Ageing, adaption and accessibility: Time for the inclusive revolution!

Ageing, adaption and accessibility: Time for the inclusive revolution!

NOTE: The contents of this article were first published in 2012 in Mieczakowski, A. and Clarkson, J. [Editors] (2012) ‘Ageing, Adaption and Accessibility: Time for the Inclusive Revolution!’, ISBN 978-0-9545243-8-8, during my work at the Cambridge Engineering Design Centre.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is becoming increasingly central to many people’s lives, making it possible to be connected in any place at any time, be unceasingly and instantly informed, and benefit from greater economic and educational opportunities. With all the benefits afforded by these new-found capabilities, however, come potential drawbacks. A plethora of new PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones, Bluetooth, the internet, Wi-Fi (the list goes on) expect us to know or be able to guess, what, where and when to connect, click, double-click, tap, flick, scroll, in order to realise these benefits, and to have the physical and cognitive capability to do all these things.

One of the groups most affected by this increase in high-demand technology is older people. They do not understand and use technology in the same way that younger generations do, because they grew up in the simpler electro-mechanical era and embedded that particular model of the world in their minds. Any consequential difficulty in familiarising themselves with modern ICT and effectively applying it to their needs can also be exacerbated by age-related changes in vision, motor control and cognitive functioning. Such challenges lead to digital exclusion.

Much has been written about this topic over the years, usually by academics from the area of inclusive product design. The issue is complex and it is fair to say that no one researcher has the whole picture. It is difficult to understand and adequately address the issue of digital exclusion among the older generation without looking across disciplines and at industry’s and government’s understanding, motivation and efforts toward resolving this important problem. To do otherwise is to risk misunderstanding the true impact that ICT has and could have on people’s lives across all generations. In this European year of Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations and as the British government is moving forward with its Digital by Default initiative as part of a wider objective to make ICT accessible to as many people as possible by 2015, the Engineering Design Centre (EDC) at the University of Cambridge collaborated with BT to produce a book of thought pieces to address, and where appropriate redress, these important and long-standing issues. “Ageing, Adaption and Accessibility: Time for the Inclusive Revolution!” brings together opinions and insights from twenty one prominent thought leaders from government, industry and academia regarding the problems, opportunities and strategies for combating digital exclusion among senior citizens.

The contributing experts were selected as individuals, rather than representatives of organisations, to provide the broadest possible range of perspectives. They are renowned in their respective fields and their opinions are formed not only from their own work, but also from the contributions of others in their area. Their views were elicited through conversations conducted by the editors of this book who then drafted the thought pieces to be edited and
approved by the experts.

The experts contributed the following 21 sets of views on the topics of ageing, people’s adaption to the ever changing world of technology and insights into better ways of designing digital devices and services for the older population:

  1. Including seniors in the overall business and political agenda (based on views from Karin Bendixen, Design for
  2. Making the web work for everyone (based on views from Matt Brittin, Google).
  3. Making the neighbours jealous (based on views from Roger Coleman, Royal College of Art).
  4. Call to arms to fill the ‘know-do’ gap in ICT (based on views from Gerald Craddock, Centre for Excellence in Universal Design).
  5. The power of design and designers (based on views from Hua Dong, Brunel University).
  6. The role of motivation, supported learning and self-efficacy (based on views from Onny Eikhaug, Norwegian Design Council).
  7. ICT, older users and economic viability: Moving beyond ‘special’ to mass customisation (based on views from Valerie Fletcher, Institute for Human Centered Design).
  8. ICT for today’s population, not the population from the last century (based on views from Sally Greengross, House of Lords).
  9. The art of simplicity (based on views from Ian Hosking, University of Cambridge).
  10. ICT, confidence and well-being (based on views from Felicia Huppert, University of Cambridge).
  11. The power of connecting and staying active (based on views from Bonnie Kearney, Microsoft).
  12. The importance of being earnest about user testing (based on views from Nigel Lewis, AbilityNet).
  13. Taking ICT down a notch and delivering it into the hands of the excluded masses (based on views from Helen Milner, UK Online Centres).
  14. Putting older people at the heart of every ICT development (based on views from Johan Molenbroek, Delft Technical University).
  15. Technology is older people phobic, not vice versa (based on views from Alan Newell, University of Dundee).
  16. If inclusive design is good for everyone, why don’t we have it? (based on views from Donald Norman, The Nielsen Norman Group).
  17. Designing for digital grandparents: How inclusion can be implicit yet inspire innovation (based on views from Graham Pullin, University of Dundee).
  18. Time to end the ‘Stone Age’ of inaccessible ICT (based on views from Marjan Sedmak, AGE Platform Europe).
  19. Lessons learnt from the government going digital (based on views from Felicity Singleton, Government Digital Service).
  20. Technological speed vs. accessible and responsible design (based on views from Heinz Wolff, Brunel University).
  21. Focussing on what we could do, not what we are not doing (based on views from Tom Wright, Age UK).

Overall, accessible and easily adaptable Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can be achieved by having technology creators step out of their corporate or ivory tower and join forces with government and academia to create more mindful and motivating technology for real people with naturally diverse needs, capabilities and attitudes.

These 21 thought pieces provide a broad range of views on ageing, adaption and accessibility in the modern digital world. However, with regard to the provision of ICT, they are united in promoting change and a move towards greater inclusion. The consensus is that we are on the right track, as the focus shifts more towards how to provide inclusive ICT, rather than to convince people that it has to be done it in the first place. However, more effort is required to understand older people and their changing abilities and needs, and to appropriately test proposed solutions before they are released.

Change is inevitable, ironically because the ubiquity of ICT is helping older people become intelligent purchasers and increasingly demand accessible technology. There is a strong case for more inclusive products that are not only functional, but also attractive to many more potential users, finally abolishing negative ageist stereotypes. Wider internet use among the ageing population and all the other user groups is essentially about empowerment: providing easy access to ICT equipment, as well as a supportive network of people to encourage and sustain participation.
Better access to ICT can be achieved by using familiar analogies and metaphors, basing technology around multifunction platforms that enable user-alteration of needed apps, layering the user interface with progressively more advanced modes, and increasing visibility of existing accessibility features settings on common software, such as magnifiers and speech recognition.

Ultimately, it is through good design that the world can be made more inclusive and enjoyable for older people. A more responsible approach to the delivery of ICT by business, government and education could bring about significant change. We have the right tools and our designers are capable of designing for us all, but they need to be given a chance and adequate support to do so. Awareness of this challenge and education at all levels are key to Designing Our Tomorrow as we move into an era dominated and enhanced by ICT.