Prof David Frohlich

University of Surrey, UK

What contextual factors make older adults unique?

In my own work I have tended to define ‘older adults’ as those who have retired from full time work. This is somewhat ambiguous by age, ranging approximately between 60-65 in most countries but increasing over time. However, the lifestage of retirement is arguably more important because it marks transition to a third age of active retirement following youth and middle age in which people may have more time and freedom to engage in activities of their choice. Retirement is therefore a large contextual factor affecting older adults, together with associated shifts in identity, financial status and social networks, and challenges of engagement with elderly parents, grandchildren, and coping with physiological decline, ill health and bereavement. None of these factors are predicted by absolute age, but vary between individuals and societies. Other factors which make older adults unique are their personalities of course and their work, social and technological histories.

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

I am passionate about inclusive design, and older people are historically underserved by technological solutions designed for them. They are a growing market which tech companies should pay more attention to and include earlier and further in the process of design. In my view this could result in quite different products and services than we see today, better fitted to the values and experience of older people, as well as being simpler and more accessible to those with reduced eyesight, hearing, and dexterity. Inclusive design with outlying or extreme user groups can often result in better design for all. Furthermore, given that ageing involves a process of change, designing technologies which change with the user is an additional challenge. Finally, there are a number of difficult issues faced by older people such as loneliness, ill health, cognitive decline, and so on which are putting increasing strain on health and social services. I believe that new technology can help with these and would like to make a difference in this area.

What themes have you explored in your work?

I first got the chance to work with older people’s groups on the SUS-IT project funded by the New Dynamics of Ageing programme in the UK. This was a 3.5 year project between 2009-2012 about ‘Sustaining IT use by older people to promote autonomy and independence’. I led an innovation workpackage involving a series of co-design ‘sandpit’s with older people’s groups to reimagine digital technology on various themes of interest to older people, such as custom computing, memory and identity, social isolation and tablet computing. We developed a simple co-design methodology called Focusgroup+ on the project (described below) as well as generating a concept catalogue which formed the foundation of various strands of follow up work, including that on a project called Tailoring Technology involving custom tablet docks which utilize the emerging class of cheap consumer tablets in a family of custom docks which turn a general-purpose tablet into a specific-purpose appliance for particular activities. More recently, I have developed a new strand of research on what I call ‘Assistive media for health and wellbeing’, as part of a UK-Brazil SPRINT network between the University of Surrey, the University of São Paulo and the Federal University of São Carlos. Within this network, on the Time Matters project, we have explored the role of digital storytelling in dementia care within a care home setting. We have also designed and tested a novel time-based media sharing system called Media Parcels for deepening both family and friendship relationships around an isolated older person. In February I am starting a new project called Sentimental Audio Memories in dementia care, to extend work on the role of music to sound recordings.

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

I have used a range of user-centred design methods to engage with older people’s groups on some of these projects. These include requirements interviews, ethnographic observation, co- design workshops and field trials. As mentioned above, a new co-design methodology was developed on the SUS-IT project called Focusgroup+. This involves a simple extension to the classic focus group format following the critique of novel product concepts. A group of about 10 participants is split into smaller groups of three or four, each with a professional designer/facilitator, and challenged to re-design a selected concept. Re-design is cued by asking the sub-group what they would like to keep, lose or change about the idea, and facilitation is directed at reaching a consensus new design within a fixed period for feedback to the wider group. I now teach this as a CPD course at the Market Research Society as an accessible method for any group, having been developed inclusively with older people.

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

An argument is often made that the current generation of older people not familiar with digital technology will soon die out and be replaced with digital natives who have grown up with it. However, this ignores the fact that technology is ever changing and factors such as retirement from the workforce sometimes remove access to training, learning and tech support which keep people up to date with the latest stuff. Therefore we should always distinguish between digitally engaged and digitally unengaged older people, and recognize the need for activities in which to encounter and learn the relevance of new technology in a supportive social context. The social and psychological factors which make us human will continue to be important in decades to come, as will the changes to these that occur with lifestage transitions and culture.

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

Applications of the future may be more seamlessly embedded in everyday objects and environments, rather than being concentrated in multifunctional devices like smartphones or computers. Media content and our interactions with it may replace a focus on devices, and media for wellbeing will become equally or more important than media for health.

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

I would like to meet people with similar interests in designing for an older population and hear about their latest research in the area. I am also interested in the aim of the workshop and would like to contribute to a set of design principles for this group and consider their implications for a more general population.


Abrahao A.R.R., da Silva P.F.C., Frohlich D.M., Chrysanthaki T., Gratão A., Castro P.C. (2018) Mobile digital storytelling in a Brazilian care home, Lecture Notes in Computer Science: HCI International 2018 - Conference Proceedings Springer

Frohlich D.M., Lim, C. & Ahmed (2016) Co-designing a diversity of social media products with and for older people. Proceedings of DSAI 2016 Conference, ACM.

Frohlich, D. M. (2016). Book review: Ageing and the Digital Life Course, edited by David Prendergast and Chiara Garattini. Journal of Population Ageing, 1-4.

Zargham S., Calic J. & Frohlich D.M. (2015) 4streams: An ambient photo sharing application for extended families. Proceedings of the British Computer Society Human Computer Interaction Conference, HCI 2015, 165-174.

Frohlich D.M., Lim C.S. & Ahmed A. (2014) Keep, lose, change: Prompts for the re-design of product concepts in a focus group setting. CoDesign: International Journal of Co-Creation in Design and the Arts, 10:2, 80-95.

Lim C., Frohlich D.M. & Ahmed A. (2011) Supporting memory and identity in older people: Findings from a sandpit process. Proceedings of Include 2011, Royal College of Art, London.

Frohlich et al (2011) Crossing the digital divide in the other direction: Community centred design on the Bespoke project. Proceedings of Include 2011, Royal College of Art, London.