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Designing technologies that older adults actually want

Speed read
  • Current technology design stigmatizes aging
  • Technology could be used to enhance the experience of aging
  • Scholars recommend incorporating assistive features into technology everybody uses

When you’re a bright young tech developer zipping through the city streets on your mountain bike, it can be hard to imagine what it’s truly like to be an octogenarian.

But if it’s your job to design assistive devices for someone with limited mobility or a few inconvenient gaps where their memory used to be, you might get it wrong. Really wrong.

“Aging is often framed as a problem technology can solve, and older people are positioned as lonely and disengaged,” says Amanda Lazar, professor of information studies at the University of Maryland.

Stereotype solutions. Technology is often designed as a solution for managing or treating the health changes older people experience. This framing too often neglects the complexity and positive aspects of older adulthood. Amanda Lazar discusses how technology design can challenge these stereotypes.

Lazar studies human-computer interaction with older adults, particularly those with dementia. She cautions that stereotypes often distort our view of older adulthood and may lead scientists to design devices that focus on perceived problems when they could instead be aiding new forms of engagement and development.

“We’re designing all these technologies for older people, but they pretty much all fall into the area of warding off physical and cognitive decline,” says Lazar. “Research has largely devoted itself to compensate for perceived deficits rather than appeal to what older people actually want.”

Seeing within

Taking inspiration from the success of art therapy methods in reaching older adults with dementia, Lazar and her co-authors introduced assistive technology into a residential living facility to see if they could shift the focus from compensating for cognitive impairment to facilitating the way people with dementia already experience, sense, and express themselves.

Visitors to the care facility often don’t know how to interact with the residents. But three digital installations allowed some visitors to be able to ‘see past’ external factors they may have found intimidating and engage with the residents’ other characteristics.

Even when researchers involve them in user-centered design, an older person can say, ‘We don’t actually want this,’ and the researcher won’t necessarily hear it. ~ Amanda Lazar

In one instance, a woman who can no longer easily communicate verbally used LiveScribe Sound Stickers to pre-record messages that could be played back when visitors viewed her artwork. The ability to arrange things ahead of time allowed her to speak clearly and confidently in a way she is no longer able to in the moment.

In another installation, the projection of a woman’s hands interacting with materials as she created art encouraged visitors, and even other residents, to look past the sometimes-distracting sensory aspects of dementia and glimpse instead a focused person intent on making art.

“They saw this attention and engagement,” says Lazar. “They were able to observe this woman in a different way because of how she was interacting in this setting — something they’re not often able to witness.”

Overcoming bias

The world’s population is aging rapidly and experts predict that caregivers for the elderly may soon be in short supply.

Several companies have developed robotic companions as a possible solution, including mechanical pets to assist with the perceived shortcomings of advanced age, such as loneliness and limited ability.

But these well-intentioned companions don’t always meet with approval. It doesn’t help that engineers rarely include older people in the design process, and when they do, they often ignore what the feedback.

In Lazar’s research, several older adults who were given the opportunity to interact with the robotic pets expressed the opinion that though the robots might be helpful, they viewed them as more suitable for individuals less capable than themselves.

<strong>Not your daddy's computer.</strong> Too often technology channels a stereotyped, negative view of what older users seek in their digital equipment. Human-computer interaction expert Amanda Lazar wants to change design to reach the real senior computer user.

“Our society is so profoundly ageist, that when we design things that signal they are for an older person, of course some people will reject that,” says Lazar. “Young people aren’t the only ones who hold ageist beliefs.”

By continuing to design special products marketed solely at over-65s, the intended demographic will continue to reject them. Seniors know that it has stigma and they don’t want to be associated with that stigma, says Lazar. 

Her solution?

Incorporating assistive technologies into products that everyone uses, such as Alexa or other personal digital assistants.

“But even that’s a short-term solution,” says Lazar. “It doesn’t address the root of the problem, which is that aging is associated with something negative in our society.”

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