Mark Schlager

Staff UX Researcher, Google Consumer Health Products

What contextual factors make older adults unique?

Older adults are either ignored by the tech industry or lumped into stereotypical categories. The established categories of young old, middle old, and old old are simply not useful in conceptualizing and designing technology to be used by older adults. To be sure, aging brings with it certain progressive limitations and challenges, but everyone ages differently—cognitively, physically, emotionally, and socially. Rather than defining “older adult,” we find it useful to consider the same contextual factors that we consider when designing for other adult populations -- life stage, living situation, unmet needs, social supports, occupational and financial situation, etc.

One additional set of factors on which we focus are predictors of health decline that can be detected through consumer-grade technologies in activity patterns of daily living. These include gait, respiration, eating and sleep routines, social and task engagement. Our goal is to keep older adults out of the formal healthcare and senior-care systems, and in their homes, by (a) helping reduce the probability and severity of acute events, and (b) helping family caregivers manage the care of their parents and grandparents more effectively and efficiently.

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

Older adults are the fasted growing demographic globally. By 2020 there will be more people over age 65 than under age 5 for the first time. Although technology use is growing steadily among older adults, they still lag behind the general population.

Older adults are not interested in tech for innovation sake or status, but for its immediate utility and tangible value. They simply will not suffer apps and devices that offer little benefit or are poorly designed. Rather than assimilating to technology, they will happily subvert it.

Traditionally, research on older adults has been conducted by geriatric researchers and the CHI researchers independently. We believe there is value in bringing those, and other relevant perspectives together to address the needs of older adults as people, not patients or relics who must wear lifeline pendants.

What themes have you explored in your work?

Generally, I explore how to leverage technology to support the changing needs, contexts, and routines of consumers as they pass through different life stages. With respect to older adults, my focus is on ways to sustain independence, social engagement, autonomy, and health.

Our UX team is in the early stages of developing design principles. I hope to be able to share them by the time of the workshop.

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

Building on a long tradition of CHI research, I am currently conducting ethnographic research with older adults living alone in the broader community and in senior communities to understand their context, needs, and routines.

On the basis of this research, we will build prototypes, and ultimately consumer products, which we will deploy and study in users’ homes.

Thus far, the most difficult aspect of our research has been recruiting participants due to screening requirements and the need to involve remote family members. We also recognize the challenges of understanding systemic, regional, and cultural differences.

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

I have learned not to “tune” my crystal ball beyond 3-5 years. My take is that the issues that currently face older adults will intensify and garner more attention in that timeframe as older adults become a larger proportion of the population. For example, trust in and willingness to adopt new technology will continue to be issues until we find ways to maintain older adults’ facility with emerging technologies, which tends to decline when they retire from the workplace.

Technologies for health and caregiving will slowly make inroads, but only incrementally until we can show that technology benefits providers (clinicians) and payers (insurers), as well as care recipients. Our challenge will be to address older adults as whole people, and create technologies that are useful throughout the many physical, cognitive, social, and contextual transitions that will occur in the “second half” of life.

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

Unlike most recent technology advances, we (and several market research studies) are finding equal uptake of ambient voice-enabled technologies (e.g., smart speakers and displays; car systems; wearables) by older and younger adult segments alike. Our study participants find voice interaction devices more convenient, simpler to learn, and easier to use than mobile devices. These findings may indicate a gradual shift away from the current paradigm of mobile phones as the primary personal “companion” device (especially in the home or car).

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

I am relatively new to the study of older adults. I am very interested in learning from, and building relationships with, the organizers and other participants of this workshop. In return, I will bring expertise in HCI/UX research on families and consumer products, in particular, voice interaction with intelligent assistants through smart speakers and displays (e.g., Google Home speaker and Home Hub display). I will also bring the perspective of health-related applications using sensing and machine learning technologies.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

Our UX team is newly formed within Google. We have not shipped a product as yet. By the time of the workshop, I will have findings from my in-home foundational research and user testing of prototypes to share with the participants.