Eight Takeaways for Health Technology from Designing with Older Adult Crafters – Medium


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What can health technology designers learn from older adult crafters?

Ben Jelen

A quilt with a scene filled with dogs, a house, and trees. Some of the dogs’ collars are lit up with LEDs in the dark.

A quilt with a scene filled with dogs, a house, and trees. Some of the dogs’ collars are lit up with LEDs in the dark.

A quilt with light-up dog collars made by an older adult crafter.

Many health technologies are being designed for older adults, but older adults aren’t always using these technologies. I often think of smart pillboxes or emergency fall alert buttons as classic examples. More recently, people have been designing smartwatches or smart home systems for older adults to age in place. However, despite designing these technologies specifically for older adults, they are abandoning them after a short while often because older adults need to see the direct benefit of learning to use them. Why spend time with a smart pillbox when a “dumb” one works just fine? Who wants an electronic tattle tale to nag them and their loved ones when they forget?

People often think of older adults as all being very similar, but they are more unique than meets the eye. Not all older adults are limited by the same physical and cognitive limitations people stereotypically think of. Instead, we’ve seen how contextual differences matter more. For example, older adults may be technology experts from a past job but live in a rural community without internet connectivity. The context here, not just age, matters.

An older adult’s hands working with a Grove Arduino Toolkit with wires coming out of the shield to connect to components.

An older adult’s hands working with a Grove Arduino Toolkit with wires coming out of the shield to connect to components.

An older adult crafter working with an Arduino Grove Kit as part of a maker technology introduction during our workshop.

We looked at how we could personalize technology to unique older adults, keeping in mind that one size of technology does not fit all. Our interest in personalizing technology aligned with the recent growth of maker technologies that allow people to create customized electronics for almost any job, from automated Christmas light displays to chess-playing robots.

We explored with older adult crafters how we could personalize health technology to older adults using maker technology. When we thought about older adults, we decided that the best group to work with would be older adult crafters. Coming up with ideas and filling in the details can be challenging, especially when people aren’t used to being asked to think about future technology — they often think about what they’ve already seen. Instead, older adult crafters are more prepared. They’re already customizing their crafts with their own ideas and they have an ideal skill set based on design, iteration, and creating with their hands.

We have eight takeaways for how we can improve health technology for older adults by looking at how older adult crafters customized their crafts and developed personalized technologies in our design workshop. We see opportunities for improving both the process of designing these health technologies as well as sharing what designers of older adult health technology can learn from crafters.

Older adult crafters often rely on working with formal and informal groups of their fellow crafters to learn new skills. For example, many crafters participate in formal workshops led by an expert to learn something new. They also might just as easily visit crafting friends in their home to ask for advice. For both crafters and other older adults, working in a group of people they’re comfortable with can help them learn from each other. We’ve seen older adults in our work often turn to others in the group before asking for help from a researcher.

Crafters are often looking to put their own spin on crafts and customize craft designs to themselves. Encouragement from their friends helps inspire them to find their own style when designing technologies, and it makes them more comfortable knowing that they have help if they get stuck. Crafters who understood the activities well could speak the same crafting language as they helped others understand activity and explore new ideas. Some in our workshop even proactively made suggestions to others at the table.

When you’re working with a particular group of people, cater the project towards them. For the older adult crafters we worked with, this meant planning for some of the physical and cognitive changes that impact some people as they age. Crafters spoke about needing to sew more with sewing machines than by hand because their fingers started getting tired. I built on this idea by making it easier to use a sewing machine with maker electronics.

Older adult crafters recognize how important it is to experiment and try new things. They often talk about needing to keep the focus on the end goal, which is important when thinking about customizing technologies, too. People should keep adjusting the system until it’s valuable to them, especially when customizing technology. Experimenting is also important because exploration is key to coming up with new ideas. The nice part of working with crafters is they already experiment heavily within their craft. Designers need to allow for freedom and flexibility within the technology to allow that customization to happen.

Older adult crafters are often motivated to craft by wanting to give what they make to someone or a cause they care about. For example, some crafters make hats for premature babies in the hospital. Like health technologies, they want to help people with what they make, so designers should support their desire to make the world a better place.

An older adult participants’ hands folding copper tape on a pattern.

An older adult participants’ hands folding copper tape on a pattern.

Older adult crafter folding copper tape for the paper circuit activity.

To better work with a group of experts in an area, make connections between their practices/tools and the technology being designed. For older adult crafters, they made some direct comparisons without us trying, such as when we were folding copper tape for a paper circuit activity. They talked about how it was similar to folding fabric for binding a quilt. We could have also made comparisons to thinking about a sewing machine like a soldering iron and the thread as solder. Both are tools for combining materials together and could help with that mental model.

Four older adults split into pairs, seated at a table working on an activity with a Grove Arduino toolkit.

Four older adults split into pairs, seated at a table working on an activity with a Grove Arduino toolkit.

Groups of older adult crafters experimenting with an Arduino Grove Kit during the workshop.

Crafters naturally work hands-on with what they’re crafting, similar to how people often work with a physical device for health technologies. When designing, activities like prototyping are a great, hands-on way for people to think through designing new health technologies. We found activities like paper circuits and experimenting with an electronic toolkit were the crafters’ favorites from the workshop.

A heating pad that older adult crafters brainstormed after feeling more comfortable bringing in their own experiences and crafting expertise.

Crafting covers a broad range of activities, similar to how older adults have a broad range of life experiences. Keeping activities flexible and open-ended allows older adults to feel comfortable bringing in their own experiences. For example, we didn’t limit what types of technologies crafters could brainstorm, so many of them came up with ideas focused on how maker technology could improve the looks of their craft. As they made more connections to their craft, they started to think about the types of electronic devices they could make, such as a heating pad that alerts the wearer or their caregiver when it is getting too hot.

To improve health technology for older adults, we should be thinking about how we can better support people, especially older adults, to customize the technology for themselves. Crafters were great at customizing, so these takeaways are ideas for how we can learn from the way they craft and help them make connections to designing health technologies. Teaching people more about the technology behind health devices can help them to join in designing the future. Hands-on activities are especially helpful as a way to encourage people to experiment.

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