Bran Knowles

Lancaster University, UK

What contextual factors make older adults unique?

Most researchers, including myself, tend to use established cut-offs for classing individuals as “older adults.” I have tended to use 65+ because it coincides (generally) with retirement age in the UK, a transition that often catalyzes a series of changes that have a bearing on individuals’ attitudes to technology. But “older adult” is a useful classifier only insofar as it represents a cohort that is distinct in some way from other adults, so it seems important that each study takes care in defining the age cut-point relative to a known difference of interest. If a study focuses on declining memory, for example, is there a significant difference between 62-year-olds and 65-year-olds? What is a recognised age at which memory sharply declines? If a study is interested in attitudes to word processors, for example, is there a significant difference between 50-year-olds’ familiarity with word processors and 70-year-olds’? At what point did word processors become the norm in the workplace, and who is above or below that cut-off?

In my research I’m interested in older adult’s attitudes to technology, and in my studies I include post-retirement adults who are also over the age of 65. There are things one can say about this cohort that are unique and are not stereotypes. One is that retirement affects a person’s source of income. The degree to which this affects or constrains a person may differ between individuals, but lack of income is an important factor as it can affect decision making and cause stress in certain situations (e.g. fear of being defrauded online may be higher because the consequences would be more devasting if a person cannot get more money). Being retired, an older adult would need to locate his or her identity in activities that are not work-related, which often causes as person to reflect on his or her values. There are also important generational differences that are linked with values norms, behavioural norms, and ways of seeing the world that differ from younger adults – though note that there can be generational differences within the older adult cohort (e.g. between 70-year-olds and 90-year-olds). People’s experiences with technologies and their familiarity with them is linked with both their generation (e.g. consider that Millennials grew up with the Internet) and the time at which they retired from work (i.e. at what point did a person stop learning how to use new technologies through their work?), respectively, and these quite clearly influence people’s attitudes to technologies. Also, the technologies that a person uses to accomplish tasks influences the development of certain ways of doing, or practices, which have a generational component to them. People develop a sense of comfort around these practices because they have mastered them, so introducing technologies that disrupt those familiar practices can provoke negative responses. Older adults’ practices are more often rooted in older forms of technology that are being replaced, which can leave them feeling under attack and uncomfortable. And finally, perhaps the factor that interests me most is that being in a category of “older adult” affects the societal expectations of a person. Stereotypes kick in about what that person is capable of; and what’s more, older adults understand what those stereotypes are and can make use of them when it is to their advantage. Even though I have yet to meet a self-described “old person”, I have met countless people who explain their lack of adoption of a technology with, “I’m too old.” [1]

Why do you think aging is an interesting area to research?

The reason I like researching older adults is because understanding what aspects of technology don’t work for them helps to shine a light on what aspects of technology really aren’t working for most people. By and large, I would say that the older adults I have spoken with complain of very similar things to me – things don’t work as well as they ought to, digital technology is annoying, it creates certain pressures that I don’t like, it changes society in ways that I’m not sure are great. But there is an expectation that I can and will cope with these things; whereas there is less expectation that older adults can cope, and hence older adults become a sympathetic persona that we can design for. Effectively their issues, the ones we have and suffer through, are magnified so that we can identify them. This is why I think it’s important to pay attention to what they are saying – a) in many cases they actually need certain accommodations in order to conduct practices of daily living, and b) attending to their needs with sympathetic design will make designs better for everyone.

I have found that the hardest part about doing research about older adults is that beyond the things I mentioned in the first answer, there is often very little that unifies this group, so it takes some work to identify a meaningful research question, let alone identify the right end user or participant cohort. In seeking to develop an app for older adults, for example, it is essential to identify which older adults you are designing for. Some older adults have additional health or accessibility needs, but not all. Some are socially isolated, but not all. Some are not very tech savvy, some are. It is easy to fall into the trap of designing for older adults as if they are a cohesive group, which generally ends in a muddle.

What themes have you explored in your work?

My primary research interest is “trust,” and I got into doing research on older adults because they are often believed to have less trust in digital technologies than younger adults. I haven’t actually found this to be the case, interestingly. What I have found is that a) older adults have more freedom to not use digital technologies they don’t like, whether that is because they don’t trust them or for other reasons [2]; and b) older adults often play on the known stereotype that older adults distrust technology to explain their non-use. They use the language of distrust (“I don’t trust it”) to communicate their dis-ease with a technology, even when that dis-ease does not pertain to that technology’s trustworthiness (i.e. security, reliability, etc). It seems that trust and distrust are useful concepts for older adults explaining their use/non-use of digital technologies, and yet trust and distrust are not determinative of adoption [3]. More generally, then, I am interested in how people position themselves with respect to the category of “older adult”, and how that positioning affects their experience of technology and their expression of that experience; and beyond that, what we can learn from what they are expressing through the language of distrust to highlight key design issues.

What research methods have you used to engage older adults in the design process or otherwise elicit relevant design criteria?

I’m a design ethnographer by training, and the work I have done to date is mostly ethnographic, including interviews and focus groups. What I have learned from that is how merely asking people to reflect about whether they trust or distrust a technology shifts a person’s perspective so that they examine something that is not normally examined. Whether one trusts a given technology is not something that people consciously consider in the moment as much as we might think. We generally get on with whatever task we need to do and make the decisions we do, and it is only after the fact, when someone asks us about it, that we vocalize feelings of trust or distrust. This isn’t to say that when older adults say they distrust something it shouldn’t be believed or isn’t a real experience; but it is important not to ascribe conscious logic to their thinking when they decide to use a technology or not. How they understand their decisions is what’s key to illuminating design insights.

I have also done a little bit of co-design with older adults as part of the Mobile Age project [4]. This is how I discovered how little a group of older adults may have in common with one another. In a recent paper I explore some of the unanticipated challenges in doing co-design with older adults [5]. For example, we were surprised that having helped design an app to reduce social isolation the older adults in our study were not comfortable promoting the app. This was due to a variety of false assumptions on our part, some of which stem from over generalisations about our participants and about older adults more widely, and some of which stem from dynamics that acted on our project that undermined our ability to do effective co-creation.

What aspects of aging, or what challenges in aging research, will continue to be relevant in decades to come, and why?

We have no idea how technologies of the future will differ, hence each generation is unprepared for these future technologies. One’s ability to keep up with the pace of change of technology will certainly continue to decline as one ages, as it relates to one’s disposable income for purchasing new technologies, the lack of training opportunities outside of work, one’s interest in keeping up (which stem from the fact that most technologies are not designed with older adult users in mind) and one’s ability to do so (which pertain to physical and cognitive decline). In this way, generation upon generation will continue to be incrementally pushed out toward the category of “older adult”, defined in part by their inability to keep up, and will position themselves differently with respect to technology by virtue of being in a category for which there are certain expectations. So technology will continue to challenge people, and older adults will be a group that is less able to adjust to change. My favourite anecdote from a participant to describe this phenomenon is:

Many years ago, . . . in the 60s, I was a district nursing sister, and going around to patients then and the television was new technology. And I remember all these old ladies– well, people, getting dressed up to watch television, for a start, and always having to cover their knees with a bit of blanket in case the man [on the television] could see out. So we’ve come a long way from that new technology. It’s understanding. As I said, I don’t understand Facebook. So it’s understanding how those people can’t see up your skirt.”

How will applications of the future differ from today for older adults?

I hope that instead of designing technologies specifically for older adults more effort is spent designing technologies that work for everyone including older adults. I think it’s important to consider what structures that provide support for people are being taken away with certain technological advancements, and where added supports can be put in. This can be social support (i.e. opportunities to socialize), or various safety nets that catch people when they make mistakes with technology, or training people to use technologies properly, or more widely examining the growing expectations we are placing on people for technological proficiency and whether that is reasonable. We all need to feel comfortable living in the societies we are creating, and digital technology plays a key role in whether or not we feel comfortable.

What are you hoping to get out of attending this workshop?

I’m relatively new to this area. So far I have found it challenging and exciting. I’m hoping to learn from others about how we can design digital technologies that work for older adults, particularly what it is that we can say about this group beyond the stereotypes that gives us insights into better design.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

Thank you to everyone for your wonderful Q&As! I learned a lot from them, and I am looking forward to meeting you all at the workshop and discussing these ideas.

Bibliography/ References

  1. 2018. People of ACM – Bran Knowles and Vicki L. Hanson. Available:
  2. Bran Knowles and Vicki L Hanson. 2018. The wisdom of older technology (non)users. Commun. ACM 61, 3 (2018), 72–77.
  3. Bran Knowles and Vicki L Hanson. 2019. Older Adults’ Deployment of ‘Distrust’. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) 25 (4), 21, 2018.
  4. Christopher N Bull, Will Simm, Bran Knowles, Oliver Bates, Nigel Davies, Anindita Banerjee, Lucas Introna, and Niall Hayes. 2017. Mobile Age: Open Data Mobile Apps to Support Independent Living. In CHI EA’17. ACM, 2410–2415.
  5. Bran Knowles, Christopher N Bull, Nigel Davies, Will Simm, Oliver Bates and Niall Hayes. 2019. Examining Interdepencies and Constraints in Co-Creation. In DIS’19. ACM, in press.