Attitudes towards Attention and Aging: What Differences between Younger and Older Adults Tell Us about Mobile Technology Design

Attitudes towards Attention and Aging: What Differences between Younger and Older Adults Tell Us about Mobile Technology Design

Amy Jenkins (Swansea University, Swansea, UK), Parisa Eslambolchilar (Swansea University, Swansea, UK), Stephen Lindsay (Swansea University, Swansea, UK), Monika Hare (Swansea University, Swansea, UK), Ian M. Thornton (Department of Cognitive Science, University of Malta, Msida, Malta) and Andrea Tales (Swansea University, Swansea, UK)
Copyright: © 2016 |Pages: 22
DOI: 10.4018/IJMHCI.2016040103


Errors in interaction with digital devices are typically blamed on human factors such as poor attention. However, the influence of attention upon the quality of human-device interaction is commonly overlooked in product design. Developers rely on feedback through user centred design, but do developers, typically younger adults, understand what an older user means, or experiences, in terms of “attention” and appreciate that fundamental conceptual and experiential differences may exist? The authors examine differences between older and younger adults' concepts of attention in relation to mobile-device use to inform future development. Two participant groups consisted of 11 younger adults (18-30 years) and 12 older adults (65+ years). Qualitative analyses revealed three themes ‘personal understanding of attention', ‘attention is dependent on...', and ‘impact of ageing'.
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The design of mobile technologies and their interfaces has evolved dramatically over the past decade in the hope of making them easier to use. They pervade many aspects of everyday life but, among older adults, the technology is frequently still seen as fiddly, awkward to use, frustrating, distracting or somehow inappropriate. Even amongst older adults who were introduced to the technology while still working, the constraints of a mobile interface can make using their devices seem cumbersome. Errors in interaction with digital devices are typically blamed on human factors such as poor attention and forgetfulness (Thimbleby, 2007). Mobile devices’ smaller interfaces present obvious challenges to older users whose senses and co-ordination typically decline with age (Li & Lindenberger, 2002; Lin et al., 2014). This decline is widely known of, although not routinely addressed by designers (Gregor, Newell, & Zacijek, 2002). We argue that a critical element of mobile design is often overlooked when trying to understand the disconnectedness observed between older adults and their devices: attention-related differences between typically younger users and designers and older users. This oversight is interesting as mobile designers know their technologies are used on-the-go in environments where there are many distractions and they take account of this influence of the environment on interaction with their devices (Lee & Benbassat, 2003). Even worse, the device itself can be intrinsically distracting. If the mobile device is difficult to use, awkward or frustrating, then attention will be focused on this rather than on the actual task. Only information at the focus of attention tends to be processed to the high levels required for optimum cognition, perception and action. Irrelevant attentional capture, can therefore lead to a reduction in the efficiency of information processing, memory, cognition, perception and behaviour. Such factors may affect the use of mobile devices by older adults to a greater extent than for younger adults as multidisciplinary research indicates that some aspects of attention-related function and immunity to distraction decline in efficiency with increasing age: factors rarely considered in relation to product development. However, the potential importance of such factors is highlighted by emerging evidence that indicates that decline in cognitive functioning affects the speed and accuracy of using complex technological products in older adults (Blackler, Mahar, & Popovic, 2010; Lewis, Langdon, & Clarkson, 2007; Lewis, Langdon, & Clarkson, 2008; Groth & Allen, 2000).

Understanding these issues is challenging as, from a cultural perspective, younger and older adults may interpret their own capacity for attention in different ways. This poses a serious challenge for the designers of mobile technology who almost exclusively belong to younger demographics (Gregor, Newell, & Zajicek, 2002; Newell & Gregor, 2000; Pullin & Newell, 2007). Moreover, it has a significant impact on interpreting the outcome of a product test through user experience design; the older user and the younger designer may not be in line in terms of communication. Although attention is a word or concept in common use, we know little of what the general public understand by it. A lack of correspondence between what the public and device-designers understand by attention, how it might relate to the use of a device, the production of errors and what factors can affect it, is therefore likely to result in a sub-optimum product design. For example, if a designer wanted to discuss attention would both he/she and the older person understand that term in the same way and have the same descriptors and interpretation of its effects? Does the developer see the attentional related aspects of the interface as potentially different in older and younger adult users? Are errors the same in young and older adults?

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