Robin Brewer – University of Michigan, USA

What contextual factors make older adults unique?

Using the definition people over the age of 65, my work with older adults has shown that one contextual factor making them unique from other populations is the likelihood of age-related disability/disabilities. Realistically, disability negatively affects access to technologies, presenting interesting challenges for researchers in the context of HCI. Unfortunately, disability is also a term embedded with negative connotations like decline and deficiency, which affect the ways in which researchers and designers have studied and developed systems for older adults.

Additionally, older adults have complex and constantly changing relationship structures. Over the lifespan, older adults have developed relationships (friendships, family, acquaintances) with a large network of people. Yet, research consistently shows they are at high risk for isolation and perceived loneliness, each of which negatively affect health and well-being.

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

Aging presents interesting challenges in the context of disability and unique relational structures. In the context of disability, older adults have increased likelihood of developing age-related cognitive, physical, vision, and hearing impairments. The ‘and’ is important as concomitant impairments or the presence of multiple disabilities adds to the complexity of studying this population. Additionally, each of these impairments affect people differently. Within the CHI community, which has transformed into recognizing individual needs, this spectrum of how multiple disabilities affects people raises questions about how to design for such ability-related diversity.

In the context of changing relationship structures, older adults accrue a series of relationships that start and end throughout their lifetime, and in late-life. Much of this work in HCI has focused on how older adults connect and maintain relationships with family members and friends. However, more recent work has shown how older adults are also interested in establishing new connections online and offline, introducing a new set of design opportunities for how to engage older adults within existing online communities for new relationships.

What themes have you explored in your work?

I take a positive aging approach to designing for older adults where I consider active online participation by older adults [2], and use this to design for abilities and what people have access to. Much of my dissertation work focused on understanding how to engage older adults and older adults with vision impairments who do not have access to traditional forms of internet use (e.g. computers and smartphones) [1-3]. Rather than trying to teach such older adults how to use computers and smartphones, I argue for another approach to inclusive design, namely augmenting familiar and existing forms of technology use with opportunities for online engagement. Specifically, I have designed two voice-based online communities, xPress and vMail, which allow people to engage in blogging and e-mail through Interactive Voice Response on landline phones [1, 3]. In this way, people who want to be able to engage online can do so even if they do not have access to a computer/smartphone or face challenges using these forms of internet access due to age-related disability. At the same time, this interaction is more sustainable because it exists within the scope of an existing online community such that older adults do not have to engage in stand-alone online communities. More broadly, voice-based interaction provides opportunities to engage people who experience difficulties accessing graphical interfaces and keyboard input.

Additionally, my work deploying voice-based online communities to older adults and older adults with vision impairments has shown the importance of designing for intersectionality, where the lived experiences of people belonging to two or more oppressed groups are informed by systems of power [3].

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

I have mostly used qualitative research methods to engage older adults in formative work used to inform the design of systems. These methods have worked well for engaging older adults over time. These methods include observations, interviews, prototype testing, and diary studies. The biggest challenge of my research is recruiting a diverse group of older adults for research. In my previous work, I have established a partnership with a local senior center, volunteering over the course of four years. This form of relationship building is crucial for building trust with participants and understanding needs of older adults. However, it becomes difficult to establish partnerships with different populations of older adults to ask questions that are bigger than community-level.

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

I am constantly asked if age-related challenges pertaining to technology use are purely generational. For example, future older adults will be pervasive smartphone users and therefore barriers to accessing smartphones will no longer exist in 20 years. However, I argue that age-related disability will remain an issue. This will also remain a challenge if we continue to be such as a graphical interface-based society. In my previous work with interviews of older adults with late-life vision loss, data show that for those who were once active internet users, once their vision becomes worse to the point that they have to start using assistive technologies, many choose to disengage with online communities [4]. Unfortunately, this means that people also disconnect themselves from sources of information (online information seeking) and sources of social support. Instead, researchers need to do as much as possible to ensure there are alternatives to online engagement that allow for easier forms of internet access, but also that do not exist within a bubble of accessibility systems only for older adults or people with disabilities.

I argue for the use of voice-based interfaces, because voice is inherently different from graphical interfaces. Voice is an identifier, which raises privacy questions. Also, voice-only interfaces do not include the many clues that graphical interfaces include, so we need to design differently with a lower level of complexity for high-complexity tasks.

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

While this is tricky to answer, I think future technologies will continue to be increasingly pervasive and ubiquitous for older adults. They will further support independence and aging-in-place in new ways, empowering older adults rather than alienating them. In this way, I think accessibility as a discipline will disappear. Instead accessibility will hopefully be intertwined in the design process for people of all abilities, shifting from accessible design to inclusive design.

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

I hope to learn how others are going beyond accessibility to designing for older adults. I look forward to engaging in group discussion with senior and emerging leaders in the field of aging, critiquing how we have approached designing for older adults thus far and how we can effectively do so within and beyond the aging community in future work. I anticipate this workshop being able to lead to interdisciplinary, and perhaps, cross-institution collaborations to tackle some of the problems we identify in the panel-based discussions.

References/ Bibliography

  1. Brewer, R., Cornejo-García, R., Schwaba, T., Gergle, D., & Piper, A. M. (2016). Exploring Traditional Phones as an E-Mail Interface for Older Adults. ACM Transactions on Accessible Computing, 8(2), 1–20.
  2. Brewer, R. N., & Piper, A. M. (2016). “Tell It Like It Really Is”: A Case of Online Content Creation and Sharing Among Older Adult Bloggers. In Proceedings of CHI 16.
  3. Brewer, R. N., & Piper, A. M. (2017). xPress : Rethinking Design for Aging and Accessibility through a Voice-based Online Blogging Community. PACM HCI, 1(2).
  4. Piper, A. M., Brewer, R. N., & Cornejo, R. (2016). Technology learning and use among older adults with late-life vision impairments. Universal Access in the Information Society.