Summary: When conducting usability testing with older adults, understand your participants’ needs and accommodate them accordingly.
Older adults (ages 65+) have unique needs that must be considered when conducting usability tests. Creating a comfortable environment and building trust with your participants is especially important for this demographic that may have less experience when it comes to using technology.
In This Article:
- Why Conduct Usability Tests with Older Adults?
- Understand the Older-Adult Audience
- Recruiting Older Adults
- Create a Safe Environment
- Incorporate the Necessary Assistive Technologies
- Provide a Small Number of Realistic Tasks
- Build Trust With Your Participants
Why Conduct Usability Tests with Older Adults?
If older adults make up a large part of your target audience, then learning about their thoughts, feelings, and actions through usability testing will give you the insights you need to improve your product for your users.
Even if your product is geared toward a general audience, including older adults in your usability tests is a good idea. Although older adults may have less experience when it comes to using technology, they still use the internet for various reasons including health information, travel, money management, news, volunteering, shopping, communication, and social connection. According to the Pew Research Center, 75% of adults age 65 and older report that they use the internet. Still, many websites are not designed to meet their needs. Conducting usability testing with older adults can help to improve the accessibility of your product. Products that meet regulatory accessibility guidelines will likely be more user-friendly for all users.
This article is based on our usability research with older adults. It covers techniques and considerations for conducting usability tests with older adults, with their specific needs and challenges in mind.
Understand the Older-Adult Audience
Learning about the effects of aging will enable you to create a safe and functional testing environment. Disabilities such as visual impairments, hearing impairments, motor impairments, and cognitive impairments are natural parts of the aging process.
Visual impairments: According to the WHO, common visual impairments include nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism, presbyopia, and cataracts. These impairments may affect your participant’s ability to view content on a screen.
Hearing impairments: The WHO states that over 5% of the world’s population experiences hearing loss that requires treatment. Hearing loss can range from mild to profound. Hearing impairments may affect your participant’s ability to understand sound from an interface or verbal instructions from the facilitator.
Motor impairments: Motor impairments, like a reduced range of motion and diminished coordination, are typical parts of aging. Illnesses like stroke and Parkinson's disease also affect older adults more than any other demographic. Users with mobility impairments may experience difficulties using interfaces with small targets or complicated navigation. They may also be slow to complete tasks. Some of these users may not use traditional input devices. Instead, they may use modified keyboards or mice, as well as tools that utilize the feet or the head to move the cursor.
Cognitive impairments: Aging can affect many aspects of cognitive function including memory, problem solving, attention, visual comprehension, and linguistic comprehension. Clear instructions and short, realistic tasks will help your older user-test participants.
Recruiting Older Adults
Do Not Make Assumptions
While it is necessary to be aware of the impairments associated with older ages, be mindful of any stereotypes. Aging affects everyone differently. In our research study with older adults, several participants led active lives that allowed them to be physically fit and mentally sharp. Prepare for a participant group with a range of abilities.
Use a Screener Survey
Use a screener survey with questions about participants’ age, experience using technology, and the types of devices they own to recruit a diverse group of participants. Also, ask participants if they require any assistive devices to use the internet, and, if so, make sure they will have access to them during the study sessions.
Travel to Your Participants
If resources allow, meet your participant at their home, or at a location close to their home. Residential communities for older adults are convenient places to recruit and conduct usability tests. Testing at a location that is convenient for your participant comes with multiple benefits:
- No navigation issues: Older participants may have mobility or visual impairments, so testing at your participant’s home or a familiar place nearby simplifies the experience.
- Comfort in a familiar space: Participants will feel more comfortable in their homes rather than in an office or research lab. This may help them to be more talkative.
- Opportunity to conduct research in a natural context: Conducting sessions in your participants’ homes will allow you to observe the ways they usually use their devices along with any necessary assistive technology. Allow the participant to use their own device and assistive technologies if they prefer.
Create a Safe Environment
Depending on your tasks and product, you may need to consider the risks. In some cases, supplemental precautions may be necessary to guarantee your participant’s safety. For instance, when we conducted usability tests with AR apps, some of the tasks required participants to exercise or play games. The research team alternated more physically demanding tasks with stationary ones to avoid exerting older participants too much during the study. It also took extra measures to make sure the participant was in a safe environment and would not bump into any objects while participating in tasks. If your participant uses a wheelchair or walker, organize your cords and remove any obstacles in the testing room, especially if they will be asked to move around.
During the introduction and setup, invite participants to voice their needs during the session. Many participants will not ask for a glass of water or even for a restroom break. In our usability testing research, we had a participant who had injured their hip. In this case, it was important for the facilitator to make it known that the participant’s health is the highest priority. Throughout the session, the participant was able to stand up, stretch, and walk around.
Incorporate the Necessary Assistive Technologies
Participants in this age group are more likely to use assistive technologies such as screen readers and screen magnifiers, keyguards, head wands, and voice-recognition software. Make sure your testing equipment is flexible and compatible with your participants’ assistive technologies. Equipment including monitors, keyboards, tables, recording tools, and chairs should be easily moved and repositioned.
While conducting mobile-usability tests, you may find that recording the screen is more challenging because document cameras may be difficult to reposition. For example, if your participant uses a phone mount on their wheelchair, it may limit the research team’s ability to record their screen (as well as their ability to test different orientations for your mobile app or website).
Remind participants to bring prescription glasses or contacts. And, prepare to provide live transcriptions during remote sessions (and possibly during in-person ones as well) for those participants who are hard of hearing.
Provide a Small Number of Realistic Tasks
In our study with older adults, it was common for participants to forget a task midway through completing it. There are a few ways to address this.
- Write realistic tasks: Tasks that are realistic and relevant to the participant are more memorable. Your participant may forget the task easily if it is something they do not care about.
- Provide the participant with a reference: While conducting in-person research, printing out a hard copy of the task will give the participant something to refer to while they are completing it. If you are running a remote session, share the task with the participant through the chat.
Older adults can become fatigued more quickly than younger participants. Planning for shorter sessions where you prioritize a small number of tasks will reduce the cognitive burden, helping them to stay focused during the session.
Build Trust With Your Participants
Building trust is about creating a supportive environment where participants feel comfortable expressing themselves freely. This environment will reduce stress and improve the testing experience for your older participants, who may be less confident when it comes to using technology. Additionally, participants who are comfortable with the testing setup will be more likely to provide honest feedback about your design, ensuring effective use of your time.
Reserve Extra Time During the Session
At the beginning of the session, reserve time to set up the testing environment, incorporate assistive technology, and adjust text-size settings. Encourage your participants to ask questions about the consent form or about the schedule. Address any doubts they may have about participating. However, make sure to save questions related to the product and the tasks until after the test is finished, so as not to bias the participant.
After your session ends, be available to answer questions and provide details. Participants may want to spend time chatting about the goals of the study, the product that you tested, or the tasks that they worked through. Many times, the participant may just want to talk and learn more about using the internet. In our research with older adults, one participant said “These are good tasks. They’re good for the study and they’re good for me—teaching me new things.”
Emphasize that They Are Not Being Tested
Older adults may feel less confident using technology compared to their younger, digital-native counterparts. They may feel worse than a younger participant if they do not complete a task successfully. This makes it especially important to emphasize that you are not testing their ability to use the technology; rather, it is the website that is being tested.
Though conducting usability testing research with older adults requires special consideration, it is an effective way to learn how to improve your product. Successful usability tests start with understanding your target audience of older adults. From there, you can work to create an appropriate testing environment and build trust with your participants.