Friday, June 27, 2008

Supportive Technology and Design for Healthy Aging

This week, the University of Washington's Institute on Aging hosted the third conference focused on technology for our aging population. The numbers you know: 10% of the world's population was over age 60 in 2002. By 2050, 21% will be over the age of 60. (I'll hopefully be there, too)
By 2025, 1.2 BILLION people will be over age 60. Sixty seems to be a very random magic number. I will pause here to say that from my life and my research, 80 is the new 60. Frailness and serious decline are more prevalent.

Nevertheless, we are a more crowded planet and people all over the world are living longer, hopefully healthier lives. Technology can help people stay in their own homes longer by offering physiological feedback, memory assistance, aids for socialization and sharing this data with family and health care professionals as needed.

One interesting theme was living spaces. There is a push to move towards new models. Lydia Lundberg of Elite Care here in Portland shared its unique set up. While residents have private rooms, they are in townhouses, not high rises or buildings with hundreds of people. They are in shared homes. They take meals together in small groups in a local kitchen. Small residences also avoid walks down long halls for already frail individuals. Residents are asked to wear an RFID tag that captures their location. There are no gates, but wanderers with Alzheimer's are usually stopped by a sprinkler system that turns on if they veer off campus. Family members can check in through a portal on their loved one(s) to see their level of activity, time spent in bed, weight, and other vital stats. It's a great view to the nursing home of the future.

Victor Regnier March discussed his research on housing for the elderly in Europe. After his presentation, we had a conversation about intergenerational housing, a concept that seems remarkably undeveloped in this country. Co-housing allows like minded people to live cooperatively and make group choices on their communal living spaces. When elderly residents live in these arrangements, the upside is that their neighbors are not all over 70. The downside is that because they are often retired or working fewer hours, they are expected to do the less desirable work. Resentment builds and the community is at odds. Generally, intergenerational housing seems like a fantastic idea, done well at the Natalie Salmon House in Chicago where students and seniors live side by side. Students get reduced rent and a grandparent figure, since many don't have grandparents or are living far away. Seniors get some liveliness and able bodied neighbors as well as meal and healthcare assistance. The idea of college, pre-school and mixed age housing should be a natural, but in the U.S. especially, we seem to feel the need to push all of the elderly into a corner and ask them to live together.

Two final talks focused on robots as assistive technology for the elderly. Maja Mataric and Jim Osborn discussed how robots and robotics can assist the elderly with everything from socialization to facial recognition. Maja talked at length about how robots were used to motivate individuals to participate in therapy and promote generative play. She also talked about the research pairing people with "like minded" robots, that is a more "extroverted" robot with a more extroverted person. This match made for a stronger attachment and led to a longer engagement in key activities. Though the robots are not due on the market any time soon, the research should be used as a resource for those making brain games and interactive web sites for seniors.
More on Day 2 tomorrow...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Buxton and Design

Bill Buxton, one of the early user experience researchers, came to Portland last night as he was invited by our local CHIfoo.

There is definitely more than a blog post of information to report from this entertaining and enlightening lecture. (the man kept my attention for 2 solid hours, not an easy task)
The Big Idea of the lecture was twofold, in my opinion. He spent time talking about how designers are underrepresented in management and how poorly that effects a company. The larger message was that design doesn't happen in a void. Everything happening socially, economically, physically around that product, service or interface helps to create what the final piece will eventually become.
Some of my favorite quotes and ideas:
  • We need to continue to make the computer go towards the user, not force the user to the computer. In other words, make it intuitive, make it make sense, don't make me have to learn it.
  • "It is not failure, but expansive/expensive? education"
  • Users subjectively overrate what they see
  • Being able to "read" a sketch is as important as being able to make one
  • Figure out what makes you distinct, that's your value. (As a consultant, I think about this one a lot.)
He spent quite a bit of time on sketching and prototyping. The piece that is stuck in my mind refers to a comment about having 999,000 ideas, 998,999 of which don't make it to the product. I would challenge that phrasing. The 998,999 sketches not "used" all are somehow in that final product, and if not, the fact that they are not present was a choice. The choice not to choose, is still a choice. The ideas may not be visibly present, but conceptually, all roads, and all sketches, lead to the product solution.

What struck me most was his ability to seamlessly be an interface designer, design researcher, user experience lead, software architect, design manager -- and probably others. Though we do need to know what makes us distinct, how we add value to a team, that value changes for any given team and the overlap between product/interface and product/service design is becoming muddier and muddier. I believe this is a good thing. If we overcompartmentalize ourselves, we end up with an interface that doesn't fit the product or a service idea from marketing that can't be carried out by the interface designer. The ability to seamlessly flow and wear different hats depending on the group, the project or the topic can help build interesting, well rounded and effective teams.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Everyone Old is Young Again

Courtesy of: SparkleGlowplug

Wednesday was my first day back at the gym after breaking my leg. I hobbled in and hoped for the best. After doing 20 steady minutes on the stationary bike as instructed by my physical therapist, I headed to the downstairs to do use the weight machines.

As I walked down, I realized there was a "Silver Sneakers" class, an exercise class focused on seniors. Here's where it got interesting. These seniors all seemed to have working limbs. My 41 year old self was only able to walk with the assistance of a cane.

I moved into the room with the weight machines and at a break in the class, the seniors did too. I was doing minimum weight on many machines, they were doing a few more. As I did my sit ups and listened to their conversation, I heard talk of friends and foes, email and technology (some love it, some hate it). The best bit I overheard was the woman who said,"I don't have a computer or a cell phone, I don't like technology, heck I don't even have a dishwasher!"

But the interesting thing was how vital, interesting and interested this group was, and how frail I felt in their presence. It's a great testament to the aging population that they are like a group of teenagers, having conversations about email and sharing ideas about technology, their friends and how much weight they can lift. May we all live to enjoy a healthy retirement.
By then we may all be marveling at/complaining about too much brainmail and what a pain it is when all of this communication traffic comes in through our implanted receivers that allow calls and letters to automatically pop up right in our eyes and ears.

Of course, in Japan, they have it all figured out and will be using new technology to help the elderly gain needed strength. Who needs the gym when you have a RoboSuits. 'Nuf said.

Monday, June 2, 2008


The word has been in the wind, now the newspapers are writing about it so it must be a trend. It's twittering. I will say, upfront, I have yet to try twittering. With curiosity, I read the news article and then went to the Twitter site, but I have to admit I'm still unclear on the draw. (They do, however, have an incredibly clever video introducing twitter with simple paper cut outs that make me feel much better about my drawing skills...)
They say it's a way to stay in touch with friends, longer than a text, shorter than a blog entry or an IM. Between Facebook, a Blog, potentially a website and texting, does anyone have time to twitter? What can they twitter about other than the fact that they are keeping up with their blog/text/IM/website? Do I really need to know that my friend went to Starbucks at 2 pm today or sat down and read a book at 7?
The change in what being "social is" is interesting. People say we are more disconnected, technology is a way to connect. In general, I agree. There are people I am in touch with from college and even highschool that I may never have reconnected with had we not had email, or even facebook. Twitter may be much the same, but frankly, I'm technologied out. Must we really share every detail of our lives with potentially 500 or 1000 contacts? (numbers mentioned in the newspaper article)
I will also admit that these sites raise the bar on cleverness. Anyone on Facebook knows that "drinking a cup of coffee" is not really the answer to "what are you doing?" Catchy phrases are definitely preferred "jonesing for a java in janestown" (ok, it's still not that catchy, that's why I have social networking anxiety) So now, if I want to tell my friends about the play I saw the book I read or the fact that I walked in the woods, I need to: get to the appropriate technology, be witty, post it, then go on with the next witty and wonderful thing on my calendar.
For now, my answer to "what are you doing?" is "contemplating a twitterless life." Sad, but true.