Belén Barros Pena – School of Design, Northumbria University, UK

What contextual factors make older adults unique?

As a designer, I find age and single life-event definitions of older adulthood not only problematic, but also unsatisfactory. Do we turn into an “older adult” the moment we hit 60 or 65? Is it perhaps whenever we retire from full time work? Whichever the number or the event, the outcome is an overly broad category that encompasses people of several generations and at very different stages in life. Such generalisations obscure the personal and contextual nuances that make good design possible.

Inspired by critical scholarship from the field of social gerontology that challenges mainstream definitions and categorisations of older adulthood, and in particular by life course perspectives that question “the beliefs that biology and chronological ageing have an overwhelming influence on how we change or what we become”[1], I would like to propose a definition of older adulthood based on lived experience. From this perspective, an older adult is a person who has lived through a substantial portion of their life span, and can look back to experiences of childhood, education, work, family life and often partial or full retirement. In this definition, what makes older adults unique is the fact that they are experienced in the art of living.

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

Research with older adults can help the CHI community better understand the implications of the technologies we design. Because of their wealth of experience, older adults can remember how life was before the technologies introduced during their lifetime. They have first hand, practical and personal experience of their arrival, evolution and often, of their dismissal. For instance, many retirees today can recall in great detail how entertainment, content consumption, inter-personal communications, work processes, professional roles and devices were before and after the arrival of computers, the Internet and mobile phones. Their recollections, experiences and perspectives can uncover the inevitable tradeoffs involved in technology adoption. They can reveal not only what we have gained but, most importantly, what we have lost through it. The life experience of older adults contains valuable lessons for designers, technologists and society at large.

What themes have you explored in your work?

As a PhD student, my academic work is necessarily limited. My studies so far have focused on exploring how lived experiences have impacted adoption, use and perceptions of technology in later life. Preliminary analysis shows the profound impact of technology-mediated changes in five domains: content consumption, personal communications, the format of devices, the nature of work and technology replacement cycles. What these five changes have in common is a tendency to prioritise individual over communal practices; immediacy and quantity over depth and quality of communication; surveillance and control over individual autonomy; obscurity over transparency of operation; replacement and obsolescence over resilience and repairability. All these were in sharp dissonance with our participants’ personal values, which attached great importance to family, community, independence, self-reliance, control and thriftiness.

The experience of these five changes left our participants feeling disempowered, dependent and vulnerable, suspicious of the intentions behind digital systems and distrustful of their reliability.

Our research has also uncovered some of the characteristics our participants appreciated. Technologies dear to them: were transparent in their operation; were resilient and reliable; required minimal maintenance; had long replacement cycles; could be troubleshooted without help, at least to a certain extent; struck the right balance between ease of use and available functionality; and contributed to feelings of autonomy, independence and control. We would like to explore how we can incorporate the above traits into the design of digital systems.

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

My study adapted the life story interview as described by Atkinson: “a qualitative research method for gathering information on the subjective essence of one person’s entire life. It begins as a recorded interview, is transcribed, and ends up as a (…) narrative (…) in the words of the person telling the story” [2].

Following a similar approach to Suopajarvi’s ICT biographies [3], the subject of the interview was narrowed down to focus on experiences of and interactions with technology. However, while Suopajarvi’s ICT biographies covered exclusively information and communication technologies, with discussions centered around landline and mobile telephones, computers and the Internet, our study purposefully broadened the scope of the conversation beyond the mainstream interpretation of technology as just information and communication technology. In order to do so, and to establish a common understanding of what the study considered “technology”, at the start of the interview participants were presented with a set of image prompts showing technological artifacts from the 20th and 21st centuries. The images included computers and telephones (fixed and mobile), but also mass media technologies such as radio and television; consumer electronic devices such as music, photography and video equipment; household appliances such as vacuum cleaners and washing machines; and office equipment such as typewriters and photocopiers. These images were printed on card, and laid out in front of participants at the start of the interview. The interviews began with a period of approximately 10 minutes where participants could look through the images, ask questions about the items on them, and generally familiarise themselves with their contents. Participants were asked to select five to ten of these images that held meaning for them.

Opening up the definition of technology increased participants’s confidence, and helped them overcome the feelings of alienation older adults often experience when dealing with the subject of information and communication technologies [4]. The process of reviewing and selecting the image prompts also helped participants recall their personal stories of interactions with technology, preparing them for the upcoming life story interview. The interview itself proceeded from this by inviting participants to narrate their encounters with technology across key life stages: childhood, education, family life, working life and retirement. At the end of the interviews, participants were invited to reflect on how they imagine technology developments unfolding in the near future.

The content of the interviews, together with informal feedback received from the organisations used for recruitment, suggest that participants thoroughly enjoyed the activity and derived considerable satisfaction from it. This supports Atkinson’s observations about the life story interview as a technique that contributes not just to the researcher’s knowledge, but also to participants’s knowledge of themselves (1998).


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

How our bodies, cognitive functions and perception abilities change with age has been well studied. The output of such research is of course highly relevant, and it has significantly influenced technology design, particularly the development of solutions that aim to compensate for the effects of pathological deterioration of physical and mental faculties.

While this dimension of aging is well understood, the effect on older adulthood of personal trajectories and experiences that unfold in the context of specific geographical, historical, political and socio-economic circumstances has been somehow neglected. This is paradoxical in that this is the aspect of aging that is, and will always be, in constant flux, and therefore requires continuous attention and study.

Instead of looking at people at specific points in time in terms of their capabilities, there is a need to look at people in a way that takes into consideration their full life trajectories. Older adults will always confront, adopt and use technologies from the perspective of their lived experience. They will inevitably draw comparisons with, and find relationships to, how the world was before the arrival of specific technological developments. This is the only constant: we will pass judgement, value and make decisions about technology in reference to our past. Judgements, values and decisions themselves will vary from generation to generation and from individual to individual.

The field of HCI will need to continue addressing the question of how to incorporate perspectives grounded on life experience to the design of technology. This will be necessary to guarantee technology that is accessible and inclusive, but also to ensure older adults’ full participation in the processes and decisions that determine technology’s development, evolution and overarching nature.

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

In a utopian version of our technological future, there would be no applications for older adults. All technology would be designed and developed from the ground up with meaningful participation from people of all ages. Applications would be transparent and understandable, rather than just usable, and would take into account our right not to adopt them, complementing other options rather than replacing them. Increased attention would be paid to applications that contribute to older adults’ full participation in society.

In a distopian version of such future, older adults would see applications based on stereotypical understandings of the meaning and consequences of older adulthood imposed upon them without their input or consent. Those applications would reflect imprecise generalisations about the needs and desires of older adults, and would become a barrier to their full participation in society.

To avoid this distopia, we must find ways of incorporating older adults’ values into the way technology develops. Such values may include increased sociality, more contemplative forms of temporality, self-determination, autonomy, control and thriftiness.

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

By attending the workshop, I hope to acquire a good understanding of its outcome, with the intention of applying themes and principles to my PhD design explorations. Since my PhD is in collaboration with an industrial partner, I also hope to gather insights as to how the outcome of the workshop could be packaged and repurposed for commercial contexts without compromising its integrity.

Most importantly, I hope to build up a network and gain contact with academics who are experts in designing technology with older adults. As the focus of my PhD shifts from qualitative research to practice-based design work, I hope to learn from attendees which design methods and techniques have proved effective during previous research efforts.

Finally, since this would be my first academic workshop, I hope to learn about the activity itself, about its organisation, format and output.


  1. Green, L., 2017. Understanding the Life Course: Sociological and Psychological Perspectives, 2nd Edition. ed. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.
  2. Atkinson, R.G., 1998. The Life Story Interview, 1st ed. SAGE Publications, Inc.
  3. Suopajärvi, T., 2015. Past experiences, current practices and future design Ethnographic study of aging adults’ everyday ICT practices — And how it could benefit public ubiquitous computing design. Technological Forecasting & Social Change 93, 112–123.
  4. Light, A., Simpson, G., Weaver, L., Healey, P.G.T., 2009. Geezers, Turbines, Fantasy Personas: Making the Everyday into the Future, in: Proceedings of the Seventh ACM Conference on Creativity and Cognition, Berkeley, California, USA, pp. 39–48.