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Resources: UPA 2005 Idea Markets

What do we know about older users?

Activators: Nancy Frishberg and Terry Carson


This report describes the results of using five activities and stimuli to encourage discussion of the Idea Market topic "What do we know about older users?" As is typical of Idea Market sessions at UPA, we stood by our flipcharts, predrawn with words and phrases as prompts, to invite comments and further questions (I – III). We also used photographs (IV) to encourage participants to suggest ideas on the topic. And,
finally a sketch of the human body (V) provided yet another a brainstorming device for participants, who added their own stickie notes directly.

I. Defining terms: "older" and "[older] users"

We asked people for their organizations' definitions, or their personal definition of terms.

  • AARP (www.aarp.org) : over 50 years (invitations issued to US individuals identifed as 49.5 years)
  • US Census: age 65 years
  • other research organizations: (variable) 60-70 years
  • market research organizations use age ranges: 18-24|25-34|35-44|45-54|55+ (or 55-64|65+)
  • "older than me!"
  • "10 years older than me!"
  • "when you feel older – a mental state"
  • "We stereotype [older users] in a negative light; ageism is alive and well"

In short, there is no universally acknowledged chronological age at which all agree
someone is included in the "older" category. Nor do we agree on characteristics that
identify the "older user".

  • Older people may be unfamiliar with modern terms and concepts in (information) technology – though we acknowledged that this gap may be less pronounced as time goes on. (Still, new advances in technology may imply that those of us who are competent and comfortable with today's technologies could become the old fogeys of the technologies of 10-15 years from now.)
  • Technology breeds paranoia about safety, even physical safety. Incomplete or inaccurate mental models lead to superstitious behavior ("always turn the computer off when you're not using it to prevent 'them' from getting access to your private information").
  • Find flashing VCR lclock disturbing and don't know how to get rid of it? You're probably an older user.
  • Acknowledging that working people may be "older users" – we don't have to wait until retirement to fit the category:
    When senior management says "It's not working", it may mean "I don't use it."
    When senior management says "It's not needed", it may mean "I don't understand it.

Both of these terms ("older" and "older user") encompass a state of mind, but also a combination of physical, cognitive, sensory, perceptual, and emotional changes, some hidden and some apparent. We observed that many of the people who stopped and talked with us in this Idea Market session were themselves uncomfortable with identification as older users, despite their grey hair and obvious qualification for AARP membership.

II. Capabilities

To counter the many negatives gathered from (I), we offered a place for notes about remarkable (positive) qualities of older adults (as a group or for particular individuals):

  • Physical state and mental state are potentially related (i.e., if you feel great, you're likely to be active, and vice versa.)
  • We heard about a grandmother (age 84) who mows her own lawn daily with the push mower.
  • People contrasted their parents with in-laws, or friends with neighbors: whatever your earlier characteristics, these seem to be accentuated in later life. Those who were outgoing, adventuresome, or experimenting continue to welcome the new; those who were hesitant, uncomfortable in unfamiliar surroundings, or suspicious of change seem to continue in these modes. Technology is just one more example of an arena for confronting change.
  • We are well-acquainted with people age 75-90 years who are long-time computer users, sophisticated web-browsers and document formatters. They understand databases, how to install new drivers for additional devices, backing up a PC, and when to call someone to help undo a knotty problem. We also know the range of skills and habits is wide, and it's hard to predict who will embrace new technologies avidly, who will reluctantly, and who will avoid them.

III.Usability testing and older adults

Since many of the participants at UPA are focused on (digital) product usability, and similar tasks preparing or evaluating websites, we recorded thoughts about how testing might be different with older people, compared with more typical or familiar users (office workers? college students?).

  • It may be difficult to keep a retired person on task – they may veer off-task into storytelling
  • Older participants may read more of the onscreen text (or instructions), compared to younger people completing the same U-test
  • Unexpected requests ("clean my glasses"), compared to familiar requests ("Where's the restroom?", "I'd like milk in my coffee.")
  • Our screening questionnaires may need to be tuned or tweaked: Older participants may qualify as a "computer user" by the current questionnaire. The screener may need to be more explicit than in other circumstances: e.g., even if you've used the computer several times a week for more than 6 months, it's possble you're not familiar with
    • a mouse (because you're a WebTV where you navigate by keyboard),
    • games, other than those someone else has loaded onto the desktop of your PC
    • web browser as a windowed application
    • operating the computer alone (you're accustomed to having a "buddy" beside you)
  • Older participants may subscribe to different terms of reference or values:
    • e.g. "Bigger is better" may be an old-fashioned idea in these days of highly capable PDAs, cell phones, and other handhelds. Perceived characteristics of size here may not a match other (hidden) measures of size or speed. [We acknowledge that the desirable characteristics are a moving target.]
  • Spending patterns are related to when you and your cohort were born:
    • Elders raised in Depression-era may be more careful or frugal about technology

These items are certainly not exhaustive, and barely scratch the surface, as might be expected of a one-hour discussion session. They are indicative of our experience involving older users in usability studies, usually in a lab, though sometimes in the home or other settings.

IV.Images as stimuli for discussion

We showed 4-5 images (photos taken by the activators in Montreal) and asked participants to describe any technology in the images and whether these were familiar or friendly to older users.

The purpose of this exercise with images was

  • to check whether younger UPA participants recognized some "older" technology, such as the elevator bank indicators photographed in Le Baie (Hudson Bay Company)
  • to determine whether people from other climates recognized cold weather technologies, such as the metal gratings at the entryway to the same store, to scrape ice from shoes and boots
  • to use non-text, non-verbal stimuli to activate this Idea Market question;
  • and, of course, to have fun!

These images are stored at flickr.com and tagged with "UPA05" and "Montreal". (Brief video segments or animations might bring out more rich interpretations than the still images. For example, the image of the man adjusting his backpack before getting back on his bicycle would have more obviously represented a high level of dexterity, as he reached over his shoulders to attach the bungie cords over the pack's opening, if it
were a even a 15-second video segment. Still, the open ended focus of this figure in a plaza or park-like setting, allowed additional responses, such as "the park's surface is irregular, which would present mobility problems to older users", and "in the city people carry a lot of packages and bags; how well do older users cope?" )

V. The body as stimulus

We traced the outline of a lifesize adult, and taped it to the wall. We gave stickie notes to everyone who came by our Idea Market area. We invited them contribute attributes of older users that this figure suggests. We encouraged everyone who participated to respond without reading what was already posted (in the spirit of brainstorming). Altogether we collected 34 comments. A transcription of this image with participant comments, more or less in the places the stickies were placed, is included here.

Transcription of comments from the Idea Market. This image shows  a human body with comments placed near parts of the body.

These 34 comments (collected in an hour from about 15 people) focus on physical decline (15 comments, shaded lilac), mental decline (7 xomments, shaded yellow), general slowing down (4 comments, shaded blue), loss of sexuality (1 comment, shaded grey), inability to learn new technology ideas or manage physical tasks related to computing (5 comments, shaded pale green). Only two comments explicitly referenced positive attributes (shaded bright green). In one case, a contributor noted that with more time on her hands, a relative was able to explore things and take courses about computing. Another respondent reminded us that "an older person is not the sum of his or her ailments – consider attitude and experience."

We learned a valuable new term (and concept) "cognitive anchoring" from François Monet. Cognitive anchoring suggests that the learning habits we acquire early provide anchors for how we approach learning new material later in life. He offered an article (post-conference) that describes the phenomenon in the context of psychology of financial investing: http://www.fool.com/specials/1999/sp991003psych1.htm . In addition, this article describes how other illusions (such as order of presentation, framing of quantitative risks, etc.) color our decision-making processes.

In addition...

We acknowledge several other UPA 2005 sessions which discussed older users (or included persons over age 50 explicitly in the studied population). These three are among those we attended:

  • Usability Testing with Older Adults (Donna Tedesco, Michelle McNulty and Tom Tullis of Fidelity Center for Applied Technology)
  • How Websites Work for Older Users (Dana Chisnell, UsabilityWorks; Ginny Redish, Redish and Associates; and Amy Lee, AARP Services [project sponsor])
  • A Laboratory Evaluation of Six Electronic Voting Machines (Frederick Conrad, University of Michigan)

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