Nearly 30 years ago, the first studies on the interests of older people with regard to computers were published. These studies were mainly based on surveys or interview-based data collections on attitudes towards computers. The studies suggested that older adults had rather negative attitudes towards computers. And it is since then, that we seem to have been stuck in the past with long held beliefs and myths about older people and computers that just don’t seem to go away.
What is really important to note is the context that this early research took place within. It was in a time when computer use consisted mainly of text processing, spreadsheet calculations and database operations. These tasks were of low relevance to the everyday lives of older people and, therefore, of little interest to them. Hence in all likelihood their responses to not wanting to use computers.
But beginning in the mid-1990s, the purpose of computer usage changed. The Internet and its two main applications, e-mail communication and the supply of information became increasingly interesting for older people. Most of them did not purchase computers to perform traditional computing tasks, but rather to access the Internet. This has appeared in many studies to be an activity in its own right rather than merely a computer task. This tendency has been strongly supported by the availability of devices that do not resemble a traditional computer.
The triumph of the tablet PC, such as the iPad among older users is a good example of how interest can be evoked when easy-to-use hardware, well-designed software and attractive functionality/content are combined.
This usage and acceptance of computing as part of everyday lives of older people, although well researched and documented does not seem to have the same traction as the first early research. It could be the media portrayal of older people as stuck in the past and generally not able to accept change and new modern things such as is the ageism we still see to this day that very much keeps this myth alive.
Surely, it is also our responsibility to check in with our unconscious bias when we think about older people and computers. Are we designing with research conducted over 40 years ago? Check.
Are we guilty of adopting the damaging ageist attitudes about older people and computers that still seems to be perpetuated today? Check.
If so, then its time to succeed by using the inspiring new technology to support older people in their daily tasks, by asking them about their needs, deriving their user requirements and creating truly useful products they can use effectively, comfortably and joyfully. With the easy access, far reach and rapid updates of todays ‘app stores’, older people may well have more and better choice than ever before, providing a very good chance to get what they need. Although it is fair to say that the high need for security of older people often prevents them from trying many new technologies. Well then providing increased assurances and secure gateways is surely not beyond the imagination and skills of developers today.
In summary, the reality appears to be far more complex than the myth suggests. Older people are interested in using computers and new technology. There will of course, still be a degree of stratification and segmentation. Not ALL older people want to use computers but that does not mean that the sentiment applies across a whole age group. So lets break apart Myth 2 and ensure that we check in on who and what we are designing for by actually asking the potential older user. Check.