What contextual factors make older adults unique?
As a company, Facebook pragmatically defines “older adults” according to a 65+ age cut-off, because age is the kind of demographic data included in users’ profiles. Furthermore, the majority of teams at the company focus on “teens” versus “non-teens,” or “under 30s” vs “over 30s”, collapsing the diversity of “older” adult experiences into one age bucket.
In research, I have consistently seen that an age-related definition for older adults only tells part of the story. Because of this, I have come to a working definition for older adults that is based not just on age, but also on the transitions that adults go through later in life: retirement, children having children, moving, the loss of a loved one. I have seen, for example, that there is a significant uptake and change in social media usage when older adults retire – this is correlated with their age, but the driving factor is a change in life circumstances. These insights have led me to use a more granular definition of older adults in research that considers, in addition to age, how recently a user began to use social media and why.
In my own research, I have seen two contextual factors that uniquely shape older adults’ usage of social media. Firstly, in qualitative research with older adults from a wide range of socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds (California, Phoenix, Brazil, Indonesia), participants’ prior experiences with technology vastly impacted their uptake of social media. Participants who had used computers or cell phones in their daily work, throughout their lives, had an easier time navigating social media features, while participants who were not exposed to technology (mostly women or day laborers) struggled with even the most basic interactions. Technology usage over the life course had a significant impact not just in peoples’ ability to use technology, but also on their ability to learn and adapt to it.
Secondly, while the discourse around aging often frames the problems that older adults experience in terms of usability, I would argue that an additional factor shaping technology usage is confidence, which is heavily shaped by the environment in which people live. In research, even when participants had high digital skills, their fear often prevented them from using and exploring new features. Many participants felt that they had to rely on others (often younger family members or friends) for help, and yet felt unsupported when they had questions or were confused. Confidence, and being in a safe space for learning, had a significant impact on peoples’ motivation to learn and explore digital technologies.
Why do you think aging is an interesting area to research?
At Facebook, there is a plethora of quantitative data, internally and externally, indicating that older adults (65+) are the fastest growing age group on Facebook, but are also an age group that suffers a higher number of problems with usability, scams, and misinformation. To advocate for older adults, I founded the “Aging Populations Task Force,” did the first ever piece of in-depth research on older adults in the United States, and published a widely read position piece advocating for older adults. Despite this, as well as external literature indicating that social media is positioned to improve well-being and care-giving for older adults, it has been difficult to motivate people at Facebook to consider and build for this age group’s needs.
Because the idea of focusing on older adults does not have widespread traction among social media companies, most research done in the name of aging needs to fit under the banner of “accessibility” or “digital literacy.” While this is one way of framing it (albeit an important one), this framing focuses heavily on the negative aspects of aging. It propagates stereotypes, by encouraging the company to focus on how older adults have problems with using and adopting technology. This kind of negative framing makes it difficult to focus on the ways in which social media could play an even more positive role in peoples’ lives.
My interest in aging as an area of research is therefore two-fold. Firstly, I want to continue to advocate for better design for older adults in social media, as a way to improve the lives of what I see as a neglected population. This will, in turn, improve the social media experience for everyone, ranging from teens to people in emerging markets. Secondly, I want to think at a higher level about how research can better encourage collective action around older adults, both within Facebook and more generally in the social media industry. If companies are going to design technologies that work for and are used by older adults, they will need to consider the technical aspects of technologies, as well as the social context in which technologies are developed and marketed. Bias against aging populations is widespread and problematic, and as a researcher in industry, I am uniquely positioned to help the CHI community think about this aspect of building for aging populations.
What themes have you explored in your work?
My work thus far has focused on
- How product teams can make basic improvements to the Facebook user interface to mitigate the risks older adults might face when they use features in the ways they were not intended to be used. For example, how can product teams make it clearer to report or block unwanted contacts (to prevent scams), or to understand the audience for a given interaction (to prevent bullying and harassment).
- How older adults are using Facebook to expand their networks and showcase their newfound hobbies and passions. This work seeks to counter the assumption that older adults are on Facebook simply to see their grandchildren, and to show that older adults actively participate in groups, share information about hobbies, and connect with long-lost friends.
- How product teams might change their education and messaging strategies to mitigate fear and instill confidence, to help people take control of their digital experiences (instead of having to rely on others), and to help people explore new features.
I want to note that due to challenges with recruiting, I have focused on older adults who are already on the platform, and therefore see the value in learning and using a new technology. I have not explored the barriers to adoption, but given the role that fear and confidence plays in learning new technologies, this is an area that I plan to explore in the future.
What research methods have you used to engage older adults in the design process or otherwise elicit relevant design criteria?
Thus far, the majority of my research has focused on understanding older adults with ethnography. This had not involved any co-design with older adults, because the research has been exploratory in nature, and has not yet moved to a phase where we are exploring potential solutions.
I have also looked at aging through the lens of large surveys, and am currently conducting a large scale (n=100) usability benchmarking study, which is investigating the usability of Facebook for different skill levels and age groups in the United States.
What aspects of aging, or what challenges in aging research, will continue to be relevant in decades to come, and why?
As I alluded to previously, I believe that institutional bias and resistance will be the biggest challenge to aging research (in the industry context) for decades to come. There is a very real aversion in social media companies—which in many ways are the best positioned to make meaningful product changes for older adults—to engage with “aging” as a topic. In order to change through research, researchers need to help companies overcome this bias. My strategy for addressing this thus far has been to continually emphasize the growth (user numbers and activity on the platform) and business benefits (revenue) of designing for older adults, and also to generate empathy through video documentaries, by bringing tech workers into the life world of older adults (I made a three-part video series about improving Facebook for older adults).
How will applications of the future differ from today for older adults?
There are a number of voice-related technologies emerging in the world of social media that are uniquely poised to change the lived experience of older adulthood, particularly for people who have physical impairments. Voice-to-text features (in Google and Apple operating systems), voice message features (in Whatsapp), and voice activated devices (like Portal and Alexa) will enable older adults to carry out daily activities in ways that do not require dexterity or familiarity with visual interfaces. This could dramatically increase technology usage among older adults, but to do so, the technology must be usable, intuitive, and appealing to older generations.
What are you hoping to get out of attending this workshop?
Through my attendance at this workshop, I hope to take the academic community’s insights and perspectives back to Facebook, to be able to influence the design of better products for older adults. This will help me decide which topical areas to prioritize for my own research (as the only researcher focusing on aging, the possibilities are endless…), and will also help me identify which product teams to partner with more closely.
At the same time, I can share the industry perspective with workshop attendees, so that they can better understand the how Facebook is thinking about aging, how industry research works, and how we could collectively encourage more collaboration between industry and academia.
- “Most entrepreneurs are in their twenties, thirties, or forties, decades away from 65. They’re not seeing this enormous business opportunity because they haven’t lived it yet” (https://www.milkeninstitute.org/business-of-aging/view/1253).