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Impact of Smartphones on the experience of mid-life people

Research work to analyze the common smartphone usage patterns, difficulties, and psychological impacts for people in the age range of 43-92.

The aim of this research project was to gather collective data to better understand smartphone usage patterns, challenges, and psychological impact on mid-life people. We used interviews and semi-observation methods to conduct studies with a total of 19 people in the age range of 43-92 and discovered that the person’s comfort and ease of use of the smartphone is inversely
proportional to his age.
The older the person, the more unfamiliar and hesitant he is in his
usage of the phone
. We also found creative and diverse ways in which smartphones are used
by different people. We tried to break down the steps of different use cases and analyzed the role of
interface design issues militating against the usability for elderly.
Research Duration
May 2020 - July 2020
(3 months - In a team of 4)
My role
UX researcher
Prof. kalyan sasidhar
Region of interest
Gujarat, India
Why is there a need to study relationship between older adults and smartphones?
The younger generation has grown up with smartphones and has adapted to them. In contrast, there exists a usability gap for older people, for whom, digital technology is a completely different ballgame from what they were accustomed to. Smartphones are slowly becoming very essential in daily life, with activities like paying bills, booking travel tickets and accommodation, ordering food, scheduling appointments, etc being shifted online. If any person does not know how to carry out such tasks with a smartphone, it is possible that they will have to be dependent on others. It can take away their independence and also prevent them from making their activities efficient.

Smartphones are ubiquitous and available to people from every income bracket. Hence, the group that struggles in adapting to smartphones is the age group of elderly people. To make sure that every age group in society is up to the pace of the developing technology, it is important to make sure that the elderly people are comfortable with the use of technology. To do so poses a challenge, as the design needs to accommodate their cognitive capabilities as well as dependence on vernacular language and social context.
The research questions we were trying to explore through this study
The aim of the project was to interact with the elderly and glean information about their perspective on a smartphone. We tried to
understand the deeper meaning of the smartphone in the social context in which it was being used, the difficulties in using the smartphone, and how they can be overcome through design.

Below are the focus research questions explored
What is the current state of smartphone usage by elderly people?
What were the ways they learned to use smartphones initially?
What are the difficulties they face while using smartphones because of the non-use-centered interface features?
What are some of the emotions elicited through interactions with smartphones?
How did we plan to conduct this study?
First, we created a list of potential interviewees based on their availability for the interview and the demographic required for this research. All four members interviewed participants of different ages through in-person interviews or video calls, with semi-observational sessions in-between to understand how they use their smartphones to perform daily activities.

We asked similar sets of questions - how long do they use their phones, which apps do they use, why and how do they use them, how did they learn to use smartphones, who helped them when they were stuck, etc. We also asked them a few questions to understand their anthropological view on using smartphones and the impact of smartphones on their and their family’s life.
What were our key insights?
We got a lot of information about their perspective on a smartphone - what the word smartphone meant to them. For some of them, a smartphone was analogous to Whatsapp. While for some of them, a smartphone was their way of winding down after caring for the entire family. The smartphone wasn’t just a device with some functionalities, it had a lot of emotions associated with it. It was a way of checking up on loved ones, letting them know that one as well, and forwarding any good thoughts or advice, basically, all the actions possible through a smartphone have a psychological impact.

Below are the detailed summaries for each question.
What is their daily smartphone usage?
82 Minutes
This is the average phone usage of 19 participants. The usage time has been told by the participant and it may vary if we actually test it using any inbuilt monitoring app.
How do they use the phone?
Double handed use
Mid-aged people mostly use their smartphones with two hands, one to hold the phone and the other to use the interface. This behavior is contradictory to the younger generation’s way of using smartphones, which includes single-handed use. This behavior was noticed while using smartphones because most mid-aged people feel this way is more comfortable and less risky.
What purposes do they use their smartphones for?
Normal calls
Inbuilt messaging 
Clock app
Messaging through WhatsApp to stay connected
Social interaction and entertainment through Facebook
Watching videos on YouTube
Using regional news apps to stay updated 
Most elderly people use normal contact books and calling apps to communicate whenever needed. In fact, this is the primary reason which they started using phones.
We observed that most people use the normal messaging app to see internet service messages, OTP, finance-related messages, order delivery messages etc. They rarely use it to communicate with others.
They use it to set up alarms, but rarely use other functionalities of it such as stopwatch and timer.
Elderly people started using WhatsApp to communicate and stay connected. But as time passed, they started using it for various purposes such as video calling, joining community groups for the latest information and news, and putting their current activities on status.
Mid-aged people use Facebook mostly to see their friends’ activities through their posts, to wish others on their birthdays, to watch information and entertainment videos, and sometimes post their own activities. Most of them use Facebook for its primary purpose and not for some of its advanced use cases.
This is the way for many of the elderly people to pass their free time or sometimes to get needful information. Many people use it to watch recipe videos, religious talks, health and fitness videos, medical home remedies, sports, news, etc. Most of them are used to watching videos suggested on their feed or by searching a keyword. We saw less use of other functionalities such as subscription list, history, and watch later.
Some people use regional news apps to stay updated on the latest news or to read books/magazines in their free time. Many of them prefer vernacular languages over English because they are more comfortable with the vernacular languages as compared to English.
Watching series on Hotstar, MX player etc
Few people use streaming apps to watch web series, reality shows, or movies. It is not a very common pattern seen among elderly people. For many of them, the serials are set up on their phone by their younger family member (app login, saved to favorites etc)
Exercising with follow-along videos
Some people who like to stay fit and healthy use the follow-along videos on youtube, live streams on Facebook, or Zoom call. They use the link being circulated on social media apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook to join these streams. However, they do not specifically search for such live streams on google. Sometimes they use YouTube to watch exercise-related videos.
Using banking applications
Very few people use banking applications for limited purposes. Most elderly people don’t use it as they find it more risky and complex to use. They prefer the face-to-face financial dealing that they have been accustomed to.
Google to answer questions
Some people use Google to find relevant information, to use some government websites when needed, etc.
The difficulties they faced when started using smartphones
Sensitivity of touch screens compared to dial pads
People who transitioned from using dial pads to using smartphones faced the difficulty of being accustomed to the sensitivity of touch screens. In the beginning, they struggled to use smartphones because of misclicking, putting too much pressure on the touchscreen, the quick response of the interface, inability to scroll properly, getting used to virtual keyboard and dial-pad, finding a way to go back, and many other issues created due to dissimilarities between smartphone and dial-pad.
Navigating through screens with new gestures
People transitioning from dial pads to smartphones and also new users of smartphones found it difficult to use smartphones with new gestures such as pinching to zoom in or zoom out, scrolling, or swiping. It took time for them to remember different gestures for different purposes in the beginning.
Difficulty in Identifying icons
Most people struggled to identify icons. For example, a participant didn’t know the meaning of the link icon of WhatsApp which is used to attach other forms of messages such as images, videos, documents, etc. There are also other examples of participants not identifying icons. This is an interface design issue that obstructs their process of accomplishing a goal.
Getting familiar with English (Language barrier)
Smartphones mostly come with inbuilt English language, therefore most of the people knowing only regional language found it difficult to use them due to the language barrier. However, current smartphones provide regional language support and also regional keyboards. But some people also struggled to get familiar and accustomed to the regional keyboard.
Hesitant to learn new things due to fear of making errors
Most of the people we interviewed accepted that they do not try to use any new functionalities they are not already familiar with as they feel it might lead them to undesired results. They prefer to learn new things from someone and then try to use them.
Had to remain dependent on people
As most of the people were new to smartphones and scared of trying new functionalities, they had to remain dependent on others to learn. This made them feel a little bit helpless and irritated sometimes
Different ways of learning smartphones
Asking family/friends to help
Most of the people learnt using smartphones from their family or friends. Some people note down the steps and keep practicing to get used to
Associating colors with actions
People associated red color with alert/off and green with safe/on. This way they were able to identify the state of their action.
Demo videos and classes
In some of the communities in Qatar, volunteers taught the elderly about smartphones and different functionalities of phones. People joined such classes or watched demo videos to learn.
Using shapes and colors as cues rather than text
The first reason for people to use colors and shapes as cues were the language barrier. As most people are not familiar with English, it's far easier for them to remember actions through visual cues such as colors and shapes rather than text. For example, red means to close or go back. Green means to turn on or start. Additionally, sometimes text can not be legible enough in some situations which leads them to rely on visual cues.
Most common issues while using the phone, which can be considered not being UCD
Too much information at the same time
Sometimes, one screen shows so much information at a time that it overwhelms the user. It impedes their effort of finding the relevant information they are looking for and also delays the task they want to do, leading to frustration. Therefore, it’s better to keep only essential information on a screen and in a legible form of text for the elderly to get their task done easily. For example, the Facebook landing screen has a lot of information and functionalities, most of which do not end up being used as they are not intuitive.
Difficulty in identifying icons
It becomes hard for them to identify new and complex icons sometimes. So it's better to use simple and minimal icons with a label to make them easier to identify and remember for the elderly. For example, the green button on the bottom right of the WhatsApp interface is for writing a new message to anyone, including people you have not messaged yet. But it does not signify that it can be used for that task clearly.
Smaller text is hard to read
A standard font size used for interfaces might not be an ideal match for mid-aged/elderly people. They sometimes have to zoom in to read properly, or might get confused if they do not know how to zoom in. So it’s better to design an interface for these people keeping their legible font size in mind.
Language barrier
Most people are not familiar with English, and it obstructs them from using smartphones to the full extent. Therefore it’s better to give different regional language support to make smartphones more useful for mid-age/elderly people. The switch between the languages should also be intuitive and easy to understand.
Feedback too absent/quick to comprehend
Sometimes, the feedback for an activity is absent/quick which leaves people puzzled about the status of their action. For example, a participant we interviewed didn’t know if the message she sent on WhatsApp was successful or not as WhatsApp does not show any popup showing the status of the sending. The small ticks are confusing and sometimes too tiny to understand. There is also no pop-up in WhatsApp when the internet is off, when you send a message without internet, it will show as a normal message sent, with a clock-like symbol. This does not give feedback to the elderly that they need to turn on their internet for the message to be sent. Another example is when you send an email through the Gmail application, the message sent confirmation is a tiny pop-up on the bottom of the screen that blends in with the interface. You spot it only if you know what you're looking for.
User control - back button
Some interfaces do not have any back button or the support for the inbuilt back button of the smartphone. Such interfaces lack essential user control. For example, some of the participants didn’t know how to go back from the ongoing call screen as it doesn't have a back button on the interface. As a result, whenever they need to find other information during a call they end the call and call again after finding the needed information.
Reliance on colors/shapes rather than text
Whenever smartphones do not have regional language as text, people who are not familiar with English find it difficult to navigate and also have to rely on colors and shapes.
Lack of color is confusing
As many people associate colors with the status of their actions, the lack of color on the interface makes it difficult for them to know what they are doing is right or not.
Feelings they have while using smartphones
They can talk to their loved ones from anywhere and anytime, click photos of their family
They feel connected to the world through social media apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook
They can get information about anything without relying on other sources through the internet
They stay updated with news and other trends through news apps and social media posts
Some people find it a gateway of relaxation after doing household chores or work the whole day
When they can not accomplish a task because of the interface design related issues
When they forget a password and don't know a way to recover from it
In the interviews, we observed that almost all the interviewees had experienced one or all of the emotions in relevant situations. All of them felt happy when they talked to their loved ones through smartphones and they also felt connected to others due to social applications. Some of them felt relaxed when they used the phone to wind down and to check up on friends and family. We observed that the interviewees do not necessarily fall into one category or the other. Rather, they experience different emotions due to the phone in different situations and it is possible for one person to feel all of the above emotions.
Do they feel that phones have taken over their lives?
Some people felt that the phone has taken over their lives because they found it distracting and very time-consuming. They felt it makes them unable to concentrate on work and also the use of smartphones makes them too dependent on technology. Use of smartphones also reduces their family time, according to them. This was observed mostly in the younger part of the group we interviewed.
On the other hand, some people didn’t feel like phones have taken over their lives as they only used the phone for limited things such as calling loved ones. The phones became a part of their lives at a much later stage, by which they had already set a routine for their days so they did not feel that the phones overpowered their daily schedule. This was observed mostly in the older part of the group we interviewed.
What have we learned?
We learned to look deeper than the surface level and research considering the context. For example, instead of only focusing on questions like what applications they used and what they use their smartphone for, we also asked questions like what the smartphone meant to them and how did they feel while using the phone. We noticed some common trends of usage like using Whatsapp for almost everything on the phone, or video calling loved ones. We observed some similarities with the interviewees in the book "The Global Smartphone" - some elderly people claimed that the younger generation had a heavy reliance on smartphones, or smartphones negatively affected the studies. We learned that the things which were intuitive to us were not intuitive for the elderly, as they were not accustomed to the language, amount of information symbols, and colors of the smartphone interface. Lastly, we found that smartphone is becoming an integral part of people's lives, and hence, helping the elderly get used to digital technology is very important.
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