Aging, E-literacy, and Technology: Participatory User-centered Design for Older Adults’ Digital Engagement

Proposal Title: 
Aging, E-literacy, and Technology: Participatory User-centered Design for Older Adults’ Digital Engagement

Though computer technology has increasingly changed peoples’ experience of digital literacy practices in the contemporary world, very little attention has been given towards older adults’ e-literacy learning practices. Therefore, to benefit older adults extensively, I propose a participatory user-centered design model through which I seek to illuminate a pathway towards a potential involvement of older adults with computer technology. Such involvement, I argue, can be afforded by deploying usability in product design for older adults. I contend that participatory user-centered design can also substantially allow us to promote social justice as older adults continue reciprocal e-literacy learning practices in the modern digital times. 


Awareness of the importance of e-literacy for older adults and the recognizance that designers should consider the ways of effectively deploying usability for older adults in technological products has very slowly brought into being a type of user-centered technology design that had largely been absent in the past. However, we have still not been able to adequately address the needs of e-literacy— the knowledge and ability to use computers, the Internet, and related technology efficiently— in the life of older adults, a fast growing population in recent years. In order to augment older adults’ participation in e-literacy learning practices, sufficient attention should be given to what Jesse James Garrett calls “user experience design,” the product that is designed with the user experience (p. 7). In other words, to benefit older adults from e-literacy learning practices, technology should be designed with the user experience because product designed in this way does what it promises to do (Garrett, p. 7). Many usability specialists have advocated either participatory design and/or user-centered design, which, I believe, are not sufficient ones to address usability issues of older adults. Following the path led by Donald Norman (1988), Pelle Ehn (1992), Jacob Nielsen (1993), and Robert Johnson (1998), Michael J. Salvo (2001), for instance, argue for the need to consider users at the center of technology design. Applying the collaborative design method or what he calls “user participatory method” to the design process, Salvo supports the collaborative design which “not only relies on participant with users, but defines designer, expert, and user roles in innovative ways” (p. 274).  Such a sentiment is echoed in Ann Brady’s (2004) “Rhetorical Research: Toward a User-Centered Approach,” in which she asserts the importance of usability and participant design theory in technical communication. Brady proposes a reciprocal research methodology, which includes “project participants in discussions about the purpose and design of our research before we launch it and as we navigate it” (p. 58). For Brady, human factors, usability, and participatory design factors increase the change of reciprocity between researchers and participant-as-users in several ways. This situation also allows the designers to recognize the relationship between the participants as technology-users and the technological artifacts themselves.

Along with the advent of networked technology, human beings have, thus, been unprecedentedly benefitted from the use of such technological products. However, a segment of population still seems to be left behind to enjoy modern technology because neither designers nor human factors researchers have sufficiently orient toward the rapid growth of older adult populations and their technology use. In “Technology and the Everyday Life of Older Adults,” Sara J. Czaja and Robin A. Barr (1989) ask how an aging society adjusts to the changing activity of human life when they involve in the use of some form of electronic technology or computerization (p. 128). While examining the impacts of networked technology on older adults’ life, many researchers have presumably indicated the deficit aspects of aging as a problem for learning practices (Morris, 2007, Scialfa et al., 2004 & Bloch et al., 2011); but it is important to note that the population of older adults is very heterogeneous and no single factor can determine the meanings of old age. In discussing aging and older adults’ use of computer technology for e-literacy, my goal in this paper is to map a model that might resolve, at least, some of the consequences or pitfalls of deficit model of aging for “e-literacy” development and practices among older adults. A deficit model of aging emphasizes that learning process declines as we advance in age. Against this model, I propose a participatory user-centered design model to promote social justice by enabling older adults to engage actively in reciprocal literacy learning practices in modern digital times. 

This proposal relates to the conference theme and extends conversation in the field in two ways. First, it discusses how we can empower older adults to participate in e-literacy learning practices in a more meaningfully way, and second it proposes a model to accomplish the purposed goal.
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