A computer for the mature: what might it look like …

Paper # 201: Rob Edln-White
A computer for the mature: what might it look like, and can we get there from here?

download: updated paper (30/7/2012)
download: original paper

Please add comments and discuss this paper – the liveliness of the discussion will help us decide the most suitable papers to be presented at Alt-HCI in September.

Abstract:  The prevailing personal computer paradigm emerged from the hobbyist market, and is arguably still oriented towards that segment, coercing us all to become like hobbyists, and failing to serve many of the population, especially people who are more mature than most technology designers. Based on a variety of research including two years working with older people on technology design, we present some general requirements of people in the second half of their life, critique the prevailing PC design, suggest some characteristics of genuinely usable and useful computer technology for all of us as we grow older, and consider how if at all such technology may appear.


11 thoughts on “A computer for the mature: what might it look like …

  1. Not directly from the paper, but as a general comment …

    One thing I’ve begun to see is iPads being bought by the over-60s – not sure what the stats are like, more personal observation. Not sure the reasons, maybe because it doesn’t seem like ‘a computer’, maybe the one app at a time model (Steve Jobs always wanted Macs like this …. in fact just like Windows used to be?)

    The setup used to be a killer as they never told people that they needed a ‘normal’ computer in order to connect the iPad initially – now fixed – although I;d guess the lack of manuals will be an issue, as older users tend to prefer instructions. The fine finger control needed on tablets also seems a potential downer.

    Relating back to the paper, iPads certainly feel closer to information appliances, even though they are general purpose – but physical usability seems real barrier.

    Posted by Alan Dix | July 24, 2012, 7:50 am
  2. I just saw tweet about Nesta funded project “Third Age Computer Fun”:

    Sort of just computer club for older people, but interesting comments in context of this paper. One thing that came up a few times was about doing things at night, as older people often have trouble sleeping; this is something I know has come up in other projects on devices for the elderly.

    Posted by Alan Dix | July 25, 2012, 4:13 pm
  3. and this is the link I tweeted about a day or so back: “The over-50 population now command approximately 80% of the UK’s wealth”: http://firstrung.co.uk/articles.asp?pageid=NEWS&articlekey=4603

    Posted by Alan Dix | July 26, 2012, 7:32 am
  4. In a retirement village where I’ve been conducting research, I’m told (by one of those who provide computer support sessions) that the Kindle has taken off in a big way. Many of the older users pop down to the computer room for some help in loading novels appropriate to their tastes, but from that point onwards it’s very easy to use. It’s a device optimised for one specific purpose. A particularly appealing feature is the ability to easily change the font size. Accessibility needs in older people are incredibly variable over time, depending on tiredness, time of day, lighting, whether or not they have the correct spectacles to hand etc etc. With a Kindle the reader can make the font much larger if they’re reading in poor lighting conditions (both glare and dim light are more problematical as eyes get older). a typical example is someone reading in bed before they go to sleep; poor lighting, tired eyes, perhaps not wearing the correct (or any) spectacles but still able to enjoy getting to the end of the chapter before sleeping.

    Posted by Rob Edlin-White | July 26, 2012, 7:51 am
  5. I recently heard a presentation based on this paper http://cs.swan.ac.uk/~cschitra/docs/BCS-HCI-2010-full-research-paper.pdf which found hospital beds with 6 control panels for automatic posture adjustments. The software was so complex and error-prone that nurses sometimes had to “reboot” the bed (unplug it and plug back in) before they could make adjustments – even on occasion for emergency procedures such as CPR. The FDA receives reports of over 20 fatalities a year of patients being trapped, tangled, mangled or strangled in hospital beds; many of the victims being frail, elderly and confused. It seems to me that the bed with 6 controls is another case or technology being designed with too much functionality, too little usability (for at least the older members of it’s user base) and with inadequate testing.

    Posted by Rob Edlin-White | July 26, 2012, 8:05 am
  6. A quote from one of our older participants: “I don’t use the computer much; I leave it to my husband, but I’m sure it’s bad for his blood pressure. He sometimes looks ready to throw it out of the window.” (Woman, 75-84, Nottingham, 2012)

    Posted by robedlinwhite | July 30, 2012, 3:10 pm
  7. Comment on main page, that I think is meant to be here:

    This is a pertinent article which highlights a very important issue. With a rapidly aging population and increasing reliance on technology for a multitude of services, usability needs to be perceived as a key part of the design process to ensure that technology is accessible to all.


    Posted by alandix | August 1, 2012, 4:00 pm
  8. Asking what a computer for the mature look like is an interesting question. Indeed, I share the concerns raised about the generative PC. Jonathan Zittrain’s book on the “Future of the Internet” is worth a read if you’re looking for more more related work in this area.
    I think asking what some of the consequences of generative technology are to older people is bound to raise lots of discussion at the conference. This alone should warrant acceptance of this paper in the programme.

    That said, I was a bit disappointed with the paper itself. It’s not that I disagree with the design implications proposed – it’s just that there doesn’t appear to be very much here that’s specific to a computer for the mature. For example, the proposition that “Systems should of course be designed so that there can be no viruses or other malware” is something most people will agree with. I also noticed a bit of a drift from the paper’s subject, as it seems to talk about hardware, application software, operating systems, etc. If this paper is accepted then it might be worth just picking one topic and focusing on that. If nothing else, it will also help focus discussion in the paper presentation which should result in more practical directions to take this work post-conference.

    Some of the thoughts I have which, while not answered in the paper, might be worth thinking about for the conference itself are:

    – What are the different categories of maturity from a technology perspective. For example, do the hobbyists that built their own computers in the 1970s share the same characteristics as (Male,75-84, Nottingham, 2012)?
    – Is a computer for the mature even virtuous? Some people might avoid computers for “old” people in the same way that they might avoid buying books with titles like “home computers for senior citizens”?

    Posted by Shamal Faily | August 1, 2012, 7:53 pm
  9. There is a substantial and growing literature on computers for older people. Quite right too – I’m getting older – maybe you are too. So one challenge for a paper in this area is to make clear what its contribution is – how it builds on and adds value to other work. There are many very good ideas here, and having them aggregated can be really handy. But what is new? or is it a matter of a change in emphasis? I can see how this paper can be used to develop a great resource to explain to novices in design for the elderly what they need to be thinking about.

    Posted by Michael Bernard Twidale | August 1, 2012, 11:30 pm
  10. Thanks for more thoughtful comments. I’ve been unable to respond properly and promptly to them as I’m in the middle of a fortnight holiday in areas with poor internet and phone signals (and under family pressure not to do work!) So just a quick response from an Internet cafe in Barnard Castle. Yes, I know there’s substantial academic literature in this area and I’ve read a considerable amount, and credited what I can in the word count available. The new contribution in this work mainly confirms prior findings, and revisits them in the light of further technological change. Most of the findings are not new, though they are newly expressed. I hope the work will have rhetorical value; freshly expressing and confirming and reinforcing the need for more appropriate technology.

    I feel research communities and funding bodies tend sometimes to seek and feed on intellectual innovation and leading edge technologies, when sometimes what is needed is more pragmatic and appropriate solutions. I’m a fan of the organisation which used to be called “Intermediate technology” which seeks to assist emerging economies with technology which is relaibale, simple, easily maintainable and genuinely beneficial. And example of this was the “clockwork radio” which provides genuine community benefits in areas of the world with unreliable electrical supplies. Leading edge is not necessarily the most appropriate for all users in all environments.

    The section towards the end fo my paper which speculates on what a computer for the mature might look like is just that; soeculation. Perhaps it wuold be better phrased as questions (e.g. “Why do we need a hard disc?”) rather than statements. The crux of the work is in stating requirements, and reminding designers that old people are “us” (in our future), not “them”.

    Posted by Rob Edlin-White | August 7, 2012, 12:11 pm
  11. I’m a little disappointed to hear this hasn’t been accepted for the main session. I’m convinced the issues raised, though not wholly novel, are of huge and increasing practical importance in ageing societies, with rampant increase in the complexity of technology, over-minutarisation, and loss or marginalisation of traditional non-technological modes of accessing basic services. And this should therefore be important for HCI research. Perhaps Alt-HCI is the wrong audience and it would be “preaching to the converted”, or perhaps it’s too pragmatic and market-oriented with little theoretical novelty.

    I hope it’s an area which will attract more media and political interest in the not too distant future, and I hope there will be more funding in future for research into appropriate accessible technology for older users, even if it’s not particularly leading edge or novel technology.

    Shamal Fialy’s comment concludes with two interesting questions.

    The hobbyists who built their own computers in the late 1970s were mainly born in the 1950s, so are now about my age (mid 50s) rather than mid 70s. The technology expertise they (and I) gained with products such as this http://www.computinghistory.org.uk/det/8934/Nascom-1/ is irrelevant in today’s world, and technology will continue to change. People also change as they age, so technology enthusiasm and expertise in one’s younger years do not guarrantee enthusiasm and expertise in later life.

    Re Shamal’s second question (is a computer for the mature a good thing or might they reject it because of the perceived stigma of an “accessible” product): this is an extra design challenge. In the world of assistive devices, spectacles have become fashion items in their own right; hearing aids generally not; some mobility scooters have a certain cachet, but not many walking frames; some use ski poles instead of walking sticks. One study of the requirements of younger blind users for a mobile phone found that a high priority was that it “should look cool”. The potential stigma of an obviously assitive or accessible device is to be taken seriously but is not an insuperable obstacle.

    Posted by Rob Edlin-White | August 20, 2012, 11:36 am

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