Constructing the Older User in Home-Based Ubiquitous Computing

L. Jean Camp and Kalpana Shankar


There is a growing body of technology studies literature on the mutual shaping of technology and the “user” (Oudshoorn and Pinch 2003) and how the designer mediates that process. Also, there is a great deal of interest in the creative abilities of users of new technologies to shape, adapt, and resist the design and use of technology in all its phases. Individuals bring their previous experiences, concerns, and anxieties to the process of evaluating and adopting new technologies for their own use; designers, of course, do the same to the design process. Designer and user cultures can potentially clash (Forsythe 1996). In the realm of technology for aging, or gerontology, where the (usually) young male designers are in the business of designing for an aging, often female population, more research is needed (Oudshoorn, Rommes, and Stienstra 2004).

In this paper, we build upon and extend the work of Oudshoorn, Pinch, and others in privileging the use and users by turning our attention to the mutual construction of aging and technology and the processes by which older adult users frame, adopt, adapt, and resist pervasive technology in the home. We present results from a four year study on in-home ubiquitous computing, or ubicomp, for aging in place. Beginning with an interest in creating privacy-sensitive technologies with an eye to end-user control of data, our research developed a suite of prototypes to enable information control of home-based ubicomp by older adults and their family/informal caregivers. After an initial series of focus group evaluations with older adults in which they examined and critiqued these prototypes, we altered, rejected, or stabilized them. Still emphasizing end-user control of privacy, we created a touch screen control panel that would give the end user the ability to examine, control, and block the transmission of presence, motion, and related data generated by the prototypes. Using either a suite of prototypes and the control panel, a suite of prototypes without the control panel, and a “control group” that received a smart phone and a paper calendar, we implemented an eight-week in-situ study of use in the homes of eight elders. We collected brief daily interviews, in-depth weekly interviews, and quantitative information on use and non-use of the prototypes and the control panel we had designed through which the research participants could interact with and manage the prototypes.

Drawing upon results from these studies, we discuss the mutual shaping of aging and technology in two interrelated ways. First, we reflect upon and critically examine our own design assumptions and our construction of a framework of risk and privacy in home based computing, and how this framework reflected and was shaped by our views of aging in the home and the nature of privacy. To give a brief example, much of the research on technologies in the homes of elders focuses on detecting anomalies in activities of daily living (ADLs). Several of the prototypes were designed to give subtle indications of ADLs, depending on where they were placed in the home. While elders did not object to this use, they would much rather use the technology to detect an emergency, such as a fall. However, some of the elders who had themselves been informal caregivers, were appreciative of being able to “see” if someone had gotten up in the morning without having to phone every day. This highlights the possible differences, and tensions, between designers, older adults, and potentially informal caregivers when choosing technologies for aging in place.

In the second section, we also explore how the focus groups and in-situ studies challenged our framings by revealing the ways in which the older adults worked around our technologies and how they perceived privacy. For example, several of the prototypes we developed were “bidirectional” paired technologies, where the older adult would have a reciprocal view into the lives of the people (family members or friends) who had the paired technology. While some elders enjoyed the reciprocal nature of these prototypes that could give them insights into their children’s lives, several were uncomfortable with asking their children to permit this. The elders felt that they might intrude. However, when probed further, they admitted that while they liked the idea but would not ask about it. This suggests that there is a delicate balance of power and negotiation that must be navigated to make these prototypes useful.

Lastly, we explore how non-use and resistance were expressed, primarily in the in situ studies. The users’ framings of privacy (and how they shifted over the course the project), the language of the control panel, and the perceived utility or nonutility of the various prototypes proved to be important considerations. We also consider the role of the various caregivers who received the paired technologies and their potential role in shaping use and non-use. We conclude by discussing the contributions of these findings to designing for values.


Forsythe, D.E. (1996). New bottles, old wine: hidden cultural assumptions in a computerized explanation system for migraine sufferers. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 10,4, 551-574.

Oudshoorn, N., Rommes, E., and Stienstra, M. (2004). Configuring the user as everybody: gender and design cultures in information and communication technologies. Science, Technology, and Human Values, 29, 1, 30-63.

Oudshoorn, N. and Pinch, T. (2003). How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technologies. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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