What contextual factors make older adults unique?
Following the conventional definition, I refer to people age 65 or older as “older adults.” Compared with other age groups, they have both special physical needs (e.g., changes of previous physical living spaces) and social needs (e.g., social connections with family members and friends). Social factors play an important part in the experience of older adulthoods. As older adults retire and lose the opportunities for social interactions in the working environment, their social life experience significant changes. Although previous literature has addressed older adults’ social connectedness with friends (e.g., [1,8]) with intergenerational family members (e.g., [6,7]), or with larger communities (e.g., [3,4]), few literature has addressed this issue from the intergenerational perspective outside family context (i.e., supporting older adults’ social connectedness with younger generations at a community level).
Why do you think aging is an interesting area to research?
As the population of older adults continues to grow, it is important that the HCI research community pays more attention to this specific group . With regard to the group of older adults, there are many crucial topics that are worth studying and can potentially benefit similar areas as well. For example, how to monitor health is one common topic within the aging group, and its insights are also applicable to a larger area of health-related HCI research. Studies of intergenerational communication can benefit the IDC community as well. What is challenging about aging research is that we are studying a group of late technology adopters who either need longer time or are reluctant to adopt to up-to-date technology.
Besides, “older adults” is not a homogeneous group. Factors such as social class, wealth, education, relationship with family members, life experience, cultural background, etc. decide the diverse needs they have towards technologies. The challenge is to identify meaningful commonalities among these diversified needs and find potential solutions that could facilitate older adults to address their own needs. It is important to anticipate these challenges when conducting aging research.
What themes have you explored in your work?
In our work, we have explored designing technologies to support older adults’ social communication and connection with younger generations. One branch of our work has focused on supporting older adults’ social connectedness with the younger generation in a community context. Specifically, we have been looking into an in-person intergenerational mentoring program where older adults and elementary school students meet weekly. The program helps reduce older adults’ social isolation and increase their feelings of self-value . We have conducted in-depth field studies to understand older adults’ social needs out of such connections and have identified design opportunities for building technologies to extend access to these social activities for more older adults. One of such design opportunities was lowering barriers for older adults to participate in such activities. For example, with technologies that provide scaffolded guidelines on how to conduct activities with children, older adults would feel less burdened to carry out these activities.
In addition, we have also explored similar area in a family context. We focused on understanding intergenerational connection needs between grandparents and adult grandchildren and designing technologies to foster such connection. In this project’s context, we have specifically formulated asymmetric design as one of our design directives for the technology we were building, in order to address the different technology preferences, communication styles, social connection needs, lifestyle between generations.
What research methods have you used to engage older adults in the design process or otherwise elicit relevant design criteria?
Our work has been using mostly qualitative methods to elicit relevant design criteria. We have taken a multi-method approach to understand older adults’ social needs about connecting with younger generations: participant observation to understand older adults’ current practices, semi-structured interviews to study their needs and priorities when connecting with the younger generations, as well as to further interpret findings from participant observations. We also used cooperative inquiry approach when we studied grandparents’ social connection needs with their grandchildren. Because we had more access to the younger generation participants in this context, we involved them as active investigators to conduct design activities with their grandparents together.
I found the combination of participant observation and semi-structured interviews work complement each other, as the observation approach provided us with rich context and insights, and the interview allowed us to base our questions on previous insights. This was especially helpful when studying the group of older adults, because it’s easier for them to talk and reflect in actual context. On the other hand, there were distinctive challenges that come with working with this demographic. I found it sometimes challenging for them to provide design level and specific feedback either regarding current tools they were using or evaluating prototypes presented. With this group of participants whom we have studied (grandparents with adult grandchildren), their technologies choices were mainly influenced by their younger family members, and they had no other alternatives. Also, it was difficult for them to think about how to improve the current tool or come up with specific design changes. Even though they were able to speak more at length about challenges they have experienced, it nonetheless relies on the researchers to ask the right follow-up questions to keep the conversation going and leaves their opinions subjective to researchers' interpretations. In my future work, I would also like to understand more about how to involve older adults in early design stage more effectively.
What aspects of aging, or what challenges in aging research, will continue to be relevant in decades to come, and why?
How to mitigate older adults’ vulnerabilities towards technologies will continue to be a relevant challenge in aging research. Although older adults already have many difficulties adapting to and utilizing current technologies (compared to the younger generation), technologies are increasingly involved in everyday life, which continues to challenge people’s lived experience. If not keeping up with these changes, older adults would become even more excluded from technology-mediated activities.
How will applications of the future differ from today for older adults?
From my perspective, future technologies can contribute to the experience of older adulthood if we push them in this direction from now on. For example, natural user interface can provide a lot of opportunities for older adults’ interactions with technologies that will be able to address their needs and preferences (e.g., older adults’ preferences about simple and intuitive interaction design ). Although many older adults currently are not adopters of these relatively new technologies and these technologies are not designed for them, if researchers can develop a good understanding about how to tweak the design of these technologies for older adults (one example research question can be how do older adults interact with voice interface differently and what implications we can draw about designing VUI for older adults), these technologies can potentially benefit older adulthood experience in the future.
However, it will remain unchanged that the majority of technology industry does not consider older adults as the main user group they are designing for. Hence, it will always rely on researchers (especially HCI researchers) to actively identify opportunities about potential technologies that can be beneficial for older adults and conduct research to address this design gap in technology industry.
What are you hoping to get out of attending this workshop?
As a young researcher conducting aging related HCI research, I think this workshop is a great opportunity for networking: getting to know other researchers in this area, learning their research and interests, identifying exciting research questions and finding opportunities for future collaborations. Hence, I think this workshop can contribute a lot to my research career.
Besides, my primary research project has just entered the designing, building and evaluation technologies phase. And I think the discussion about themes and principles for designing technologies for older adults can definitely bring inspirations to our design process and benefit my current research project. Also, I am sure I could learn a lot from other more experienced researchers to advance my current research.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
When conducting the study on understanding technology-mediated communication practices within family context, we had one older adult participant who has been actively using technology but was illiterate and has to rely entirely on visuals when using such technology tool. It became especially difficult for the participant to continue using the tool when family members changed their profile pictures frequently. This made me realize that when studying older adults, we often focus on a small fraction of demographics within this group. I think we need to be more inclusive when designing technologies for older adults.
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