Ben Jelen

Indiana University, USA

What contextual factors make older adults unique?

Older adults' life experience is a key contextual factor for designing technology that they find valuable. Younger cohorts of older adults have had more exposure to technology than older cohorts. A 2017 Pew research poll [1] reported 82% of people aged 65-69 have or regularly use the internet, compared to only 44% of those over 80 years old. This difference may be explained by older cohorts not being as frequently exposed to e-mail, online forms, and web pages that are a regular part of people's work experience today. Life experience's impact could also be related to the nature of their work. For example, RCA used to have a television manufacturing plant that employed many in Bloomington, Indiana, USA. Several older adults I regularly quilt with used to spend their workday soldering circuits, so they were not as intimidated by the Arduino microcontrollers I introduced. Life experiences could also come from outside of the workplace. The crafters (quilters, knitters, woodworkers, etc.) I have worked with have had different comfort levels with the electronics they use in their own projects. For example, some have taken interest in computerized embroidery machines, which required them to learn Adobe Photoshop to create and modify images. Older adults' life experiences shape their views of technology and influence their relationship with it.

In addition to life experience, several contextual demographic factors that uniquely impact older adults – race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and community (urban vs. rural) – are commonly under-reported by HCI researchers. Demographic factors may play a bigger role in older adults' engagement with technology than we realize. A recent study of home- bound, disabled people showed that older adults (60+ years old) who never used or had stopped using the internet were more likely to be black, Hispanic, or low-income [4]. Older adult HCI researchers have looked at some of these contextual factors [2, 8], but there are opportunities to do more. These demographic factors are important to consider how they are uniquely impacting older adults.

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

Aging is an interesting area to research because there are still several open questions about how to best support older adults to age in place independently. Researchers have tried many technologies and methods to support and engage older adults. These technologies include everything from home sensing systems [12] to mobile applications [7]. New waves of technology, such as Internet of Things, assistive home robots, and machine learning, are all opening up new opportunities for better supporting and engaging older adults. Additionally, researchers have pushed boundaries by using methods that move from designing technologies for older adults to designing with them using participatory design and co-design. These new technologies and methods are opening new opportunities to better support older adults' independence and empower them to age in place.

In addition to new opportunities, people – both lay people and researchers – tend to underestimate older adults' abilities with and interest in technology. Research points to the need for older adults to find technology valuable before they are interested in adopting it [11]. However, life experience and contextual factors also play into how they engage with technology. During my work with the former RCA factory workers, I have significantly changed my own perspective from one of "Let me teach you what I know about technology." to "What can we learn to do together with our collective knowledge?", such as when I helped older adults to use e-textiles to add lights to their quilts. My appreciation for their life experiences changed as I became a quilter (with their help) and developed relationships with them. Therefore, I am interested in older adult research to counter people underestimating their ability to create with and use technology.

What themes have you explored in your work?

In my work, I have used personalization as an approach for engaging older adults in using technology. My motivation behind personalization is my belief that older adults, if given the right opportunity, will better engage with technology that they have customized. The 'Ikea Effect' is a phenomenon where people who actively engage in constructing an item value it more than the same item made by someone else [13]. Electronic toolkits are one tool I am exploring to see how I could support personalization that may impact older adults' adoption and engagement with technology [9]. Thus, I see personalization of technology through electronic toolkits as one way to address challenges, such as adoption, with older adults.

Additionally, there are opportunities to improve older adults' engagement with technology by building upon their life experiences. Craftec [9] – an initial version of an electronic toolkit system designed for older adults – builds upon their crafting skills to support them in creating personalized electronic devices by abstracting technical details. Craftec allows for people to craft soft-medium devices using a sewing machine, or hard-medium devices with a kit involving wires and magnets. We are continuing to develop Craftec so that older adults can create IoT devices to help with medication adherence or improve craft aesthetics, among additional options. These are built upon ideas participants expressed in the participatory design workshop that informed the system design. I have also explored the role that computer anxiety may play in learning to create with electronics. Prior work suggested that some older adults may not adopt technology because they are concerned about their technology skills [5, 6]. Thus far, I have not seen a significant impact, but we are continuing to test whether this may be a factor on learning to create with electronics. HCI researchers can benefit from approaches that reflect older adults' life experiences, whether that is building upon skills or respecting concerns they have.

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

I have primarily used participatory design and user evaluation workshops to engage older adults in the design process. In my unpublished participatory design workshops, I elicited design suggestions for an electronic toolkit for older adults. I focused on mutual learning so that we could design together. Overall, it worked well to design with older adults, and I enjoyed the flexibility of participatory design to meet my design goals. To test Craftec [9], I conducted a user evaluation workshop to collect insights into how they could use an electronic toolkit and what improvements need to be made. For example, I realized we needed to improve how we taught electronic circuits. I conducted a second user evaluation workshop where I built on those lessons to improve teaching older adults to create with electronics. I had success by focusing on building up skills through relatable examples. Participatory design and user evaluation workshops were valuable methods for engaging older adults more in the design process and contributing their perspective.

I have had mixed results with less engaging methods in my research on the Craftec system for creating personalized electronics. I found that my observations of older adult crafters worked well for collecting information on how they view crafting, and they helped build relationships with the community. However, my survey of young adult and older adult crafters was not as successful of a follow up. I found it difficult to craft effective questions to elicit valuable design criteria, in addition to the challenges of recruiting enough older adults to have meaningful results. Observations and surveys worked well to collect some data, but they fell short of engaging older adults in the design process.I have also recently conducted a systematic literature review of 106 papers on tangible technologies where older adults or people with dementia were a primary user. The unpublished work covers papers in the ACM database between 1991 and 2018, and I am in the final stages of analysis and writing. I have focused data collection on the trends in research topics, methods, and the types of older adults they are helping. For example, technologies such as home sensing systems have been popular since 2001, but there are a number of emerging research topic areas in the past 7 years. These emerging areas highlight the diversity of perspectives researchers are taking to support and engage older adults. I would be able to share more of these trends at the workshop if attendees are interested. The trends in the systematic review – such as technology trends – have shaped the opportunities I see for developing tangible technologies for older adults.

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

The growing interest in empowering older adults to be in control of the technology in their lives will continue to be important in the future. One way researchers have empowered more older adults has been to design with them rather than for them through methods such as participatory design. This idea of empowerment has grown from older adults indirectly benefitting from technology to a focus on older adults as the end users. In the Digital Family Portrait [12], the older adult participant passively interacted with sensors, but the portrait displayed information to her adult caregiving child. In contrast, Lazar and Piper have focused on empowering people with dementia to choose how their art is shared [10]. I believe that, moving forward, more technologies will emphasize putting the older adult more in control as the key end user. Then, older adults will be more in control of concerns that might prevent adoption or engagement, such as privacy. Empowering older adults by designing with them and giving them control of more design choices in technology will continue to be relevant.

As disparities grow between rural and urban areas, I believe that there will continue to be a rural-urban divide between people living in those communities. In the US, rural communities are getting older faster as more young people are moving to urban and suburban areas [14]. Additionally, rural areas are less connected to the internet and broadband services [3], which may limit their opportunities to engage with new internet- connected technologies, such as the Internet of Things. Therefore, this will result in new challenges to supporting older adults to independently age in place, such as using less- connected technologies. The growing rural-urban divide will likely continue to present challenges to older adult HCI well into the future.

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

Although difficult to predict, future applications will likely change how older adults interact with technology, especially technologies designed for aging in place. IoT and voice agent technologies will offer new opportunities and modalities for interacting with devices by being more omnipresent throughout the home and integrating data throughout. Home robot’s embodiment will impact whether that interaction is tangible, voice, or text, opening up new interaction paradigms for supporting aging in place. Machine learning – underlying all of these technologies – will play a growing role in these technologies, too, as it identifies insights into sensing data. Thus, future technologies will take a growing role in how older adults interact with aging in place technologies.

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

I hope to contribute to the conversation on designing technologies for older adults and engage with fellow older adult researchers. I have a valuable perspective on personalization and incorporating more of older adults' life experiences into technology. I am also interested in hearing what others are doing to support and engage older adults as well as contributing to any workshop outcomes. By participating, I will look to integrate those perspectives into my research with older adults as well as be an advocate for what we discuss.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

Much of my work is still in progress on being published in HCI venues, so that is why my bibliography is limited. I have a paper on the participatory design work to inform the Craftec toolkit, a paper on introducing older adults to maker electronics, and a systematic literature review all in progress at this time.

I appreciate the work that the organizing committee has done to setup the workshop and I am looking forward to the chance to participate this year.


This work is supported in part by the National Science Foundation Award DGE-1342962, CNS- 1560276, and IIS-1814725. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


Ben Jelen, Anne Freeman, Mina Narayanan, Kate M. Sanders, James Clawson, and Katie A. Siek. 2019. Craftec: Engaging Older Adults in Making through a Craft-Based Toolkit System. In Proceedings of the Thirteenth International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction (TEI '19). ACM Press, New York, New York, USA.


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  9. Ben Jelen, Anne Freeman, Mina Narayanan, Kate M. Sanders, James Clawson, and Katie A. Siek. 2019. Craftec: Engaging Older Adults in Making through a Craft-Based Toolkit System. In Proceedings of the Thirteenth International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction (TEI ’19). ACM Press, New York, New York, USA.
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