Steven Baker

Interaction Design Lab, University of Melbourne, Australia

What contextual factors make older adults unique?

A number of contextual factors can be identified that help us both understand what we mean when we use the term older adult, and what makes this cohort unique. Defining what we mean by older adults via a collection of contextual factors is certainly preferable to attempts to define older adulthood via the use of a demographic age range.

In my case, I characterize older adults as people who are at a stage of life where they are more likely than other adults to be cognizant of, or have a lived experience of, factors such as; retirement, grandparental duties, loss of parents, having time for reflection, reminiscence and to make meaning of life experiences, having time to travel and explore other aspects of their personality, renewing interest in other hobbies/interests, volunteering and making other contributions to the broader community.

Given the historical propensity for researchers to focus on older adulthood as a time of frailty or loss of function, I think there are fantastic opportunities to understand the positive aspects of ageing (some of which I note above), and the ways in which we as a society might benefit from the current generation of older adults and their experiences.

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

One of the things I find most appealing about ageing research is that many of the factors that are noted above apply to all adults, however, factors such as child rearing or career building may ‘get in the way’ of engaging in these important aspects of life at an earlier point in the life cycle. Older adults are thus in a privileged position of being able to engage with these broader life issues. In doing so, they play an important role as ‘elders’ who can teach younger adults about the most important aspects of life from their unique perspectives.

In terms of HCI and ICT-based research, older adults have a unique vantage point from which to consider the advantages and disadvantages of new technologies. As one of my participants recently put it “I think we’re much more conscious of the world changing at an incredibly fast rate, whereas our children have grown up with a gradual changing in technology and are working with it every day… we have a naiveté in that we’re coming from a different point in discovery.”

What themes have you explored in your work?

My work has explored how older adults can benefit from the use of technologies as tools of social connection (or reconnection).

My PhD drew on my experience as a social worker practicing with older adults with histories of homelessness, social isolation and complex needs (a ‘catch all’ term encompassing substance abuse, physical and mental health related issues). After becoming concerned that the continuing shift toward online provision of services would further isolate this cohort, my research involved spending eight months in the field with seven older adults and their social workers. I supported them to use tablet computers and then collaborated with them to see how tablet computers might become tools that support their engagement with their social workers, with social support services, and how the tablets might become tools that let homeless older adults reconnect with support networks and their previous life experiences.

My current research involves the development of social VR applications to support meaningful social interactions as part of the Ageing and Avatars research project ( Over the course of three years we have engaged with a group of 25 older adults from both regional and metropolitan areas to gain an understanding of how VR might be used as a tool to support social participation, to understand the role that avatars might play in supporting communication in virtual worlds, and to co-design an application that allowed our participants to meet together, reminisce about their school experiences, and share artifacts from this time in their lives. Throughout 2019 we will be publishing papers discussing the user study that was the culmination of this project. During this time, I have also conducted a pilot study examining the use of VR in Residential Aged Care Facilities (RACF). This project examined issues such as; how VR is implemented, what barriers staff and residents identify in relation to using VR in RACF, and how VR might provide an opportunity to engage residents who are not attracted to traditional social engagement programs.

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

My approach to working with older adults in exploring technology has focused strongly on the use of participatory methods that are ontologically and epistemologically grounded in what William Neuman has referred to as Critical Social Science. Much of my work has used Participatory Action Research (PAR) methods. My PhD research was conceptually grounded in Manuel Castells’ ‘The Information Age’ trilogy. Key aspects of Castells’ theories were interwoven with the research, such as his conceptualization of spatial fragmentation (space of flows versus space of places), and his insights into the way power (and counterpower) are exercised in the network society. These concepts, allied to PAR, proved very useful lenses through which technological tools could be evaluated with older participants and I feel these theoretical and methodological insights are equally valuable in the context of much HCI work with older adults.

During the development of the Social VR application being used in our current research project, participatory design methods were used in order to try to involve the older adult participants intimately in the design of the intervention. While many aspects of this process were valuable – both in terms of the resulting design and the broader participatory aims of PD – I feel that much more can be done to develop means of reporting on the complex interactions between participants, designers, and developers that shape this type of design work. We have submitted a paper to the 2019 Designing Interactive Systems conference that details our PD work and explores some of these broader issues.

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

Many of the contextual factors I have described above are in a very real sense ‘universal’, and will apply to all generations of older adults. However, the lived experience of these factors will change and vary in response to other factors such as; advancements in medical technology, changing attitudes towards child rearing, social changes with respect to the role of gender etc.

With respect to HCI/ICT-based research, one of the factors that will have a clear impact on future research will be that whereas the current generation of older adults may not have grown up with computing technology, future generations will have been engaged with computing technology for much of their lives. It will be interesting to see how this will impact on ageing research. Another factor that will likely come more to the fore is the negative consequences of technology use and considering issues such as privacy, surveillance, and the right to own and delete personal data.

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

If we have learned anything from earlier attempts to consider the future of technology, it is that while we may be able to guess the broad forms of technology applications that are likely to play an increased role in our lives (for example, AI, personal medical devices, augmented reality, robotics, and autonomous vehicles etc.), it is much less likely that we will be able to understand the way social attitudes will change and shape our approach to technology development (see for my favourite example of this in action). As someone who is most interested in the social dimensions of technology use, this is what will continue to make the area of technology use by older adults interesting to me.

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

I am particularly looking forward to making connections to others working in the field of HCI research with older adults. While I have a reasonable level of experience working with older adults, I am still a relative newcomer to HCI research and the workshop will give me a great opportunity to make connections that I hope will allow me to collaborate with other delegates into the future. I would welcome the opportunity to play a role in the development of any papers that might develop from the workshop.

I am also about to embark on a range of new aged related HCI projects and the workshop will be a fantastic opportunity to discuss new areas of research with both established and early career researchers.


Baker, S., Warburton, J., Hodgkin, S., & Pascal, J. (2014). Reimagining the Relationship between Social Work and Information Communication Technology in the Network Society. Australian Social Work, 67(4), 467–478.

Baker, S., Waycott, J., Pedell, S., Hoang, T., & Ozanne, E. (2016). Older People and Social Participation: From Touch-Screens to Virtual Realities. In Proceedings of the International Symposium on Interactive Technology and Ageing Populations (pp. 34–43). New York, NY, USA: ACM.

Cyarto, E. V., Batchelor, F., Baker, S., & Dow, B. (2016). Active ageing with avatars: a virtual exercise class for older adults. In Proceedings of the 28th Australian Conference on Computer-Human Interaction (pp. 302–309). ACM.

Baker, S., Warburton, J., Hodgkin, S., & Pascal, J. (2017a). The New Informational Paradigm: Developing Practice-Led Approaches to the Use of Mobile ICT in Social Work. British Journal of Social Work.

Baker, S., Warburton, J., Hodgkin, S., & Pascal, J. (2017b). The supportive network: Rural disadvantaged older people and ICT. Ageing and Society.

Carrasco, R., Baker, S., Waycott, J., & Vetere, F. (2017). Negotiating stereotypes of older adults through avatars. In Proceedings of the 29th Australian Conference on Computer-Human Interaction (pp. 218–227). Brisbane, QLD, Australia: ACM.

Puri, A., Baker, S., Hoang, T. N., & Zuffi, R. C. (2017). To be (me) or not to be? photorealistic avatars and older adults. In Proceedings of the 29th Australian Conference on Computer-Human Interaction (pp. 503–507). ACM.

Baker, S., Warburton, J., Waycott, J., Batchelor, F., Hoang, T., Dow, B., … Vetere, F. (2018). Combatting social isolation and increasing social participation of older adults through the use of technology: A systematic review of existing evidence. Australasian Journal on Ageing, 37(3), 184–193.

Waycott, J., Wadley, G., Baker, S., Ferdous, H. S., Hoang, T., Gerling, K., … Simeone, A. L. (2018). Manipulating Reality?: Designing and Deploying Virtual Reality in Sensitive Settings. In Proceedings of the 2018 ACM Conference Companion Publication on Designing Interactive Systems (pp. 411–414). New York, NY, USA: ACM.

Carrasco, R., Waycott, J., Baker, S., & Vetere, F. (2018). Designing the Lost Self: Older Adults’ Self-representations in Online Games. In Proceedings of the 2018 Designing Interactive Systems Conference (pp. 441–452). New York, NY, USA: ACM.

Cavenett, W., Baker, S., Waycott, J., Carrasco, R., Robertson, E., Vetere, F., & Hampson, R. (2018). Deploying New Technology in Residential Aged Care: Staff Members’ Perspectives. In Proceedings of the 30th Australian Conference on Computer-Human Interaction (pp. 200–204). New York, NY, USA: ACM.

Baker, S., Waycott, J., Vetere, F., & Hoang, T. (2019). The Technology Explorers: Partnering with Older Adults to Engage with Virtual Reality and Virtual Avatars. In B. B. Neves & F. Vetere (Eds.), Ageing and Digital Technology: Designing and Evaluating Emerging Technologies for Older Adults (pp. 231–246). Singapore: Springer Singapore.