A fresh look at older people as ICT users

Recently I had the pleasure and honour of sitting on the examining panel of a PhD thesis defence by Sergio Sayago, a researcher at the Interactive Technologies Group of Universitat Pompeu Fabra, in Barcelona. I met Sergio at W4A 2009, where he and his supervisor Josep Blat won the Best Paper award for their paper describing an ethnographic study of older people and their use of information and communication technology. Having enjoyed reading that paper and hearing his talks (he gave two at W4A), it was great to be able to announce that he’d successfully defended his PhD thesis.

Finding out more about how older people become successful users of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is particularly interesting for me as an accessibility researcher. We know that there are things we can do as designers to compensate for implications of reduced visual, hearing, motor and cognitive capability. And we know that these capabilities decline as part of the aging process.

But how well does our current assumed best practice really support older ICT users? How appropriate are current accessibility guidelines for dealing with the additional social factors – attitudes to ICT, life experiences, relationships – that may impact on how well (if at all) an older person can become an ICT user?

The W3C WAI recognised that we don’t know enough, and currently Andrew Arch is leading the WAI-AGE project looking at the overlaps and gaps between web accessibility for disabled people and web usability for older people.

‘From factors to social actors’

Sergio has spent 3 years working with and observing nearly 400 older people learning to use ICT in a friendlier environment than an academic usability lab. From his ethnographic observations his PhD thesis provides some valuable new insights into this area. The ethnographic nature of the work means the thesis has many stories of user interaction, illustrated by quotes and photos, so is highly accessible as a document in its own right.

His thesis title ‘Human-computer interaction for older people: from factors to social actors’ summarises the key argument that we need to stop thinking about ICT design for older people as addressing a collection of accessibility challenges mixed in with a dose of technophobia, and take advantage of the life experiences older people have. With his permission, I’ve provided a few of the highlights below.

  • Older people want independence but not necessarily isolation. So interface design should give people the ability to  perform tasks using ICT without making mistakes or asking for help. But older people may want to do ICT tasks collaboratively – so we shouldn’t assume someone will be on their own when they email, or browse, or whatever.
  • Older people don’t want accessibility solutions that exclude. We might assume people with declining vision, for example, want assistive technology – screen magnification or an alternative input device. But if that marks them out as ‘different’ or ‘special’ in comparison to their peers, then they may be more resistant to use the AT, even though it might be helpful. So any accessibility solution that is provided should as far as possible support gradual transformation of the way they interact with technology, not a traumatic (sudden) change. Kevin Carey expresses this argument of transformation over traumatic change as a desirable goal very effectively.
  • The primary goal of interface improvements aimed at helping older people should be to reduce cognitive load – to limit the mental challenges in figuring out what to do, where and how. This will help limit (though obviously will not solve) the impact of issues caused by visual or mobility problems.

The thesis also describes some interesting work investigating:

  • the usability of data collection methods – older people prefer being asked questions verbally to filling in long paper or electronic questionnaires;
  • interface design. Web developers will be interested to read an evaluation of different options for marking required and optional form fields which found that separating these into two distinct sections using <fieldset> and <legend> was significantly more successful than using asterisks for required fields.

I think it’s an excellent contribution to the field of ICT and web accessibility for older people, using what has been up to now a rarely used method in accessibility research –ethnography – to study what is after all socio-technical problem. I’m sure his work will stimulate lots of discussion, and hopefully further investigations.

Read more

Read the thesis summary online; this page also has a downloadable PDF version of the full thesis in Spanish and English (which I’d say is significantly more readable than mine was!).

Because Sergio’s PhD thesis consisted of a collection of publications, the work is also published in a variety of journal and conference papers – some are available to download, others may require access to academic publication libraries. They’re listed on the web page above.

Update: Sergio comes to Dundee

As of 1st June 2010, Sergio is now working with us in Dundee for two years! He successfully won a grant from the Catalan Government to continue his research focusing on older people, technology use and inclusive design – and we’re delighted that he has chosen to come to join us in the School of Computing. We’re already busy working on a number of collaborative projects, and look forward to sharing our results over the coming months.

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