Tips for Conducting Human Factors Research with Older Participants

July 12, 2011

By Kristy Bell, Human Factors Engineer

Good medical device design begins with good research. As more products are developed for aging baby boomers, our Research and Strategy team has been conducting more usability studies with older participants. While there’s a lot of literature on designing products for older people, there’s little on performing research with them. As part of my research as a Human Factors Engineer, I’ve developed some methods in addressing the unique challenges of performing research with older participants.

Here are six tips:

  1. Explain the process: Keep in mind that older participants may be less aware about research conducted on products. You may need to explain the process, why research is so important, and the goal of interviews or studies. Older participants also may not be familiar with confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements (NDA), so be sure to explain them. You may even want to revise them for better readability. (Some good resources include and
  2. Choose a quiet environment: As we age, our ability to hear decreases, especially high-pitched sounds. When planning interviews, remember that a noisy environment may introduce complications. It’s also important to speak loudly and clearly when asking questions; writing them down can be helpful as well.
  3. Ensure visuals are easy to read: Since aging impacts eyesight, it may be difficult for older participants to read fine print. In addition, light sensitivity, color perception, resistance to glare, and a decreased ability to detect contrast may affect how participants perceive visual aids, survey questions, and NDAs. Ensure these items are in colors that are easy to see and are at least a 12-point font size, which is what’s recommended by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for health communications to older populations.
  4. Consider potential mobility issues: Since some participants may have difficulty walking or moving around, their reaction times may be decreased. If you plan for too much movement during a short research session, you may not have time to complete all of the tasks. When planning a task that requires movement, ensure that you are allocating enough time for a slower task cycle time.
  5. Keep topics in context: Since most older participants have experienced a different era than ours, they might have different cultural or technology reference points than we do. This impacts the mental models they bring with them. When designing tasks and questions, make sure they align with participants’ user goals and terminology. Also be aware of participants’ varied experiences when considering how they are answering questions.
  6. Communicate your timeline: Retired participants may have more discretionary time than we do. So when moderating the interview, politely remind participants at the beginning and throughout the session about how much time is appropriated for the interview and each activity. You may want to factor in some additional time in anticipation of this.

Overall, I’ve found that researching with older participants is quite rewarding. By considering their unique needs, we can create better studies. Better studies provide better information, feedback, and decisions, which all in turn ultimately result in better products.

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