Insights from the older adult population: new technology perceptions

Lisa Thomas is a Senior Researcher within the Psychology and Communication Technology (PaCT) Research Group in the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University. They tweet at @PaCTLab. (First published on the BGS blog)PactLab

In PaCT Lab at Northumbria University, the inclusion of older adults in research projects is commonplace. Digital technology holds the promise of enriching the lives of older adults, but many are still confused by it. Our research is aimed at understanding how to design technology to help older adults live healthier, more connected and socially engaged lives. 

We have a number of projects such as the European funded Dali project that explores how an intelligent walker can help keep older adults mobile, the Technology Strategy Board funded project which explored how to utilise mobile technology to ensure that older adults have access to information and services to support independent living and the final stages of a food safety project funded by the United States Department of Agriculture.

In the June edition of Age & Ageing, I presented work conducted with colleagues which aimed to understand attitudes to location-based services’ (LBS) technologies. LBS technologies are now integrated into a number of social apps. Yet the development of this technology is rooted in protection of vulnerable or ‘at risk’ groups. Our study wanted to explore the perceptions of this technology without the assistive connotations, as simply a way to locate and be located on the move. A questionnaire and in-depth interviews with older adults in the North East were designed to predict their intention to use these location-enabled devices.  The study provided older people with the opportunity to wear LBS technology for a week. This provided indices of mobility in addition to allowing us to understand their feelings to such technology based on real experiences

By giving older adults access to this technology for one week, we were able to understand their feelings based on real experiences. Importantly, we found that older adults had a number of concerns before the trial, including privacy, usefulness and visibility. After the trial, the major factor influencing intentions to use LBS was perceived risk. This study showed the importance of field trials, with some participants reporting LBS tracking as desirable, with others simply feeling it may be another stigmatising assistive device. The majority of participants felt that their existing practises for documenting their whereabouts, e.g. diaries, were preferable to the LBS device.

More recently, we have explored perceptions of a wide variety of individuals from older adults to young people, refugees and people with disabilities, to identity management technologies such as retinal scanners or fingerprint readers. By involving these populations, we understand the desires as well as taboos of future identity management scenarios. One very successful method has been an intergenerational workshop, giving older adults and youth group teenagers the chance to discuss how they would like to be identified in the future. Participants commented on the value of talking about these issues with different age groups, and some older adults bonded so well with the teenagers that they exchanged e-mail addresses to stay in touch. Surprisingly the views of the young and old were similar, with concerns of privacy invasion at the forefront of discussions.

Our research lab continues to work with older adult groups in a variety projects, covering health and well-being, digital inclusion, and mobility issues, to ensure the design of new technologies considers this important user group.

Dr Thomas’ paper Location tracking: views from the older adult population can be read in full on the Age and Ageing website.