Joke made a reply earlier today on my previous post, which you can find here. Since I noticed my reply just kept getting longer and longer, I decided to take this opportunity to summarize my previous statement and expand upon it.

Joke stated that there’s a psychological threshold regarding elderly and technology (as I have already delved into here). Furthermore, she continued, it’s important to design technology in such a way that senior citizens have an easier time using the application. To quote a passage:

“Keywords such as security / privacy, social relationships, simplicity.”

While I agree on a certain level, I believe the impact of long term vision can’t be overstated. It’s true that most elderly won’t use technology because they don’t feel the need to or because it just goes way over their head. However, in another 20 – 30 years, the ‘new’ senior citizens will face a completely new set of issues with the modern technology of that time.

Allow me to rephrase by using an example. My grandmother turned 80 a few years back, but she’s still very much up and about. The family decided to give her a mobile phone to allow her to call for help when needed. This phone has the most basic design imaginable: it has twelve buttons (numbers 0 – 10, call and disconnect), the dimensions of a common calculator and a clear black-and-white display. Furthermore, it’s equipped with a big, red ‘panic button’, which allows her to call a previously programmed number. It’s safe to say all of the key features have been met: security (completely fool-proof), simplicity (as hard to use as an ordinary phone) and social interaction. In essence, it seems like a well designed product.

However, for some reason, my grandmother never takes it with her. Now she has an easy to use mobile phone lying at home.
Which brings me back to the general question of my previous post: what if it doesn’t matter?

While simplicity is an admirable goal, I don’t believe it to be the missing link in convincing elderly to make optimal use of the technology available to them. While short term benefits can be reaped, it’s important to keep in mind that only a more generalized vision can dramatically change the ways in which people of a certain age interact with technology as a whole.

If we consider a strictly design-based improvement, there’s a trend that immediately springs to mind: ubiquitous computing.
Ubiquity is defined as:

“Existence or apparent existence everywhere at the same time”

according to Webster and the Free Dictionary. In terms of technology, it’s considered to be the omnipresence of technology, integrated in such a way that the user doesn’t even (consciously) realizes it’s there.  Or more formally:

“machines that fit the human environment instead of forcing humans to enter theirs” (1)

An interesting concept to be sure, that’s already well on its way in gaining popularity. And rightfully so, as it ensures and solidifies the capabilities of the elderly well into the future.

For more information on ubiquitous computing, see reference 2.

(1) J. York, P.C. Pendharkar, “Human–computer interaction issues for mobile computing in a variable work context”, Int. J. Human-Computer Studies 60 (2004) 771–797
(2) Poslad, Stefan (2009), “Ubiquitous Computing Smart Devices, Smart Environments and Smart Interaction”, published by Wiley.

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4 Responses to Ubiquity

  1. This ubiquitous technology would indeed be a good goal to focus on. But what I ask myself is wether this will work practically? I have the feeling that the real new technologies first have to undergo a state where they are so new that there is no simplicity or ubiquity. Just because there was no time, or the product is historically grown out of a niche of engineers who didn’t think anyone would want to use the device. Of course I am now talking about réal new technologies, not innovative designs like the I-phone, which consist mostly out of excisting technology blended together in a clever way. The question I ask myself is: will the fact that we put such a focus on simplicity and ubiquity really mather when a real new technology is born and if it mathers, will it be quick enough? What I mean is: simplicity and ubiquity is something that you have to work for to get but work also means time. So what if this process is to slow? Would this mean that the elderly still have to keep up, having a delay already, with the ungoing technology-train?

    • karelvanderelst says:

      Ubiquitous technology has to be designed as such from the get-go to function properly. It’s more of a mindset than an actual ‘collection’ of technological achievements. If the cutting edge of modern technology ignores this ubiquity, the process will be slow indeed. While there’s a market for non-ubiquitous computing (just take a look at a modern laptop compared to an embedded system), completely ignoring the former will incite the need for two innovative achievements, one for the general design and a second to actually make it practically applicable.

      Considering the delay elderly seem to have in adapting to new appliances, I’m more optimistic. As stated before, a lot depends on the age at which a person is introduced to a new technology. In a few years, most, if not all, senior citizens will make use of mobile phones, with minimal effort from the producers themselves required. While there’s a rapid increase in the amount of new applications that’s released every year, I believe that the gap between elderly and technology won’t increase at the same rate (if at all). That doesn’t mean no efforts should be made to assist people of a respectable age to adapt, only that the long term vision takes priority.

    • ingmarvaneylen says:

      I think there is a difference between needing a technology, wanting a technology en having a technology. In the example of the grandmother. The grandmother never uses the cell phone, not because she cant’t, but because she doesn’t really need it at the moment. It’s an extra technology which she is not familiar with for all her life, and she doesn’t really need it. But, maybe she does… Because when she falls or breaks her ankle and she is all alone with nobody to contact, she might end up bad. From then on i’m sure she would welcome a cell phone, just to feel safer. But at the moment, there is no neccessity, so no use of the phone even if she got one.

      So in my opinion the technology has to follow the need. No need, no use. We can spend a lot of money funding research for tangible and easy to use technology, but it has to fill a need, otherwise it is invented for no purpose.

      But I think that the needs are more and more surfacing. Like my great-grandmother got a sort of walkie talkie after she made her first fall. So in that case there was a need, and that “technology” she could use very well, because she was motivated to use it. That is also the case with the ubiquity. If they are motivated to use it, they will. But we as young engineers can’t force it on the erlderly.

  2. Pingback: Experimentation | The elderly are eager to use technology that will facilitate their lives

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