators/interviewers to return and try their luck again before they leave the vicinity? And if so — should it happen at the end of the day and how long should they wait at the door? If you are the lead researcher, how can the interviewers reach out to you if edge cases arise (e.g. communication barrier between participant and interviewer; more on that in point 7 and 8).

Consider setting up a system to allow rescheduling of appointments. If you have multiple groups of interviewers in the field all at once, you may need a Google Sheet to allow real time amendments to the calendar.

These are real operation processes to consider especially if you have more than one group of interviewers.

4. Be aware of experienced senior participants, and the informal networks among the senior participants

Is it OK to use experienced participants in your studies? For practical reasons, convenient sampling was utilised for our study. We only discovered later that the two groups of seniors we sampled had some (or a lot of) experiences participating in research studies.

We are careful not to have respondents who have answered similar types of questions too many times. For example, the Lubben Social Network Scale-6 (LSNS-6) is a rather common measuring instrument to assess social isolation in older adults. We want to avoid applying a measurement instrument so many times that respondents give a habitual default answer.

You should also keep in mind that the information you are disseminating to one senior will be quickly shared with another senior in their community. If you are applying different design interventions between cells (i.e. a between-groups experiment design), you should choose senior groups who are geographically/relationally distant to avoid both groups from communicating with one another.

Testing design intervention with different group of seniors. By the next day, everyone in the community knows we are here — Photos from our fieldwork (Pre-COVID)

Fieldwork Day

5. Appointment? Don’t be late. And, don’t be too early as well.

Unlike younger research participants, the senior participants have no qualms about letting you know that you are wasting their precious time.

They may have their favourite midday TV show to watch, which will only end at 3pm. Arriving on their doorstep at 2.40pm will elicit grumbles because they must entertain you, the guest.

They will be very keen to start the interview ASAP, rather than letting you sit in a corner and wait for the scheduled time. (Yep — you are going to capture the TV sound in the background in your audio recording.)

And if you are late, they will be afraid that the interview eats into their scheduled time for other activities (e.g. medical appointments). When that happens, their responses to your questions during the interview will be way more succinct than what you would prefer.

Seniors live active lifestyle at Senior Activity Centre
Intercepting seniors during their favourite activity to gather user feedback — Photos from our fieldwork (Pre-COVID)

Conventionally, we think that retirees and older people have a lot more free time on their hands. Therefore, it’s alright for us to be a little late. However, perhaps in response to their newfound freedom in retirement, many seniors have daily and weekly routines that they follow rigorously to add structure to their lives.

Spontaneous and episodic events like ‘participating in an interview’ is really not that important as compared to meeting their mahjong kakis at the Senior Activity Centre.

Just be on time. And, add buffer in between each appointment.

6. Expect senior participants to digress a lot more than younger participants

As we get the senior participants to recall their experiences, they tend to digress more than the younger participants.

In a 2013 study, it was found that older subjects (75–90 years old; Mean=80yo) digressed more than the old subjects (60–74 years old; Mean=67yo), who are surprisingly comparable to young subjects (20–32 years old; Mean=25yo) in terms of succinctness.

The study attributed the longer talk time to older subjects being more likely to add their own opinions, and given their smaller network of social circles, using the study opportunity to socialise with the researchers.

This is indeed what we experienced in our study, in which we interviewed close to 100 seniors. And, because of that, we have learnt to buffer more time in between each interview appointment.

Semi-structured interview format works better than structured interview for this group of users. As an interviewer, you will have to maintain signs of interest in the conversation while tactfully bringing the focus back to the question. Design 1–3 probing questions for each main question to help you guide the conversation back on track.

Be tactful in bringing the discussion points back on track — Photos from our fieldwork (Pre-COVID)

7. Language matters. Translate the English instruments.

Most seniors were more expressive and were able to describe matters and opinions more vividly when conversing in their mother tongue language. Some seniors can only converse in certain languages.

You will need a pool of interviewers who can cover these languages.

The interview protocol should be translated to these languages to ensure that each interviewer is asking the question as intended without losing the original meaning. That goes the same for survey instruments and other participant-facing materials such as Informed Consent Form.

8. Converse in dialect to bring out their ‘real self’

It’s not enough to have interviewers proficient in any of the 4 official languages. It would be ideal if you could have interviewers who could converse in various dialects.

Our multilingual fieldwork team — Photos from our fieldwork (Pre-COVID)

We were able to assemble a group of interviewers to cover all sort of dialects (e.g. Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew) except for the rarest one - Hainanese dialect. So, we had to abandon our plan to interview the 88-year-old senior who only spoke Hainanese.

As compared to speaking in Mandarin, you will be able to elicit more detailed responses when speaking in dialect.

For example when asked of their opinion “What do you think of our devices?”, their response in Mandarin may be a succinct “Not bad. Very good.” When change to a dialect that they are familiar with and being ask the same question again, their responses go like… “Not bad. Very good. But I feel that….”

This happened in several of the interview sessions I had with seniors.

Of course, transcribing will be an issue later. You need to find the same interviewers to help with transcribing, subject to their availability. So, do not just rely on audio recordings. Get the interviewers to do quick scribble on a clipboard and digitise it at the end of each interview session.

Also, no matter how confident the interviewers are in their dialect skills, practice the interview protocol/survey instrument in dialect before heading to the field.

It’s surprising how difficult it is to formulate sentences in dialects when you are staring at the interview materials. Don’t believe it?

Try asking this question in your most proficient dialect -
“How satisfied are you with your future security?”

9. Do you have the number ‘4’ on your measurement instrument? You might want to relook at how you administer the instrument

When asked to rate from a scale of 1 to 7, there were at least two occurrences where the senior participant expressed that ‘4’ was a bad number and avoided choosing that inauspicious sounding digit. The superstition of 4 as an unlucky number in Chinese culture is not to be belittled. It even caused bad traffic in Beijing, China.

We couldn’t be sure how many of our Chinese participants intentionally avoided the digit ‘4’ while asked about this semantic differential question. This response bias may be more prominent among the senior participants than the younger ones.

Fortunately for us, we discovered this in the pilot study (n = 20) rather than the main study (n = 77). Since we couldn’t change the measuring scale in the middle of the pilot study, we hid the digit 4 and renamed it to ‘Neutral’,

Before discovering the response bias
After discovering the response bias

10. 1–7 scale works badly. 0–10 works better. Print it and show it.

As a researcher myself, I have my bias as well. I tend to design survey using a 7-point scale. I won’t get into whether the measuring scale should be odd or even, or whether 7 points is better than 3, 5 or 9.

But I can confidently share that the 11-point scale is more intuitive for our senior participants to comprehend. They are able to grasp and visualise “0–10” better than “1–7”. Before I can finish reading out the question, some senior participants will say “10!” or “0!”. That question was on a 7-point scale.

Print and show your measuring scale — Photos from our fieldwork (Pre-COVID)

Also, if you are administrating your survey face-to-face via a mobile device, you may still want to print out the measuring scale to visually aid them in their responses. You will find it useful to prompt and oriented the session when the senior participant insists on giving it ‘70 marks’ when your scale is only a ‘0 to 10’.

That’s it! Enjoy the fieldwork!

And if possible, space out the fieldwork schedule. Have fun my fellow UX practitioners.

The awesome feeling after interviewing 20 seniors in 2 days. Always space out the fieldwork schedule if possible. — Photos from our fieldwork (Pre-COVID)

Reference:

Bóna, J. (2013). Narrative recall in the elderly: Content, fluency and speech errors in the narrative speech of young, young-old and old-old speakers. Acta Linguistica Hungarica, 60(2), 123–142. Retrieved June 17, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/26191899

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Joy Ng

Joy Ng

UX designer at GovTech Singapore. Answers-seeker.

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