Participatory design and older people

Eric Harris set up OlderView because he believes older people need to be involved in the design of technology from the very start to break down their exclusion from the digital revolution.
OlderView was established up in Autumn 2012 specifically to look into these issues with the involvement of a community of older people who answer surveys about particular technologies. The subsequent results submitted by the Technology Review Community are analysed and then published. Eric explains further in this guest post.
The pace of technological development continues to increase relentlessly, giving rise to almost unimaginable possibilities for ‘helping’ us get through the day in one piece. Who would of thought at the turn of last century that within ten years or so we would all be ‘skyping’ our families in Jamaica, Australia or Barnsley; paying for our shopping at the local supermarket using automated check-out tills and sharing photos with our friends on Facebook?
Well we (older people) don’t!
Although there are some well-publicised exceptions to this, such as Lilly the 108 year old on Facebook and Twitter or Peter (Geriatric1927) on YouTube, there is a greater body of older people who are at best ambivalent, and at worst stubbornly against, the uptake of new and emerging technologies. The older the age group, the less likely they are to be an active part of the digital revolution. This is a problem in so many ways that it leads to digital exclusion in its broadest sense. It has an impact on engagement with all sorts of technologies both at home (can’t pay heating bills through not being online) and in the environment (not being able to use car music system through not having an iTunes account).
The reasons for this are complex and diverse; touching on social, economic and accessibility agendas. However the OlderView position is that ‘Design is Critical’. By design we don’t just mean what a thing looks, feels and functions like (although this is very important), we mean the complete design process. For example when a new phone is designed, why not ask older people what they want from their phone; which features are meaningful for them and which are not?
In a wider context this is already happening: technology providers are increasingly using a participatory design (P.D.) approach to help technologies ‘better fit’ their target markets. They involve groups of people in their target demographic to help inform the design. Part of this design process is to understand the User Experience (U.X.) and feed the outcome of this process to their hardware and software design departments. This used to be called marketing.
The problem is that the target demographic for a lot of new technology is 20 to 30 year olds. [e1] They are seen as early adopters of new technologies, and are willingly available for focused group studies. The designers of new and emerging technologies are typically from this demographic themselves, so speak their language and readily understand their needs and wants.
On the other hand engagement with the older community is a little more challenging. Older peoples’ lives are long-lived and complex; their social economic footprint is probably changing or has changed and there is a likelihood of accessibility issues.
However, if the design of new and emerging products and services are to ‘work’ for this age group, active engagement in a participatory design process by this community is imperative.
The OlderView
It is with this context of user-centered design that OlderView was created in the Autumn of 2012. OlderView has a community of older people called rather unimaginatively the Technology Review Community, who every month or so answer a survey questionnaire about a particular technology. The results are then collected, analysed and published.
We are of course aware of the skew to our results from engaging with predominantly older people who use computers to do our surveys, which one might argue further supports the position that the older community are often digitally excluded . Where we can, we collect responses that are recorded on paper as well as some that are mediated through third parties such as care workers. It is to be noted that OlderView believes there is work to be done here, with engaging the digitally excluded and recording their concerns and opinions.
Some of the technologies we’ve reviewed have been: camera phones, self-checkouts and online brain training pastimes. We are particularly interested in how our community deals with these sorts of technologies. Is the technology used? Is it liked? What would the community change if it could about the technology?
What our community are saying
We have found that older people, rather than having luddite attitudes towards technology, are quick to see its potential benefit and wanting to do stuff with it. They would be only too happy to video conference their relatives, share their interests on chat sites with others or book their next doctor’s appointment online. So where do the problems lie which leads for some older people to total digital exclusion and for others partial engagement?
The answer to this question is not to be found solely in design; social, economic and accessibility factors are just as important. However, there are some significant barriers to the uptake of new and emerging technologies by the older community which can be squarely placed on the doorstep of poor design.

image of phone 'app'

Lady in supermarket using camera phone 'app'

This can be illustrated by the use of the camera found on many phones. When the Technology Review Community were asked to take a photo with their phones, switch the phone off and then turn it back on, recover the photo and send it to me, over half the community had difficulties of one sort or other.  Comments such as:
 “fiddly – lots of options I’m still discovering by accident or on the rare occasions (my) reading glasses are not on”
“whole sets (of photos) where I had the camera facing me rather than what I intended to photo”
“well if it worked (sending a photo) I surprised myself, never tried to send a photo from my phone before”
were common.
Although there were issues with completing this task, a large section of the community said that they used their camera phones in one way or another frequently. This community clearly has a desire to take photos with their phones and see the benefit in doing so.
Sometime after the initial survey and whilst at a local computer ‘drop-in’ centre, I showed some of the centre members an ‘app’ that utilised the camera by changing the phone into a magnifying glass. This was of great interest to the members that I spoke to, since they could see the potential usefulness of it for times when they had perhaps forgotten their reading glasses, or had brought the wrong glasses with them.  However, the setup instructions to download the app, together with the various caveats about connectivity, cost and security proved one hurdle too many for most of the people I have discussed this app with, both in the centre and in other places.
The download and configuration time for so much new I.T. is in itself an almost impenetrable barrier for older people, who often have to rely on friends in the know or family members to steer them through the maze of ‘helpful’ options.
As one member said of supermarket automated checkouts.
 “make sure there is a member of staff present at all times to help !”  
Our current favourite design for older people
This has got to be Fujitsu’s ‘smart walking stick’, which is specifically designed to help the elderly. This walking stick is Wi-Fi enabled and has an LED display on the handle to help elderly people find their way. There is a bunch of other stuff that the walking stick can do as well, such as monitoring heart rate and temperature, all of which could be beneficial for older people.
smartcane image

Technology enabled walking stick

Although this sort of embedded technology can get a little ‘gadgety’ and suffer from over complication, its sympathetic design is to be applauded.
What we like the most about this is that Fujitsu is clearly doing some user experience work with older people. This mobile computing device (a simple walking stick) reflects older people’s needs and is sensitive to their daily routines. I think the icing on the cake would be some level of customisation for its look and feel, as the choice of walking stick for older people can be very personal.
What needs to happen ?
The design of technology for older people has for far too long been reactionary or an afterthought which modifies or tweaks products to better fit their needs. If we are to prevent technology exclusion of this demographic both now and in the future, older people need to be involved in the design of technology from the very start. We need to have proactive design choices for and by older people.
Technology companies that understand this will undoubtedly reap the rewards and we will end up with better designed technologies.


Leave a Comment

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>