Geezer Tech?

Most network and mobile tech is designed by young adults to be used by young adults to solve the problems of young adults. (This is why there are so many dating and shopping apps, and why the screens and fonts are so freaking tiny.)

Francisco Ibarra and a team of European researchers have explored “Tools Enabling Online Contributions by Older Adults”[1] . Their basic idea is to consider various digital apps that enable older adults to engage in social activities, even if they are less able to physically travel and meet.

One goal is to enhance the well being of older folks, through opportunities to, as they put it, “contribute”. In addition, they aim to encourage sustained engagement by keeping up motivation through positive experience and (social) rewards. Digital systems have the key advantage of being highly accessible in any location including the home.

There are, of course, many digital systems through which people can “contribute” in many ways. This include many kinds of social media, online publication, and crowdsourcing. The researchers consider design features to make these service particularly valuable and inviting for older people. They analyze many existing systems to examine

the contribution process, the online opportunities they offer, the type of motivational features they rely on, and more importantly, how they support older adults’ work” (p. 59)

Most online contribution are not specifically designed for old folks, and the researchers indicate that there has been little study. It’s not totally clear to me what special features might be needed by older folks. Matchmaking is matchmaking, micro-payments are micro-payments.

The researchers seem to assume that geezers might need special tweeks, though they don’t specify them, and no one has really studied the question.

The main finding from the literature is older adults are less likely than younger adults to engage in productive activities for instrumental reasons. I.e., micro payments are less motivating compared to social good or other intrinsic motivators.  (It’s not just geezers.  I suspect that there are large individual differences in response to these incentives, and also cultural and situational factors.)

The most important question would seem to be the user experience. Many digital services have user-hostile interfaces, or at least rely on the tacit understanding of experienced, “literate” users. I..e., they seem “normal” to those acclimated to them, however poorly designed.  Older populations may be less familiar with interfaces (and the underlying services), and, frankly, may be less tolerant of bad UX design.

Certainly, interfaces that feature tiny print, extremely precise motor skills, or quick reaction times are comparatively inaccessible to users handicapped by having lived longer than 30 years. It is also probably true that social interactions with frisky and impatient young folks may be unrewarding, if not unreadable. Sure, I enjoyed free wheeling, elbows up, online interactions when I was in my twenties, but I have little interest in such interactions anymore. It’s unpleasant and a waste of time. (What—you think you invented trolling? Pfft. We were flaming each other on line before you were born.)

The researchers describe their design desiderata, systems should

let people find (challenging) tasks that are in line with their skills, and for causes they care about; that allow for social support during the contribution process; and that are accessible for older adults.” (p. 64)

These are actually good design targets for any system that wants to attract user contributions!

The important point is for designers to think about all the potential people out there, not just “people like me”. Designing for yourself is certain to leave out many people.

Finally, I would point out that both the goal and the design approach can be applied to other populations. People who are critically ill, or tied up with in-home family care could have interest in ‘contributing’. Indeed, populations with limited liberty, such as prisoners and refugees, might also desire and benefit from opportunities to contribute.

All of these cases have their own characters and nuances, especially in the design of motivation and reward systems. As any salesman knows, the trick is to discover what each person desires, and then let them sell to themselves.

So, the bottom line is that these researchers are thinking about the problem the right way, even if they lack much justification for their assumptions about ‘older adults’.


  1. Francisco Ibarra, Olga Korovina, Marcos Baez, asati Fabio, Maurizio Marchese, Luca Cernuzzi, and Galina A. Barysheva, Tools Enabling Online Contributions by Older Adults. IEEE Internet Computing, 20 (5):58-65, 2016.

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