Guest Blog: Considering dignity in design – starting the conversation about dignified technologies for older adults

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By Julie Buelow & Lia Tsotsos

Have you been to the doctor lately? How about a family member or close friend? What was the experience like? Did you feel like you were treated with dignity? Dignity means that you are worthy of honour and respect (as defined by the Mirriam-Webster dictionary), and in a medical sense, this means that a patient is treated with honour and respect regardless of their condition or current medical situation. Dignity is a key component of health care, and clinicians strive to provide it. It often extends to a patient’s family and friends as well.

Have you ever thought about your dignity when technology fails, like while using health care equipment or an app on your phone? Do you still feel respected if health care technology doesn’t quite work? What if your app fails while you’re monitoring your blood glucose levels at home? What if you can’t figure out how to take photos on your new smart phone? Is your dignity lessened if you become frustrated or upset? These are questions that we have begun to explore at the Centre in partnership with the Faculty of Animation, Arts and Design at Sheridan.

We know from research that technology can make the lives of older adults better. Even though it can be beneficial, adopting technology has been slower for older adults than their younger counterparts. Why? There are age-related barriers such as changes in mobility, but are their non-age related barriers related to the design of technology itself? Could it be that technologies are not designed in an especially dignified way?

Let’s take an example from the smartphone world. If you have low vision, you can compensate by changing the phone’s settings to make the text on the screen appear larger. The problem though is that others nearby can easily see what’s written on the screen. This reduces your privacy and alerts others that you have trouble seeing. Something intended to benefit you is also creating vulnerability.

With research conducted at the Centre, we are beginning to evaluate existing web-based health care tools in an effort to better understand how online systems might promote or compromise the dignity of the user. Our hope is that by involving older adults in this conversation (especially since they are often not included), we can begin to develop a way of talking about the role of dignity in the context of design – call it a vocabulary, or taxonomy if you will. By creating this common vocabulary, interdisciplinary teams of designers, programmers, marketers, field testers, researchers and end users can all speak the same language when considering how best to design and create innovative technologies for older adults.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on how you consider the role of dignity and technology – write us a note at elder.research@sheridancollege.ca , and let us know what you think!

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Julie Buelow is a part-time faculty member at Sheridan College and Lia Tsotsos is the Principal Researcher at the Centre for Elder Research.

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