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

Demographics suggest that a great number of people in the industrialized world are reaching ages that some agree constitutes “old age.” In some countries the older portion of the population is approaching 30 percent. Usability professionals are people, too. We’re 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:

  • Under 25
  • 25-35
  • 36-45
  • 46 and above

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, “What do we know about older users?” Participants were offered at least three different ways of responding to the session question.

  • One way was verbal with words and phrases drawn on flipcharts and comments recorded with markers adjacent to the prompts.
  • Further conversation was stimulated with photographs.
  • Finally, a life-sized sketch of the human body provided another a brainstorming device for participants, who added their own sticky notes directly to the drawing.

Using Words

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

Institutional definitions:

  • AARP ( “older” means over 50 years. (Invitations are sent to U.S. individuals identified as 49.5 years old.)
  • U.S. Census: age 65 years
  • Various research organizations: (variable) between 60-70 years. For example, universities in the U.S. have recently extended the age for retirement to 70 from 65
  • Market research organizations use age ranges: 18-24, 25-34, 35-44, 45-54, 55+ (or 55-64 and 65+)

Personal definitions:

  • “Older than me!”
  • “Ten 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 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.

  • Older people may be unfamiliar with modern terms and concepts in (information) technology-though we acknowledged that this gap maybe less pronounced as time goes on.
  • Technology breeds paranoia about safety, even physical safety. Incomplete or inaccurate mental models lead to superstitious behavior.
  • Do you find a flashing VCR clock 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 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:

  • Physical state and mental state are potentially related. (“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 a manual “push” mower.
  • People contrasted their parents with in-laws, or friends with neighbors. Earlier characteristics 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 aged 75-90 who are long-time computer users, sophisticated web browsers, and document formatters. They understand databases, how to install new drivers for additional devices, how to back up a hard drive, 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.

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).

  • 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 evaluation.
  • Unexpected requests (“Clean my glasses”), compared to familiar requests (“Where’s the restroom?” or “I’d like milk in my coffee”).
  • Our screening questionnaires may need to be tuned or tweaked. An older participant may qualify as a “computer user” by the current questionnaire, but the screener may need to be more explicit than in other circumstances. For example, even if you’ve used the computer several times a week for more than six months, it’s possible you’re not familiar with:
    • a mouse (because you use 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 (because you’re accustomed to having a buddy beside you)
  • Older participants may subscribe to different frames of reference or values. For example, “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 match other (hidden) measures of size or speed. (Note that the desirable characteristics are a moving target.)
  • Spending patterns are related to when you and your cohorts were born. Elders raised in the Depression era may be more careful or frugal about technology purchases.

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:

  • To check whether younger UPA participants recognized some “older” technology, such as the elevator bank indicators photographed at the Hudson Bay Company in Le Baie.
  • To determine whether people from other climates recognized cold weather technologies, such as the metal gratings to scrape ice from shoes and boots at the entryway to a store.
  • To use non-text, non-verbal stimuli to activate the idea market question.

(These images are stored at 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:

outline of human body with geometric shapes attached
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 members-and 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 “older users” 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.