I (Sergio) have been doing research in the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) with older people (to simplify, those individuals aged 60 and above) for slightly more than a decade. I started in 2004, when I decided – for some reason, but I still don’t know it – that my PhD dissertation should be about HCI and older people. Approximately twelve years later, I have decided to create, maintain and moderate this blog, with the aim of publishing an edited (and printed) book that introduces a new paradigm in HCI research and design with older people. This raises (at least) two questions: why do I think we need a new paradigm? Why a blog? I will answer them in turn.
Let’s assume that HCI with older people is a 30-year-old research field, and that the first collection of studies was the Human Factors Research Needs for an Aging Population (Czaja et al), which was published in 1990. Seven years later, in 1997, the Handbook of Human Factors and the Older Adults (Fisk & Rogers) was published. Both argue that age-related declines in functional abilities affect performance in a wide range of contexts, and that new interfaces which make up for these declines are therefore needed. This design / research approach, which is exemplary of first-wave HCI studies (Human Factors – designing equipment, devices…that fit the human body and its cognitive abilities), predominates today. Common to most HCI studies conducted with, or concerned about, older people is to study how age-related changes in functional abilities impact on their interactions with digital technologies and compensate for these changes by, for instance, enlarging user interface elements and creating simpler technologies, more often than not, designed especially for them (e.g., mobile phones with large buttons). Is that wrong? No, it isn’t. On the contrary, this approach is to be commended. So, what? Let me answer with a question: is this approach enough or all we can do?
To my reckoning, HCI research with older people is not keeping pace with the evolution of paradigms (or waves) of HCI research. The human information processing model (Card et al., 1983) was the cornerstone of the first paradigm, wherein users were regarded as individuals processing information while working on a (personal) computer system. The second paradigm, which was largely motivated by the fact that computers moved out of laboratories, looked on users not simply as objects of study, but as active and autonomous agents (especially, in work settings – social relationships, communication, distribution of tasks), i.e., human actors (Bannon, 1991). The focus of the third (or current) wave is, to some extent, defined in terms of what the second wave is not: non-work (Bødker, 2006; Harrison et al., 2011). This is also known as the ‘the turn to experience’ (Hassenzahl, 2010). What do you use your smartphone for? In today’s world, understanding (and doing) HCI entails addressing the user (person) as a whole: individual capabilities, culture, emotions, gender, social relationships, aspirations, etc. What can we say about HCI research and older people? In my opinion, the field lies between the first and second paradigm / wave of HCI. The design, evaluation and implementation of ICTs for older people have primarily been approached in terms of compensating for age-related changes in functional abilities (first paradigm). There are also a growing number of studies aimed to enrich and facilitate inter- and intra-generational communication, as well as supporting and fostering independent living, healthy / active ageing (second paradigm). This research has proved useful to understand, amongst other aspects, the extent to which capability declines impact on designing for older people (Fisk et al., 2009) and conducting effective research and design methods with older people (Dickinson, Arnott & Prior, 2007), and to create a large number of new technologies for this user group. Yet, we are still far from the third paradigm.
One could say that HCI research with older people is purely “non-work”, but this is not the important point. Let me give an example and, perhaps, exaggerate a bit. Within HCI research with older people, everything seems to come down to one issue: health (in a broad sense, and with its somehow related topics: quality of life / well-being…) – assistive technologies, independent living (or as some would say, surviving), rehabilitation, avoiding social inclusion, and so on. It goes without saying that health is very important – and not only for older people, but…is there room for exploring other issues apart from health? I think so. What do we know about their emotions? Emotion is a keyword in third-wave HCI research. Why don’t we explore further their leisure and design digital technologies that enrich their leisure experiences? Leisure is also a very important part in their (and our) lives. Also, older people tend to be portrayed as always being in need of something – or the ‘rhetoric of compassion’ (Rogers & Mardsen, 2013). We need to help them to lead an active and independent life, help them to improve their communication with their grandchildren, help them to get out and exercise, etc. Doing so is important for a large number of older people, but … what if we see older people in a different / alternative way? For instance, what digital technologies would older people create if they were given the opportunity – with DIY kits, for instance? There is creativity in later life, but we might not see it.
Addressing these (and related questions) entail a new, or different paradigm in the field of HCI with older people, one that is much closer to the one that predominates in HCI. Doing research within this new paradigm does not mean overlooking the others. Yet, it means exploring the relationship between older people and ICTs in a different (and richer) way. It is my conviction that a change of paradigm in HCI research with older people will take the field forward. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Thomas Khun pointed out that science advances in one of two main ways: “normal science” (essentially, within the current paradigm) and by developing fresh approaches and shifting the paradigms. Kuhn’s work suggests that many of the most important developments in scientific theories over past centuries originated through paradigm shifts. I think the time is ripe for a paradigm shift in HCI research and design with older people. How can Big Data help us design / envision better (e.g., more accessible, meaningful) ICTs for older people, as well as understanding their interactions with digital technologies and everyday activities? How does what we currently know of cognitive ageing in HCI apply to the next generation/s of older people, who have been born and grown up in a different socio-cultural context (Hofer & Alwin, 2008, p. 5) as compared to those who were born in the 1900s?
Working towards this end, I have decided to create this blog, in an attempt to keep the book, and its contents, alive before, during, and after its publication (hopefully), and thereby stimulating a dialogue amongst researchers, practitioners, older people and other people interested in the topic, a communication I feel can contribute towards understanding (and perhaps, doing) HCI research with older people in a better and deeper way, as well as defining and conducting research activities in the years to come. The quality and success of this blog and book rests upon your participation. Ideas for long or short chapters (e.g. case studies, crunchy literature reviews, success / failure studies, etc.) are welcome. Contributions to existing chapters (by, for instance, raising questions that deepen the research presented, sharing bits and pieces of your research, suggesting readings…) are also highly appreciated. In any case, please do keep in touch with your ideas, contributions, thoughts and doubts.
I would love to hear from you.
- Bannon, L.J. From Human Factors to Human Actors The Role of Psychology and Human-Computer Interaction Studies in Systems Design. In Design at work: Cooperative Design of Computer Systems. pp. 25–44, 1991
- Bødker, S. When Second Wave HCI meets Third Wave Challenges. In NordiCHI. Oslo (Norway), pp. 14–18, 2006
- Card, S., Moran, T., Newell, A. The Psychology of Human-Computer Interaction, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, Hillsdale, New Jersey, 1983
- Czaja, S.J. (ed.), Human Factors Research Needs for an Aging Population. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C, 1990.
- Dickinson, A., Arnott, J. & Prior, S. Methods for human – computer interaction research with older people. Behaviour & Information Technology, 26(4), pp.343–352, 2007.
- Fisk, A.D. and Rogers, W.A. (eds.). Handbook of Human Factors and the Older Adult. Academic Press, 1997
- Fisk, A.D., Rogers, W.A., Charness, N., Czaja, S.J. and Sharit, J. Designing for older adults. Principles and Creative Human Factors Approaches. CRC Press, 2009
- Harrison, S., Sengers, P. & Tatar, D. Making epistemological trouble: Third-paradigm HCI as successor science. Interacting with Computers, 23(5), pp.385–392, 2011
- Hassenzahl, M. Experience Design. Technology for All the Right Reasons, USA: Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 2010.
- Hofer, S. & Alwin, D. eds. Handbook of Cognitive Aging: interdisciplinary perspectives, London (UK): SAGE Publications Ltd, 2008.
- Kuhn, T. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, 1962.
- Rogers, Y. & Marsden, G. Does He Take Sugar? Moving Beyond the Rhetoric of Compassion. interactions, pp.48–57, 2013