“The world seems to be designed against the elderly” – how can emerging technology work for older people?

by Barbara Barbosa Neves & Frank Vetere
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Critical Gerontology, INCG

Don Norman, who coined user-centered design and wrote the seminal ‘The Design of Everyday things’, noted recently that “Despite our increasing numbers [of older people] the world seems to be designed against the elderly.” His observation at age 83 did not shock sociologists, gerontologists, or computer scientists working in the field of ageing and technology. Like Norman, we have long emphasized the importance of technology design and implementation that respects the heterogenous needs, desires, and aspirations of older people. As evidence mounts on the relationship between digital and social exclusion [1-4], good design is not only a matter of convenience but also of inclusion. Yet, this knowledge is often constrained by disciplinary silos. Due to the complexity of effective design, evaluation, and uptake of digital technologies for/with older people, an interdisciplinary approach is needed to integrate multi-dimensional knowledge and boost our capacity to inform technology design, policy, and public opinion.

This interdisciplinary gap guided our edited collection on the topic, entitled Ageing & Digital Technology: Designing & Evaluating Emerging Technologies for Older Adults (2019, Springer). This book brings together, for the first time, contributions from social and computer scientists involved in the design and study of digital technologies for/with older people. Together, we discuss challenges and opportunities. The collection is divided in three parts: the first provides theoretical and conceptual frameworks, the second offers methodological and ethical considerations, and the third presents case studies from different countries. Central to all chapters is a critique of the recurrent dualistic and simplistic approach to technology impact – i.e., positive versus negative – and an acknowledgement that research and the technology we design can both include and exclude, contingent on its context.

Our aim was to provide a set of enduring reflections, examples, and practices to help ensure that emerging technologies can work for diverse groups of older people rather than excluding them. You can learn more about the book here.


1. Choudrie, J., Kurnia, S., & Tsatsou, P. (Eds.). (2017). Social Inclusion and Usability of ICT-enabled Services. Routledge.
2. Park, S. (2017). The State of Digital Inequalities: Interplay Between Social and Digital Exclusion. In Digital Capital (pp. 35-62). Palgrave Macmillan, London.
3. Neves, B. B., Fonseca, J. R., Amaro, F., & Pasqualotti, A. (2018). Social capital and Internet use in an age-comparative perspective with a focus on later life. PloS one, 13(2), e0192119.
4. Seifert, A., Hofer, M., & Rössel, J. (2018). Older adults’ perceived sense of social exclusion from the digital world. Educational Gerontology, 44(12), 775-785.

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Brian Donovan September 16, 2019 - 8:51 am

This is a most provocative short essay, and I will really have to see about the university getting this book.

One fear I have is that digital technologies are almost colonising every aspect of living today. My academic life has principally been in education, and computers have been moving into virtually all areas of schooling at every level (from early primary school to universities) with only second thoughts (at that) being focussed on the educational impacts of those technologies.

For example, a large ‘computer company’ funds research within one particular university which must lead to the question: if s/he who pays the piper calls the tune, what tune is being played within our schools?’ But that question is not asked. Rather, the question has turned into ‘HOW can computers be inserted into school classrooms?’

Before asking how, it might be worth asking WHY computers in schools. Establishing a precise motive for putting computers in schools, or promoting computers with older adults, might be more discerning.

Social isolation is a tricky topic as there are people (young and old) who make a conscious choice to be isolated. As well, there are now, and will likely always be, people who choose NOT to use specific techologies. But how many people are choosing not to use technologies, but finding themselves isolated socially?

Larry Rosen’s book, ‘iDisorder’ pops into my mind here. As a practicing psychologist, Rosen documents a large number of psychological ailments that ubitiquous technologies appear to be afflicting on people, young and old. Do we really need more obsessive compulsive people, or people with reduced attention spans? This applies to both schooling and society more generally.

Rather than focussing on promoting technologies into any social demographic, it might be wiser to explore whether technologies create their own forms of social isolation. Such an exploration might also delve into the origin of the digital technologies we use. Is there any digital technology, for instance, that does not (at some level) derive from US military intelligence? From ARPAnet (MILnet) to drones, both of which are in public/popular use today spring to mind. But how many people are aware of that?

Being more circumspect in how technologies are used, could result in people (both individually and collectively) having control over those technologies, rather than companies and technologies having control over people.

Young and old.



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