Modern families are often widely geographically distributed (Grundy, 1996); this contributes to isolation and necessitates indirect methods of communication, such as telephone or letter. Age-related impairments, including declines in visual and auditory perception and difficulties with speech production are all likely to impede indirect communication. Communicating by telephone puts the older person at the mercy of the other’s speech clarity and their patience with repeating themselves. Similarly, the older recipient of a letter has no control over the visual characteristics of the text: the writer’s handwriting, choice of pen and paper colour or the size of text. The ability to hold a pen and exert the necessary force to write is frequently lost with the onset of age-related motor control impairments.
These barriers to successful communication can cause negative emotions, both for the older person and for the correspondent (see Shadden, 1988 p.31 on the social effects of hearing loss) which may result in increased isolation and the reduction of opportunities for communication. A significant aid to the solution to many of these problems can be found by using computer-based communication: communication suitably mediated by the computer can enable the older correspondent to read text (or listen to audio) in a format suitable for them; it is possible to read messages in large, well-spaced text, and to increase the volume of audio messages and replay them - or sections from them - as often as the recipient desires. Likewise, the input of messages can take place by whatever means are most suited to that user, using a touch screen, a suitably configured keyboard, or speech.
Yet this potential has not been realised; most older people are excluded from computer-based forms of communication by inappropriate design of both hardware and software: Microsoft’s Outlook Express, for example, the email system normally used by Internet Service Providers, is extremely complicated with 250 different options presented in five panels and six menus. Recent figures from the UK Department for Education and Skills show that fewer than 6% of those aged 70-80 use the internet. This compares to 69% internet use among the 15-30 age group, a figure that is hardly surprising since it is this younger age group that is responsible for most software design.
The proposed research concerns the development of a usable and appropriate multi-modal computer-based communication application for older people with no experience of computer use, and a subsequent examination of the effects of such a device on user wellbeing.
The development of a truly usable communication application is not straightforward. Commercial software excludes many of those with sensory, cognitive and motor control impairments as well as those who are unaccustomed to software conventions (Dickinson et al. 2003) and so prevents many older people from accessing the potential benefits of computer-based systems.
Research at Applied Computing and elsewhere has demonstrated that it is possible to develop appropriate and usable systems for older users. The DfES-funded Cybrarian proof of concept, an industry-researcher collaboration, showed that it was possible to develop a communication system which was both significantly easier to use and also preferred to industry standard software by older, inexperienced computer users (Dickinson et al., submitted). Hawthorn has also established some important design criteria for email systems for older users ( Hawthorn, 2002). SeeWord research demonstrates that non-typical users can be enabled to personalise displays to suit their individual needs (Gregor et al., 2003). The CIRCA project, for users with dementia, demonstrates that computer systems can be created that are suitable for people with a range of cognitive and sensory impairments (Alm et al., 2004). The tools and support to develop a communication device are available within the Division of Applied Computing, and a dedicated centre on technology and older people, the Queen Mother Research Centre, will open in 2005. In addition, specific projects will provide the technical support necessary for the development work: an ongoing project with Microsoft provides the flexible tools to create a dedicated communication device, and a project with IBM provides access to state of the art customisation facilities.
The objectives of the proposed project are:
There are important acceptance issues in having new technology introduced into the home that will need to be properly explored before the final hardware and software can be decided. It is anticipated that a possible hardware device may be a small, touch screen PC, rather than a large, intrusive “computer”. The difficulties of communicating with older people about technologies have been reported (Eisma et al., 2004) and the initial exploration phase will include techniques such as the use of drama, video and hands on examination of technologies. The usability and appropriateness of the system will be evaluated throughout its development with different groups of older users using a range of appropriate methods, including workshops, discussion groups and laboratory-based usability studies. The approach will be user-centred, utilising the User Sensitive Inclusive Design methodology pioneered at Applied Computing in Dundee (Newell et al., 2000).
Once such a usable system is developed, it will be possible to use it to examine ways to support communication more actively; text prediction can dramatically decrease the number of letters that need to be typed; audio output could be personalised to compensate for hearing loss across specific frequencies. Other means of supporting communication can also be explored: for example, whether live video meetings are wanted or acceptable and whether short messages, akin to postcards, would be a useful facility.
The development of a computer-based system that was acceptable to, and usable by, older people would also provide an important tool for further research. Applications could be developed based on the usable style of the communication application and these could be run from the device. The research will also contribute to a body of research on the influence of computers on older people’s wellbeing. Computers have been introduced into homes for the frail elderly and the results of these studies appear to suggest that the introduction of computers has a positive effect on elderly users’ wellbeing (see, for example, McConatha et al., 1994). In studies where email was offered, it was the most popular and widely-used application among the elderly users (Danowski and Sacks, 1980; McConatha et al., 1994). A weakness of these studies, however, is that the use of standard commercial software (and, in most cases, hardware - see Sherer, 1997 for an exception to this) meant that a very high level of support was needed to make it possible for the older users to use, and continue to use, the computers. Most studies involved an initial training period and then supervised group sessions with the computers (see, for example, Cody et al., 1999). The high level of training and person-to-person contact necessitated by the use of inappropriate software confounds any study into the wellbeing of older users before and after the training periods.
A system developed to be usable by older people without the need for large amounts of training and support would not only enable many more people to benefit from computer-mediated communication, it would also increase the likelihood of the long-term use of such a system.
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