XX.4 July + August 2013
Page: 72
Digital Citation

Older-adult HCI

Karyn Moffatt

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What if older adults just aren't interested in computers? It's a question I get often, though increasingly with a slight hesitation—almost as though the asker intuits, but cannot quite pinpoint, a flaw in the inquiry. Most are satisfied if I merely point out that while many might not be interested, others are, and the goal is to design for them. It's an easy answer and thus one that I, along with many others, am guilty of providing.

The problem is this answer is only partially correct. Yes, there are older adults who would like to adopt technology but find they cannot (perhaps due to a physical, sensory, or cognitive barrier). However, many others would quite like to reject technology but find themselves confronted with an increasingly digital world. Focusing on only one part of the answer risks underselling the importance and need for work in this latter space.

Technology has fundamentally changed the ways in which society operates such that exclusion from technology can mean exclusion from society. That might seem a bit cliché, but it is sometimes forgotten or overlooked when it comes to older adults. It is as though there is a perception that seniors can perhaps avoid the onslaught of technology the rest of us cannot escape. As an example of why this is untrue, let's consider photo-sharing practices and how they have changed over the past decade or so.

Back when photos were taken on film, physical prints were the dominant sharing medium. Paper photos were easily accessible, and ownership of physical copies was limited. Though it was not uncommon for proud parents to make extra prints for the (equally proud) grandparents, the limitations of physical prints meant that outside these intimate relationships, prints were rarely distributed.

Today, digital cameras and social networking sites have made it easy to upload and distribute photos, with the result that even casual acquaintances—from grade-school friends you haven't seen in over two decades to colleagues from work whose profile headshots you barely recognize—have ready access to your photos. However, as photos are rarely printed for personal use, producing an extra set for the grandparents is no longer a natural extension of an existing workflow. And because prints are less likely to be produced, Grandma moves from a privileged position in the photo-sharing hierarchy to just beyond its reach.

back to top  Negotiating a Digital Society

So what can Grandma do? Well, she can join Facebook. And there is evidence that this is happening. Recent survey data suggests 34 percent of Internet users age 65 and over (or about 18 percent of the over-65 set overall) are using social networking sites, reflecting 150 percent growth in use since 2009 [1].

But we should use caution in interpreting such statistics as evidence that these technologies are meeting the needs of older adults. Indeed, when researchers have directly asked seniors what they think of social media sites, they have expressed an aversion to the lightweight style of communication espoused by these technologies, and have shown a preference for more personal forms of communication [2]. As such, it seems that older adults are not embracing social networking so much as accepting an unavoidable reality.

Anecdotally, there is some evidence of an alternative. Amazon reviews of the Kodak Pulse Digital Picture Frame, for example, reveal that many are buying them to facilitate sharing photos with older parents and grandparents. Once set up, the device can be remotely managed, acquiring new photos through either its dedicated email address or connection to a Facebook account. This product is a good example of how technologies can be designed to connect inexperienced or uninterested users to very advanced and complicated systems.

In a similar vein, researchers are also looking for ways to design high-tech solutions with a low-tech feel. One particularly poignant example is the work done by Vines et al. on the development of digital checks [3]. This project seeks to preserve the benefits of paper checks (which are still very much used and often favored by older adults) while better harmonizing with digital banking practices. They eloquently summarize this as balancing "innovation and conservation." To users of their system, which incorporates Anoto digital pen technology, writing checks is much the same as it has always been; however, the digital pen communicates with a backend system to electronically complete the transaction.

What is particularly powerful about the above example is that it tackles the extreme end of the spectrum: The participatory design informants in that project firmly rejected any design requiring a computer. But there are many shades in between zero and complete acceptance of technology, and older-adult HCI researchers are exploring the full spectrum of this space.

back to top  Managing the Complexity of Later Life

People are living longer today, and for the most part are enjoying good health further into old age, with evidence of chronic disability levels trending downward [4]. In large part, these improvements have been due to advances in medicine enabling individuals to stay healthy longer. However, achieving and maintaining this level of health often requires a number of medicines, the management of which can pose substantial challenges. In addition, the sheer number of older adults means that despite advances, a staggering number live with serious and challenging health conditions. In particular, advances that have reduced mortality rates for conditions such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes have indirectly led to an increase in the number of individuals living with dementia by making it possible to live long enough to experience cognitive decline.

In response to these challenges, an additional thread of older-adult HCI research explores the ways in which technology can be harnessed to help older adults manage the unique challenges that arise in later life. For example, dwellSense [5] uses sensors to track a number of everyday activities (such as taking medications, talking on the phone, or making a pot of coffee) and then reports these behaviors back to the individual through easy-to-interpret time-series visualizations, thereby aiding in the detection and diagnosis of problems or declines.

In addition, many older adults experience shrinking social networks as their children gain independence (potentially moving far away from their childhood homes), as they retire from the workplace, and as their peers begin to pass away. Research has also begun to explore how technology can be designed to help older adults maintain and grow their social networks. For example, one project of the Technologies for Aging Gracefully Lab at the University of Toronto [6] is investigating games as a social medium. Seniors tend to value the social interaction that results from game play much more than the game itself, but few commercial games are designed to prioritize this value. Their research is exploring the design of mechanisms for promoting the social aspects of play among older-adult peers.

Other work has instead explored how to connect older adults with their families. For example, the Family Window project used always-on video media spaces to create a sense of connectedness between distance-separated homes (e.g., between a grandparent's home and that of an adult child and his or her children) [7]. A more recent study examined the use of video for connecting a distant or homebound grandparent to kids' activities outside the home (such as birthday parties and sporting events) [8].

Designing for intergenerational use brings its own set of interesting research challenges. It is not uncommon for older adults to adopt technology specifically to connect with younger generations. Thus, we must remember that it is not enough to design a senior-friendly system if that system is not compatible with those in use by younger generations. Addressing intergenerational needs in system design (e.g., building a system that appeals equally to those in their twenties as to those in their eighties) remains an interesting but underexplored area of research.

Competing needs can also arise from different views on where the boundaries should be for technology. For example, home monitoring has been touted as an appealing way of balancing security and independence. While it may be true that at the extreme end—where the choice is between accepting home monitoring or moving to a care facility—many individuals are willing to trade privacy for independence, at the less extreme end, there can be tension between the desire of younger generations to ensure continued safety and the desire of older adults to maintain their independence and autonomy. Thus, a key challenge for research is to understand the social contracts needed to ensure that safety goals are achieved while respecting privacy and autonomy.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that older adults are not solely care recipients. Although older-adult HCI has mostly focused on the ways in which technology can compensate for age-related losses, older adults today are healthier, better educated, and more financially secure than any group of elders before them [9]. As such, they have more time and energy to devote to their families, and correspondingly require less financial or care-giving support from younger generations, or require it much later. Although relatively little research has explored how technology can harness the abilities of older adults to provide support, some projects have indirectly begun to touch on this space and serve as good examples of how we could further expand work into this area. Family Story Play [10], a joint project between Nokia Research and Sesame Workshop, is a system that enables grandparents and grandchildren to read together over the Internet. One could imagine this system being used to support a busy parent by enabling a remote grandparent to help occupy a child while the parent prepares dinner nearby.

back to top  Summary

The examples here are by no means comprehensive. My goal was not to systematically review the work being done in this space, but rather to highlight some of the diversity and to illustrate some of the complexity of designing for later life. One thing that stands out is that older-adult HCI is diverse and covers many different facets of aging. In particular, current older-adult HCI research is more than just accessibility for seniors. Work in this space asks not only how we can make everyday technologies more accessible to older adults, but also, what kinds of new technologies we can design to support their unique needs. This work thus extends into other HCI communities, including HCI for health and for families.

One challenge for the older-adult HCI community is to consider how to showcase its work as a whole. Early work developed predominantly within ACM SIGACCESS, but the community no longer fits exclusively under that umbrella. Older adults share commonality beyond their specific accessibility barriers. They come from similar social generations and thus share certain cultural experiences and expectations. They are at a similar stage in life—one that tends to bring with it retirement and grandparenting, among other things. As a result, there are many more aspects of later life for HCI researchers to explore than just accessibility.

As a comparison, the HCI for children community (which also uses a period of human development to define its focus) notably has a dedicated conference, Interaction Design and Children (idc2013. org), which serves (among other purposes) to help define the community. While it's not clear that conference proliferation is desirable, this does highlight the need to start thinking about ways to strengthen our community identity, not just for the benefit of bringing like-minded researchers together but also (and perhaps more important) for the purpose of clearly defining and communicating the breadth and depth of the field to the outside world.

back to top  References

1. Zickuhr, K. and Madden, M. Older adults and Internet use. Pew Research Center. June 6, 2012.

2. Lindley, S., Harper, R., and Sellen, A. Desiring to be in touch in a changing communications landscape: Attitudes of older adults. Proc. CHI 2009. ACM, New York, 1693–1702.

3. Vines, J., Blythe, M., Dunphy, P., Vlachokyriakos, V., Teece, I., Monk, A., and Olivier, P. Cheque mates: Participatory design of digital payments with eighty somethings. Proc. CHI 2012, 1189–1198.




7. Judge, T.K., Neustaedter, C., and Kurtz, A.F. the Family Window: The design and evaluation of a domestic media space. Proc. CHI 2010, 2361–2370.


9. Uhlenberg, P. Historical forces shaping grandparent–grandchild relationships: Demography and beyond. Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics 24, (2004), 77–97.


back to top  Author

Karyn Moffatt is an assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at McGill University. Her research explores the ways in which technology can be employed to meet the needs of older adults and people with disabilities.

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Devices like Kodak's Pulse Digital Picture Frame can be managed remotely, allowing families and friends to share photos with those who may be inexperienced or uninterested in the technologies that make it possible.

back to top  Sidebar: Who Are the "Older Adults"?

Although in HCI research, an age threshhold (often 65) is typically used, it is important to remember that age alone does not define this group. Rather, it's defined by its common characteristics, with individual membership depending on a number of factors that vary by context and from person to person. For example, some individuals may find that the technological preferences typically associated with later life do not resonate with them. For these individuals, social networking sites like Facebook might be appealing but nevertheless difficult to learn or use. Conversely, for others, a combination of past experience and/or relatively good function may ease the adoption of new technologies. However, these same individuals might nonetheless adopt views and preferences that align with those observed among older adults. Finally, some might find that they start to appreciate senior-sensitive designs at age 55, while others have no interest in them at 80.

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