Day 3-The Joys and Dilemmas of Conducting UX Research with Older Adults

— I’m Amanda Kaleta-Kott, a UX-er with a background in research, design planning, and other design domains


— And I’m Lea Martin, a UXR on the team at ZS Medullan, with a background in academia and behavioral science


— We both work for the ZS Medullan, a consulting company that works in the healthcare space. We work with pharmaceutical, medical device, and health system players that help people lead healthier lives
  • In our work, we are constantly talking with people with many different health conditions and the professionals taking care of them



— We also hear repeatedly that old people can’t use technology, even though the promise of a product or service may improve their lives
  • The people making technology solutions walk in with pre-conceived notion that old people are not the target customer for their technology
— Now, there is some truth to this
  • Think of your elderly family  members who’ve struggled with registering appointment for the COVID vaccine
  • That digital experience was harrowing
— After assisting her own family, Amanda went on to help other senior citizens sign up for their vaccine doses
  • She ended up spending 100s of hours doing this, and seeing the needs of older adults made her appreciate that their digital experience, and UX research in general, was not accessible to them


— So let’s challenge some assumptions on the older population and how to get quality UXR from them


— First, some context: What comes to mind when you think of older adults?
  • Back in the 80s Golden Girls TV Show featured ‘old’ people in their mid-50s
    • But in the most recent Sex & The City reboot, people are in their 50s
  • View of age has changed, as people are working longer and redefining nature of old
— As UX researchers in team, when we segment out, we are getting precise in recruiting participants
  • This applies when talking about older adults, as we consider age brackets, and how that translates to tech behavior


— Making demographic assumptions about tech usage is a myth


— While older users are typically not early adopters, they are a formidable user base
  • Pandemic has pushed older adults to use devices out of necessity


— So if necessity is mother of invention, then why are older people still waiting for digital tools that are user-friendly to them from the very beginning?


— They really need these solutions
  • Is issue that older folks won’t use the tools because they don’t understand them?
  • Or are the tools poorly designed for them?
— People see accessibility as add-ons, that are only included when necessary
  • We need to reframe this approach to include older-users in the product development process from the very beginning
— Older adults will be a population of great need and opportunity


— As mentioned, we can incorporate ideas into our practice, by going through the theme of myths


— We will cover eight myths, which come from a variety of sources such as the clients we work with, providers who work with elders, other UXRs, and older adults themselves who absorb the narrative told about their digital literacy


— We will talk through myths and how to move through them, and to do better research with older adults
  • From recruitment to data collection


— Myth #1: Everyone has internet access, and if they don’t, they aren’t the target audience
  • This is not true, as the breadth of people who use technology solutions is wide.
  • Just because someone has no Internet access, doesn’t mean that you don’t need their input
— 42% older Americans don’t have wired access to Internet at home
  • By ignoring these people you are ignoring inclusive design
— You can get around this lack of recruits, with older research methods like text-based campaigns, telephone, in-person, and observational research


— The next myth is that people will show up to research session if you just send out an email


— We’ve struggled with email ourselves, so we need to make it easy to show up to sessions, and to have back-up plans in case the main method doesn’t work
  • Ask yourself if connecting to a session is intuitive as thought
  • Also a reminder phone call or email is still the gold standard
— Life happens, and we need to acknowledge that older people might flake out on research
  • Schedule floating and back-up participants to get the research you need done


— For the preparation stage of research
  • The discussion guide you create can be independent of the content you are interested in
— As people who have worked with content creators, we recognize the need to leverage content as a tool to strengthen research rapport
  • This can be done by making tone in copy simple and warm
  • The content should also pay attention to health and general literacy
— The content can impact the flow of the research session, so make sure the session feels like an Oprah experience rather than an interrogation
  • Make sure the content and interview cadence are aligned to let this happen
  • Give yourself time to enjoy the interview


—The fourth myth is the idea that familiarity with tech is equivalent to fluency in tech
  • Older adults might not have same fluency as someone who is using it day-to-day
  • Leave time for tech checks to identify potential gaps
— A quick tech check is something that will put yourself and the participant at ease, with the bonus of developing rapport early on
  • Be interested in making sure the participants are comfortable
— If you can’t manage that initial set-up step, build in time in the session for tech set-up and troubleshooting to orient your participant
  • Be as clear as possible about software and activities the participant will engage with this, so that they know what to do


— The fifth myth is that a single, internal pilot is enough to prepare for the session


— We’ve had to rush forward with doing a UXR pilot with actual participants, and created resources as a back-up
  • This can help make you more comfortable with actual participant
— Create resources for yourself to think of details, examples or screenshots to help with the troubleshooting process, and alternative ways of handling an unexpected issue
  • Keep in mind that you might have to refer to static image, or the thinking aloud process, for these steps to work


— The sixth myth is that you can move into data collection and saving time on interview with short intro and debrief on session
  • Instead take the time to know the participant and understanding the user
  • This builds rapport with older adults, as our social connection and orientation toward volunteering changes, as we get older
    • A research session can help fulfill a need for connection for older connections
— An adequate debrief is important to answer questions related to research needs, and to clarify for adults how their info will be used


— Getting to know community of older adults can be important addition to your practice.
  • Depending on your work, you may think how to give back to community such as regular touch-points, or return of data and post-interview thank you email



—The seventh myth is that people will explicitly tell you that they are struggling with the technology
  • I have been in situations where this is not the case
— Not knowing about the elder experience will hurt outcomes, so assess accessibility early and often
  • Consider physical manipulation cue and pay attention to those to understand where to iterate to see how it’s better for you as a researcher
— We’ll also highlight the concept of mental models. Older people might not be familiar with our models of technology to denote things like yes/no
  • Be sure if going into a research session ask questions about mental model rather than making assumptions


— The eighth myth is that if the research is going to be consistent, you need stick to the script
  • For older adults, highlight the importance of employing empathy and accepting the unexpected
  • Possible for conversation to spark an emotional experience
— Consider how the wording and timing of questions can be emotionally triggering
  • Think of situations where you had an emotion that you couldn’t express, and think of how to use that experience to understand ideas you engage with
— Findings can be extremely valuable, but are often overlooked


— Let’s start to think about how we can move to activities that amplify the joy of research
  • We are privileged to talk with the people we interview


— Here are the main takeaways we’d like to leave you with:


— Step 1: When recruiting think about how to consider the target population and adapt screening and seek people
  • Consider special ways to recruit people, such as through clinicians
— Step 2: Once you find and identify people, make it easy for them to show-up
  • Make sure they can connect through tech checks or have additional time to meet-up
— Step 3: Use pilots with people in the age group. Pilot and prepare carefully.


— Step 4: Build time for tech checks to make sure people know what’s expected and what they are doing— and having back-ups on hand


— Step 5: Treat content as starting point, and be aware it can often times can trigger trauma. Employe empathy.


— Step 6: Build rapport up-front, as it’s uncomfortable talking to people about intimate issues.


— Step 7: Employ your empathy. We are all human here.


— Step 8: Use skills as observer to capture mental models and capture difference between digital natives and digital newcomers.
  • Let’s questions each other’s mental models


— We’ll end with a call to action


— Listening to users is incredibly important, and the best way to do that is to ask what do they want and engage with them effectively
  • Think how COVID vaccine sign-ups had gone differently, and that this could have changed lives
— We need world where we’ve moved beyond the challenges we have, and are reaping the benefits of inclusively


— What can we learn, data-sets we can gain, and how to expand data sets to change lives for the better


— Thank you!



  1. Many of our services, especially government/health/public facing ones are least likely to be used by the people they are designed for. What systemic shift is required to resolve this? 
— People are overwhelmed by the type of information out there
  • We stress the notion of health literacy, where people can find information and understand the content
— Also services can created, but can people can access them?
  • Health literacy should be at a level everyone can understand
  • We should use familiar words, and not talk to people like a doctor when explaining to them what needs to happen
  1. Should we reframe older adults as truth-tellers with sharp sense of value?
— We love that definition, and interacting with older adults for us has been a formative experience
  • They don’t pull punches and give space for the insights we bring to our platform
  • Their truth come from the wisdom of their experience