Usability Testing with Older Users

16th June 2010

In the second of three articles on usability testing in special situations, we look at testing with older users.

older person using a computerMany older users are recent adopters of the internet. Others have been using the internet for slightly longer but in many cases have not stepped outwith their ‘comfort zone’ of what is often just a handful of sites they regularly visit.

User Vision has undertaken a number of projects with older users and some of our tips for conducting usability tests with this audience are below.

Put the users at ease. Ideally, testing with older users should take place in their own homes. This allows them to use their own, familiar, computer setup and avoids the potentially stressful situation of asking them to test on an unfamiliar machine with possibly a different configuration to that which they are used to.

If this is not possible then everything within your ability should be done to help the user relax. If that includes making them a cup of tea and spending 5 minutes of the test time chatting about the weather then do it. With older users, anything which can be done to reduce the stressfulness of the situation will pay dividends.

Assume little or no technical knowledge. It would be incorrect to assume that all older users are one homogenous group of users with little technical experience. That said, word your tasks in plain English and be prepared to spend the time talking the user through how to use the computer and the browser. You may know what Microsoft Internet Explorer is but on their computer it may just be labelled ‘Internet’. Older users are more likely to stick to default installed software rather than try alternatives, even if the alternative software is actually easier to use. The main reason from this we have found, is a lack of confidence in downloading and installing software.

In our experience, many older users do not have a mental model of how a computer works or how it connects to the web. From switching the computer on, to accessing a website it’s all one system to many of them and they may not be able to clearly distinguish whether the problem encountered is due to the website, the browser, the operating system or the computer itself. This is particularly critical with studies such as diary studies where the use of technical language will result in them being unable to understand what is required of them with nobody at hand to assist them.

Be prepared. If participants are using their own computers during the study and there is a requirement for them to have particular software installed and configured then ensure that this is done in advance of the study. If the participant is expected to install or configure this software themselves, provide a detailed, step by step guide, with screenshots and also make yourself available to provide online support by telephone.

Make tasks relevant. Make your tasks relevant to older users. Don’t be patronising in the type of tasks you create, however take the time to think about what an older, retired user may want from the internet and what tasks they may be likely to carry out on a day to day basis. If the project allows for it, further flexibility and personalisation of tasks could be possible. Gaining information about users interests in the form of a pre-test interview could be beneficial in coming up with relevant tasks.

It’s not a test. Older users often approach usability tasks as if they are a test. It is important to stress to them that this is not the case. Often in our studies, older users see it as a reflection on their own abilities, rather than the site, if they can’t complete a task. This has in the past led to users branding themselves ‘Stupid’ or ‘Terrible with computers’ when the actual issue lay with the site design. Although in all usability sessions it is important to remind the participant that it is not a test of them, but of the site, it is critical that older users are reassured that we are not testing them and that being unable to complete a task is no reflection on their ability.

Clarification is key. Many older users use less technology and as such can have difficulty communicating usability or technical issues that they encountered. This is a particular issue with diary studies where, unless clarification is requested, the facilitator can easily be left with many pages of poorly described issues to summarise. As a general rule, one to one testing with older users is more productive as it’s easier for the facilitator to actually witness and get to the bottom of any issues encountered.

In summary, testing with older users reveals many issues that may not have arisen otherwise, but it does present some challenges. If these challenges are not addressed then the validity of the research can be impacted.

  • Older users are generally more nervous around technology. Put them at ease and reassure then that this is a test of the site and not of their ability to use a computer
  • Preparation is important. Expecting older users to configure software at short notice from limited instructions is a recipe for trouble.
  • Always clarify issues to ensure that you understand what usability or technical issue the user actually encountered.
Older users are increasing as a percentage of society, a trend which will continue. Carrying out usability research with older users can teach us a considerable amount about both the usability and accessibility needs of what is a woefully under-represented section of the online community.

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This article was written by Mark Palmer. Mark is the Lead Accessibility Consultant at User Vision, a usability and accessibility consultancy that helps clients gain a competitive advantage through improved ease of use.



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