XVIII.2 March + April 2011
Page: 76
Digital Citation

Universal interactions

Juan Hourcade, Natasha Bullock-Rest

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Welcome to the new forum on universal interactions. When contemplating how to design technologies, interaction design professionals may often first think of designs that will work for people like themselves. This can end up adversely affecting populations with needs and abilities that differ from the majority of our field. In this forum we will share and celebrate research and practices that focus on these populations, including children, older adults, people with disabilities, and people with low socioeconomic status (SES). In this column, we discuss some of the key challenges for our field in designing technologies for each of these populations.

back to top  Children

There are several obstacles and opportunities in designing digital technologies for children. First, children are beginning to use digital devices at a younger age than earlier generations. Touchscreen devices in particular can make it simple for very young children to interact with software. These new opportunities also raise issues not only about understanding how to design interactions for these new age groups, but also about learning how using these devices affects the children, which brings us to the concept of digital natives.

Certainly, many children in developed regions are using digital devices from a very young age, in many cases not remembering when they did not use a computing device. However, each generation will be a different kind of digital native. The technologies they grow up with will change, and this will continue to spur interaction designers to identify the guidelines and interaction techniques that are most appropriate for each generation.

We must also be vigilant of technology in children's lives in respect to the potential negative consequences of isolation, a sedentary lifestyle, exposure to harmful content, and a lack of creative endeavors. At the same time, technologies can be used to alleviate and reverse such situations.

For example, technologies can augment and encourage face-to-face interactions instead of isolating children. In elementary schools, the most common practice in the U.S. is for children to use computers in a laboratory where desktop computers are available and the children often use headphones that keep them tethered to the devices. With such setups, it is difficult for children to get help from the teacher and learn from one another. Most of the positive social interactions that can take place in a classroom vanish. On the other hand, when we observed children using laptops from One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), we found the exact opposite [1]. The mobility of the laptops seemed to actually encourage social interactions, with children seeking help from teachers and peers and information quickly spreading. These observations suggest child-friendly netbook computers could encourage positive social interactions in the classroom.

At home, playing traditional video games can lead to a sedentary lifestyle in which children stay indoors and exercise infrequently. New gaming technologies such as Microsoft Kinect can have the opposite effect; Kinect requires physical activity for it to work. Narcis Pares and colleagues have taken this idea a step further with augmented playground equipment [2].

Also at home, a common concern of parents is children accessing harmful content, such as advertisements for sugary food. A related threat is the excessive use of computers for entertainment, which can take away from time spent on schoolwork. A recent study from the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research suggests unsupervised Internet access in the home can lead to negative consequences in children's math and reading scores [3]. A way of countering these negatives is to provide children and parents with enough structure and literacy on media sources to guide children toward meaningful computer use. Another way to move children away from passively experiencing media and games with preset scenarios is to provide them with technologies that enable them to be media authors. Technologies that appeal to their strong interests and give them the tools to be creative can prove quite entertaining.

As part of information literacy, it is also important to teach children how to gain insight from the large amounts of digitized data they will eventually access in their lifetime. We already use digitized data to find inexpensive flights, movies to watch, and homes for sale. In spite of these advances, we currently do not even have appropriate tools for children to search the Internet, let alone gain insight from large amounts of data, so much research remains to be done.

back to top  Older Adults

Older adults make up an increasing portion of the world's population, with developed regions leading the way and other regions quickly catching up. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2050 there will be two billion people age 60 and older. A fast-growing generation of older adults, as well as higher levels of computer literacy, can provide a strong incentive for technology companies to design products that target this population. Designing for older adults can also be a pathway to design for people with disabilities since with old age come declines in cognitive, perceptual, and physical abilities.

When designing, there is a need to connect to people's needs, abilities, context, and daily realities.

One of the challenges we have in designing for older adults is that many of the guidelines available in the literature are based on studies conducted several years ago. The problem is that older adults and technology are quickly changing. Baby boomers, for example, have much more computer experience when compared with the typical older adult of 10 years ago. As a matter of fact, each generation will bring its own strengths and weaknesses into its golden years.

A second challenge is most of the guidelines available treat older adults as a monolithic group, when in fact there is a great amount of variability. For this reason, there is a need to match specific design guidelines to specific declines, or to specific kinds of lifetime experiences. This means that future studies with older adults should attempt to characterize participants as clearly as possible in terms of their abilities and experience, using standardized measurement instruments if possible, in order to understand the impact of each factor on the use of technology.

Societal changes are also bringing new needs. For example, older adults are often living away from family and have much smaller families than in past generations. When they can no longer take care of a house by themselves, they are increasingly moving into retirement communities or assisted-living facilities. Many researchers are looking at how to use technology to support older adults in these environments to fulfill their medical and emotional needs.

A related issue is the increasing number of older adults in good physical health but with severe cognitive declines, such as dementia. Recent estimates of prevalence point at about 35 million people worldwide suffering from dementia, most of them in developed regions. The numbers are climbing at a fast rate, with worldwide diagnoses increasing by 20 percent between 2005 and 2009 [4]. Human-computer interaction researchers have rarely explored supporting older adults with such cognitive difficulties, or their caretakers.

back to top  People with Disabilities

The increasing need to use technologies to fulfill basic needs and rights, such as voting, paying for groceries, and buying tickets for public transportation means that, as technology designers, we have a responsibility to ensure that we design for the strengths of people with cognitive, perceptual, and physical impairments. The good news is that human-computer interaction researchers and practitioners have developed useful sets of guidelines for some of the most common impairments (e.g., people in wheelchairs, people with severe vision loss, and people with severe hearing impairments). On the other hand, we still do not have a clear enough understanding of how to help people with mild impairments, people with multiple disabilities, and people with temporary or new disabilities.

Multiple impairments are of particular concern. For example, an older adult who has developed mild to severe vision and hearing impairment could have great difficulty using technology. The accommodations for people with visual impairments (e.g., screen-reading software) would not be appropriate for those with hearing loss. Hence, it is not sufficient to address specific disabilities separately when designing technologies. It is also necessary to consider what happens when they intersect.

Temporary or new impairments are also a great challenge. For example, an adult who has recently become blind will not know how to read Braille. Likewise, someone who has recently lost the ability to hear will not know American Sign Language or an equivalent signing language. This type of impairment is common in people who have suffered trauma, strokes, or similarly impairing health setbacks.

From a computer science perspective, it would also be easier to develop software for people with disabilities if software libraries incorporated better support for them (e.g., every visual widget should have an accessible equivalent for people with severe visual impairments). There is certainly room for research in this area for people working on operating systems, programming languages, and toolkits.

In addition, there are many opportunities to go beyond simply providing access to technologies designed for the general public by designing technologies to improve the lives of people with disabilities. For example, it is not uncommon for people with language deficits, often due to stroke, to have speech-initiation problems. However, digital support can help them unobtrusively self-cue, such as with Lingraphica's iPhone application SmallTalk Aphasia. Applications such as this one, developed for widely available mobile hardware, can be more easily integrated into an everyday routine.

back to top  People with Low Socioeconomic Status

Poverty is a global problem, with half the world's population living on less than $2.50 per day and the poorest 40 percent of the world's population accounting for a mere 5 percent of global income, while the richest 20 percent account for three-quarters of world income [5]. In the U.S. alone, 43.6 million people live beneath the poverty line, including one-fifth of children [6].

People with low socioeconomic status (SES) have less access to digital resources such as high-speed Internet access. In the U.S, 36 percent of households with an annual income under $25,000 have broadband access, versus 94 percent of households with an income greater than $100,000 [7]. In spite of this gap, the growing popularity of mobile devices means we can reach many more people (e.g., 93 percent penetration in the U.S [8] and 41 percent penetration in Africa [9]).

When designing, there is a need to connect to people's needs, abilities, context, and daily realities. For example, in the U.S, people with low income spend significantly more time than the national average traveling to grocery stores and may lack the knowledge or time to prepare healthy food. Priorities such as ensuring fullness become more important than meeting nutritional guidelines [10]. A digital application could help someone find the most nutritious food given a certain amount of money and the closest place to acquire it.

Similarly, people with low-SES might not have access to channels of reliable and relevant information for their lives, such as how to avoid scams and fraud (e.g., predatory lending), or how to access useful community resources. This challenge again provides opportunities for digital technologies to help, keeping in mind that these efforts should be culturally relevant.

In all cases it is important to remember that access alone will not lead to equality. While we imagine the Internet to be an egalitarian forum open to all, it replicates some of the stratification present in the non-digital world, as seen in the racial and class divisions between Facebook and MySpace users, with low-SES youth generally preferring MySpace [11]. If a job recruiter reaches out to potential applicants through Facebook only, MySpace users never see the initial chance to apply. Therefore, we need to design technologies that encourage and enable participation in social, economic, and political processes as well as promote upward mobility and positive growth.

back to top  Conclusion

We hope our review of challenges and opportunities for research both provides a preview for the type of articles we will feature in this forum and encourages more professionals in our community to pursue these research paths. If you are interested in writing an article for this forum, send your ideas to

back to top  References

1. Hourcade, J.P., Beitler, D., Cormenzana, F. and Flores, P. Early OLPC experiences in a rural Uruguayan school. In Mobile Technology for Children: Designing for Interaction and Learning. A. Druin (ed.), Morgan Kaufmann, Boston, 2009.

2. Soler-Adillon, J. and Pares, N. Interactive slide: An interactive playground to promote physical activity and socialization of children. Procs. of the 27th International Conference Extended Aabstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. (Boston, MA, April 4–9). ACM, New York, 2009, 2407–2416.

3. Vigdor, J.L. and Ladd, H.F. Scaling the digital divide: home computer technology and student achievement. NBER Working Paper Series, Vol. 16078. 2010.

4. Wimo, A, Winblad, B. and Jonsson, L. The worldwide societal costs of dementia: Estimates for 2009. Alzheimer's and Dementia, 6 (2010), 98–103.

5. United Nations Development Program. 2007–2008 Human Development Report (HDR);

6. U.S. Census Bureau. Poverty;

7. U.S. Department of Commerce. Exploring the Digital Nation: Home Broadband Internet Adoption in the United States. 2010;

8. CTIA. U.S. Wireless Quick Facts, 2010;

9. ITU. The World in 2010: ICT Facts and Figures;

10. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Access to affordable and nutritious food: Measuring and understanding food deserts and their consequences, 2009;

11. boyd, d. Implications of user choice: The cultural logic of 'MySpace or Facebook?' interactions 16, 6 (2009), 33–36.

back to top  Authors

Juan Pablo Hourcade is an assistant professor in the department of computer science at the University of Iowa. His main area of research is human-computer interaction, with a concentration on the design, implementation, and evaluation of technologies.

Natasha E. Bullock-Rest is a research assistant in the speech and psycholinguistics lab at Brown University, where she conducts research with people with aphasia. She was previously a research assistant at the University of Iowa.

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