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New study shows that older people’s involvement matters, but it hasn’t reached its full potential.

Among companies, engineers and policy-makers, involving older people in design projects is an intervention of increasing popularity.  Our new study just published shows that involving older people is important for engineers and older users, but current practices may miss opportunities.  In our study, we reviewed previous design projects that involved older people in design processes, and investigated how this involvement mattered for the design outcome.  We found that the most common outcomes of older adults’ involvement were:  1) An increased learning by the designers about older people’s lives and needs.  2) A change in design based on the feedback and comments obtained by older people.  3) An appreciation by the older participants of being part in such technological procedures.

Link with technology acceptance and adoption

Interestingly, though, we did not find any evidence that acceptance and adoption were immediate consequences of user involvement of older people.  Acceptance and adoption, however, are often tirelessly proclaimed as the ultimate goals for involving older people:  The idea is that, through involvement, technologies could be tailored better to the needs of older people, and thereby achieve a higher acceptance within the older population.  Our study shows that, despite involvement, not many of these technologies eventually find their way into the homes of older people.  Current practices of involving older people, it seems, have not reached their full potential just yet.  But why is that?

As our study indicates, there may be a general underappreciation of the complexities of involving older people.  User involvement, as it appeared in our research, is not a linear model where you feed some older people into technology design, and “adoption” or “acceptance” automatically emerge at the other end.  Rather, it is an equation that is far more complicated than that, with multiple variables:  What roles do the older people play in the process?  What images and stereotypes exist about older people?  At which level or stage in the design process are they supposed to contribute?  For what purposes are they involved?  How are they selected in the first place?  And, how do designers themselves drive the involvement process?   Each variable can take a different value, and the outcome can look drastically different.

How, then, can we reach the full potential of user involvement?

Well, our research suggests that we need to break down the equation of user involvement, and critically examine its terms and parameters.  Often, older people are involved as passive receivers of technologies, suffering from physical decay and biomedical ailments.  If technologies are to become more appealing to the older population, we might want to question these assumptions, and invert parts of our ways of thinking.  Perhaps, we can involve older people differently, in more active roles, at higher levels, and with less stereotypical views.  What technologies could be built, then?

Following the findings of our research, we feel optimistic that older people’s involvement remains important for both older technology users and engineers, and believe that we should continue to explore what else it may offer.  As we begin to re-define how to include older people in design projects, yet undiscovered technologies may lie just around the corner.

If you found this discussion interesting, and wish to share your opinion: Please feel free to contact me.  I am eager to hear your ideas!

You can find our original review article published open access:

Björn Fischer is a PhD student in Technology and Health at KTH in Sweden. His current research focuses on the social study of technology, with a particular interest in engineering and design practices, and user involvement. He is particularly concerned with understanding how technologies can be developed to suit the expectations of older people. Email: