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What Do We Know about Older Users? How Old is Old?

By Nancy Frishberg

Demographics suggest that a great number of people in the industrialized world are reaching ages that some agree constitutes ìold age.î In some countries the older portion of the population is approaching 30 percent. Usability professionals are people, too. Weíre aging right along with the rest of the population, and we have many of the same preconceptions and stereotypes that our friends and colleagues in other walks of life exhibit. We might believe our preconceptions are more moderated or held in check. However, a story about an informal live survey and a recap of an idea market session remind us how much weíre still caught inside those stereotypes.

An Informal Survey

During a recent panel discussion on users and usability, the panel moderator did a quick survey to get a sense of the audience. Addressing a sample of about 600 people, mostly women and mostly employed in digital technology, the moderator offered the following age ranges:

What was surprising is that only four age categories were offered and that the oldest was "46 and above." Most of these quick surveys offer additional choices for the oldest groups, say 46-55 and 55-up, where the presumed retirement age might be 62-65. My experience in that panel discussion was closely related to the results of an idea marketplace session at the UPA 2005 conference.

The Idea Marketplace Session

The idea-market session asked, ìWhat do we know about older users?î Participants were offered at least three different ways of responding to the session question.

Using Words

When asked directly, session participants gave definitions reflecting both ìofficialî age categories or ranges, and their own personal definitions, perhaps unrelated to chronological age.

Institutional definitions:

Personal definitions:

In short, there is no universally acknowledged chronological age at which all the participants agreed a person is included in the "older" category. Nor did they agree on characteristics that identify the "older user." Participants reminded us of functional definitions that may ignore chronological age.

Both of the 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 gray hair and obvious qualification for AARP membership.

Capabilities of older users

To counter the many limitations identified, we offered a place for notes about remarkable or extraordinary qualities of older adults as a group or for particular individuals:

Usability testing and older adults

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

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

Photographs as Stimuli for Discussion

In a second activity, participants looked at photos taken by the activators, who asked them to describe any technology they saw, and whether these images were familiar to them and whether they were friendly to older users.

There were several purposes to this exercise with images:

(These images are stored at flickr.com and tagged with "UPA05" and "Montreal.")

The Body as Stimulus

Tracing the outline of a life-size adult and hanging it on the wall gave the participants a "paper model" to label with attributes of older users. Participants didn't hesitate to hang their stereotypes, wishes, and fears, and expectations on the drawing. In the spirit of brainstorming, all respondents were encouraged to make comments without reading what was already posted. In just fifty minutes participants generated thirty-four comments. A transcription of this image with participant comments, more or less in the places the sticky notes were placed, is included here:

Illustration showing placement of sticky notes
Figure 1—Drawing of the body with participants comments on attributes of older users.

Fifteen comments (44 percent) focus on physical decline, seven (20 percent) on mental decline, and four (13 percent) on general slowing down. Five comments (15 percent) mentioned an inability to learn new technology ideas or manage physical tasks related to computing, and one mentioned loss of sexuality.

Only two comments (6 percent) explicitly referred to positive attributes. 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."


The panel discussion surveyed its audience and lumped the final twenty years of working life (ages 46-65 or older) into a single category. This approach was surprising, but demonstrates a disjunction between the youthful audience and the panel membersóand contradicts the actuality of an aging U.S. population.

In the idea market session, stimulated by words, pictures, and drawings, UPA conference-goers engaged with the topic of ìolder usersî and told us about real people (age 50 and up) whom we could profile.

We have only begun to scratch the surface of our collective knowledge and creativity around the topic of aging.

Nancy Frishberg is a user experience strategist, based in the San Francisco, California, Bay Area. She employs appropriate qualitative and quantitative methods, turning user research into actionable findings. Among her favorite techniques are design games: playful methods for interacting with customers and users to inform design of products and services.

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User Experience Magazine is by and about usability professionals, featuring significant and unique articles dealing with the broad field of usability and the user experience.

This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 1, 2009.

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