The information includes how energetic their current activity is, for example whether they are conducting an active task such as gardening, or a relaxing and restful one such as reading a book.
By designing the device to evoke technology with which people will feel instantly familiar, we’re using the principle of design metaphors. Most people find it easier to interact with devices that resemble products they have already used. In cognitive psychology, this is known as inferential learning, referring to when someone applies established knowledge in their brain to a new context. The design of our “radio” device makes it easier for users to work out how to use it, based on their previous interactions with traditional radios–even though it has a very different function.
Giving users control
There are plenty of systems that enable people to monitor older family members. But usually these are fully passive, where the older adults are observed directly through cameras and sensors around their homes. Or they are fully active, for example mobile phones that require the older adults to stop what they’re doing and respond right away.
Instead, our device lets people choose the level of communication they want. It runs in the background and doesn’t transmit detailed information such as images of people in their homes. This makes it a much less intrusive way of letting someone know you’re okay.
We also wanted to make the device very easy to understand, interpret, and remember. So rather than having an information screen that showed text or images, we wanted to create a display that used so-called smart materials to convey what the user was doing. In this context, smart materials are those that can change color, shape, viscosity, or how much light they emit. Our research showed that light-emitting materials were the best way of conveying messages without words for both under and over-60s.
The “radio” is just a research prototype but it has allowed us to understand that the combination of innovative materials and familiar artifacts can be a successful way to encourage aging users to adopt new technologies. In this way, smart materials and design metaphors could help bridge the digital gap and promote innovation among older consumers.