Usability testing and age diversity

Showing affection to an older person holding a ball

The holidays are fast approaching, which means many readers of this piece will get roped into some form of ad hoc tech support or Boxing Day gadget-buying advice.

As a UX researcher responsible for testing and improving product usability, I enjoy hearing people’s technology-related problems and questions (admittedly more than I enjoy responding to them, especially now that I’m not such a spring chicken myself).

As the population ages and technology becomes more ubiquitous in people’s lives, it becomes more and more important that we understand the needs and desires of people beyond our own typically tech-savvy peer groups.

For example, has done and continues to do a lot of work in post-secondary education. These projects have tended to be geared mainly to younger audiences, but there’s increasing interest in continuing and online education, which skews a little older than the traditional post-secondary crowd.

Similarly, our work in the fitness and health space has tended to focus on a core audience of relatively early adopters who are also physically active. Both of those characteristics imply stereotypes of younger users. But as baby boomers age there’s going to be increased interest in health- and fitness-related apps towards the upper half of the age spectrum. Combined with advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and other fields, the use of emerging technologies to improve the well-being of an aging population will grow in the future.

When we recently conducted remote unmoderated usability tests with people over 45, the results were noticeably different from those of younger users. Our results emphasized the need to follow usability best practices, like making it clear where the user is and helping people recognize and recover from mistakes. In one case the tester accidentally navigated to a completely different site without noticing (this was a benchmark test, so we fortunately didn’t design either of these sites). She struggled on the wrong site through most of the test before she realized what had happened.

We also brought seniors into the office to test a web product we’re working on for Golf Canada. Testing revealed some opportunities to improve the product itself, but it also helped us articulate some lessons about embracing age diversity on other projects.

Empathize instead of judging

Try to avoid judging users. Judgement is different from observation and evaluation in that it is subjective or opinion-based, and applies to the whole person rather than just their actions in a particular context. “He failed at four of the five tasks” is an observation. “He’s stupid” is a judgement, which blocks empathy and prevents learning.

The challenge for a lot of older people isn’t that they don’t know enough, it’s that they know too much. They approach things with established mental models and assumptions that might not match the new tool or task. The same thing happens when young children who’ve only used new technologies approach older technologies, like phones with non-touch displays.

One of our remote unmoderated testers was unable to complete basic tasks because she scrolled down a few inches as soon as any page loaded — and never scrolled back up far enough to see the main navigation. I hypothesized she’s been conditioned to do that by sites she visits most often, such as news sites, where the most valuable content is in the middle of the page, below banner ads and complicated navigation schemes. Making important navigation options available in the body of the page would have addressed her need.

Be human

Abstract, unrealistic usability tasks don’t help anyone. When we do usability tests as part of a design process we’re looking for useful insights, which don’t necessarily come from rigorous data. Academic research needs rigour to stand on its own. Usability testing is more of a prelude to the real moment of truth that occurs when the product is released and adopted (or not) by real users.

I like to start usability testing with a seemingly informal but purposeful chat. This is aimed to make the subjects feel comfortable and understand how they might use the site or application in a real situation. The latter insights are valuable from a usability perspective, but they also help us elicit higher-level insights about the value of the product and whether we’ve included the right features.

In the case of our Golf Canada tests, we asked whether the subjects are golfers, and if so, where do they golf. We were then able to tailor the test questions around courses they’re familiar with. This let us observe the thought processes they’re likely to use in a real situation, which for this product is likely to involve at least some degree of casual, open-ended discovery (where people aren’t entirely sure what they’re looking for until they start to find it).

Another way to approach this is to remind ourselves that we’re all getting a little bit older. The higher we set the standard for empathy now, the easier it will be for younger generations to design things with aging abilities and mental models in mind.


Usability testing Higher education Health & fitness Inclusive design

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