With so many new tools and systems entering into contemporary society, there is a real need for training in ways to make full use of them, and for the tools and systems themselves to be designed to be user-friendly. The perspectives of the elderly give us great insight into this. Professor Harada has formed a community in which researchers, the elderly, and corporations may freely participate to investigate the cognitive process which determines user-friendliness.
■ What is user-friendliness?
Tasks like making a cup of instant noodles or operating a photocopier can seem easy but people often stumble when they actually try to undertake them. Is this because of the way the products are designed, or the instructions, or perhaps due to inexperience?
Each tool has a purpose. 'User-friendliness' refers to how easily that purpose is achieved. Cognitive science has given much thought to the mental model in which one learns, through trial and error, how to use something by understanding its mechanism. However, when users are actually observed, it appears as though they learn how to use things intuitively. Research into user-friendliness helps us understand this learning process.
As people age, their sight, hearing, and physical functioning decline, and their movements and reactions slow down. The elderly often come up with their own ways of using things so as to avoid the psychological burden of being embarrassed and bothering the people around them. These products are of course not designed to be used in this way, which can therefore make them seem difficult to use, or "user-unfriendly".
■ Center for Usability and Aging Research
To a greater or lesser extent, younger people feel the same way about attributes which the elderly feel to be user-unfriendly. In other words, the elderly are very sensitive towards user-unfriendliness. The Center for Usability and Aging Research, launched in October 2011, is a testing and implementation center for user-friendliness for the elderly. It is a place where researchers, the elderly, and corporations can meet to work together and exchange ideas regarding user-friendliness.
To coincide with the launch of the Center, it announced a call for elderly people to participate and subsequently received approximately 230 responses from people of all walks of life, such as former researchers and farmers. In addition to participating in experiments testing user-friendliness, they have developed a range of unique activities, such as the science café, factory visits, and unique investigation projects.
So far, many issues such as electric walker rollator usability, ways to make retort pouches easier to open and hospital accessibility, have been tested. Convenience as seen by the developer does not necessarily match the needs of the user, so discussions between the two help to improve usability. When proposals made by the elderly are implemented to improve products, they are happy in the knowledge that they are helping the community.
■ The community helping us to think
User-friendliness does not mean ‘the ability to use something without thinking’. If only convenience is taken into account, users may become complacent with regard to maintenance and caution, and the device may become unusable at a critical moment, leading to unforeseen losses.
For example, PC search functionality and wearable devices. These are now necessities in our everyday life, but huge amounts of personal data, from input words to health data, can be disclosed to third parties virtually imperceptibly. In modern society, user-friendliness extends to an awareness of these mechanisms and risks.
The biggest problem faced by the elderly is not the inability to use particular tools or devices, it is the lack of understanding of the concept of computerization. It is not easy for them to assimilate concepts which were absent from their education or social experience. Having said that, they cannot continue to use what they are accustomed to once social systems have changed. This same thing will unquestionably happen to the generations of the future
The Center for Usability and Aging Research examines issues such as the relationships between people and devices. It works out what is necessary for people to use devices successfully, and not give up on them because they are difficult or risky. The creation of a society which encourages thinking will lead to real user-friendliness.
■ To the Center for Usability and Aging Research
The Center for Usability and Aging Research won the 2014 International Association for Universal Design (IAUD) Gold Award in the category of Social Design. This was in recognition for three years of mutual learning in which the elderly are not simply taking part in experiments, they are sharing information with researchers and corporations to proactively contribute to the community. This style of research into the elderly has not been seen anywhere else in the world.
R&D for the elderly is a priority in fields such as medicine and engineering, but the majority of people involved are of the younger generation. It is said that many researchers have never once come in direct contact with elderly users.
Important issues will no doubt become visible when researchers leave their labs and meet the elderly. The Center for Usability and Aging Research is wide open to researchers and corporations in this field.
Article by Science Communicator at the Office of Public Relations
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