Abi Roper

Centre for Human Computer Interaction Design City, University of London, UK

What contextual factors make older adults unique?

As a speech and language therapist, my specialism is acquired language difficulty (aphasia), commonly due to stroke. As an HCI researcher, I consider the impact and accessibility of both specialist and mainstream technology for adults with aphasia. Within this remit, my day-to-day working definition of an older adult refers to the group of adults most commonly affected by stroke – that is those aged 65 years and above. (An estimated 75% of stroke survivors are 65 years or above[1]). Within my work with people with such older adults, I have become aware of the following contextual factors which I perceive as relatively unique to this group. Whilst it is commonly acknowledged that older adults may be affected by typical age related changes in hearing, vision and mobility, other acquired difficulties such as cognitive and linguistic changes receive less attention. Further, I feel that the differences in lived experience between the generation of older adults being researched and the generation of researchers conducting that research serves to distinguish this group from others represented within the development of contemporary technology and its research.

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

Aging is something that will (hopefully) come to us all! If I personally wish to continue researching and using technology as a clinical and research tool, the study of aging and HCI become vital to my continued engagement with my field of research! In the broader context, the increasing extent of civic and social engagement now undertaken through the medium of technology requires that if we wish ourselves and those around us to be engaged in such commonplace activities as paying the bills[2] and remaining connected to family members and friends, we must take steps to ensure such processes can be navigated successfully by all who need to access them.

One of the challenges I have encountered in my work with novel and existing technologies with older adults is that the technologies themselves very often expect a different interaction style when compared to technologies an older user has previously had experience of using.  For example, in my early career, I had a role where I introduced laptops into people’s homes so that they might access a computer-based speech and language rehabilitation program.  For many older users with no prior experience of computer use, this meant learning to understand the principles of operating a mouse to engage with digital content – a surprisingly abstract notion if you have not encountered it previously. I have no doubt that this group of older users had previously demonstrated perfect competence with other, more familiar technologies such as driving a car or operating equipment within a work or domestic context. However, the sheer novelty of emerging technologies can require that older users necessitate a grounding in an entirely new series of constructs that may, to younger users, be perceived as somewhat “bread and butter”.

As alluded to by workshop organisers on the HCI and Aging website, I believe that research in this field has much to offer the wider community in terms of wider design principles for accessible design.  I also feel strongly that we have a moral obligation to understand more about wider access opportunities for engagement with technology.  Work with older adults – who are often affected by disability can offer us valuable insights that will be of benefit to a wider audience of technology users across the lifespan.  This includes all of us at those times when we are affected by temporary situational disabilities.

What themes have you explored in your work?

Alongside colleagues at City, University of London, I have explored themes regarding the accessibility of digital content for users with language and cognitive needs.  The lessons established contribute towards improved design for all users, lowering the cognitive, linguistic and motor entry points to engagement.  The general principles were initially reported in our work on “Language-Light UX” (see http://languagelightux.org) and more recently refined into a series of dos and don’ts on designing for Aphasia Accessibility (see https://blogs.city.ac.uk/inca/outputs/#Posters).  These principles continue to inform the ongoing work we undertake with older users at City, University of London.  Moreover, when presenting this work to a variety of research, clinical and technology practitioner audiences, I have commonly been met with the observation that the principles we have established as basic accessibility needs also serve to improve the wider usability of technologies for users across the board.

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

I have engaged in a number of co-design projects with older adults to explore existing technologies and develop new technologies and methodologies.  One recent example comes in the form of co-creating personas with older co-designers and subsequently refining and implementing said personas within an ongoing design process (Neate et al, 2019). This shared co-creation process has been very positively received by the group and has led to some very constructive insights into the development of a novel technology.  I have also been involved in refining and administering adapted usability testing methods to accommodate adults with aphasia – many of whom are 65 or older. (Roper et al, 2018)

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

An evolving technology landscape will mean that as we each age there will be technologies and skills we have devoted time to mastering that are subsequently widely replaced by newer things – as noted in my response to question 2. To expand on this further, it may continue to be the case that those conducting the research often represent a different age group and generation than those who are the focus of the research – for example as was my situation when working as a researcher in my twenties with older adults in their seventies, eighties and nineties. This generational difference will continue to require an open a respectful approach on the part of researchers to ensure the perspectives of the user group are heard and fully appreciated.  An ideal solution to this for me, comes in the continuing development of co-working within a research context, so that older adults may assume meaningful roles as collaborators during the process of designing, undertaking and reporting research.  In an ideal situation, older adults will experience increasing opportunities to indeed lead such research – should the inclination take them!

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

I answer this question based on my experience of working as a speech and language therapist with older adults in a changing technological landscape over the last ten years.  During this time, I have observed wider concerns that technology will replace humans in a variety of contexts – chiefly that speech and language therapists might be replaced by computers.  My observations over time however have illustrated that whilst technologies have evolved and interfaces have - on the whole - become more widely accessible, there will still always be a need for and a benefit from a human support mechanism to facilitate access to the full benefits technologies may offer.  For example, ongoing use of a technology newly adopted by an older adult can be facilitated and sustained by engagement of an interested friend, family member or helper. I believe that where gaps in familiarity with emerging technology trends may continue to be an issue for older generations, such gaps may always be addressed by collaboration with a good tutor.

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

I’m excited at the opportunities this workshop offers to engage with world-leading researchers working in the field of aging and HCI. I am particularly keen to engage with organisers and attendees around the core aim of the workshop – to go beyond the design of senior-friendly variants of existing technology towards better informed design of all technologies. My research career has so far moved me from the research of highly specialist medical technologies towards the wider development of principles and non-medical but nonetheless accessible technologies that may benefit individuals with speech, language and cognitive needs.  I look forward to the opportunity for further reflection and elaboration on this theme that I believe I can achieve through attendance at this workshop.  As a concrete output from this workshop, I would welcome an action plan that we, as a community, might take forward to try and implement the consideration of the needs of older adults within technology design across the entire development cycle.


Wilson, S., Roper, A., Marshall, J., Galliers, J., Devane, N., Booth, T., & Woolf, C. (2015). Codesign for people with aphasia through tangible design languages. Codesign, 11(1), 21- 34.

Roper, A., Davey, I.G.W., Wilson, S., Neate, T., Marshall, J., & Grellmann, B. (2018) Usability Testing – an aphasia perspective. ASSETS ’18, October 22–24, 2018, Galway, Ireland. https://doi.org/10.1145/3234695.3241481

Neate, T., Bourazeri, A., Roper, A., Stumpf, S., Wilson, S. (2019)Co-Created Personas: Engaging and Empowering Users with Diverse Needs Within the Design Process,to appear in Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI), 2019. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3290605.3300880