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Simulating barriers to improve ideation and empathy

Our work to understand the authentic user needs of older adults has provided us with new perspectives on aging. We were excited to share those insights with hundreds of professionals at the Leading Age Institute and Expo, the premier conference for older adult services providers.

Fathom Consulting facilitated two interactive sessions with attendees, one of which asked participants to simulate the many challenges that their own clients experience every day—and the way those challenges can become barriers to their use of technology. By analyzing and understanding barriers of older adults, we can gain empathy while uncovering new ways to ensure everyone, regardless of their age, can still benefit from technological advances.

There are several reasons to specifically consider how technology is used in this population, rather than simply relying on accessibility standards alone. Older adults often experience multiple age-related challenges at once and differ from younger adults in their attitude and comfort with technology. And, older adults are prime potential beneficiaries of technology—so it’s time to go beyond accessible to developing solutions that are attractive, easy, productive, and even enjoyable!

So, what is it like to use an iPad with macular degeneration? How easy is it to “Ask Siri” if you’ve had a stroke?

Drawing inspiration from the work of Pattie Moore in the 1970s, our session engaged participants in several simulations designed to build empathy for those who are experiencing seven different physical, cognitive, and attitudinal barriers. Together we then brainstormed workarounds or solutions using two ideation prompts:

  1. How Might We improve the technology so it is easier to use for those with a particular challenge?
  2. How Might We support people who have this challenge so they can still use the technology?

While dictating prompts to Siri with hesitant and inarticulate speech (“Wait, let me finish!” to “I’m so over this”) or trying to multitask with multiple distractions (“Ohmgosh, really?! You expect me to remember that?”), attendees quickly gained empathy for those they work with—and made a vow to be more patient in helping others with real barriers navigate technology challenges.

Should you try a simulation?

Moore and many others in Academia, including the MIT Age Lab, have established that using artificial means to temporarily experience barriers can increase our understanding and empathy of those who experience them every day. However, there are several things we must keep in mind:

  • Simulations should be done with respect and solemnity and not in a mocking or frivolous way.
  • Simulations should be done with a clear goal in mind. In this case, our goal was to help us brainstorm better ways to support those with a particular barrier in using technology.
  • Simulations are immediate and only temporary. It’s important to recognize that experiencing something for a few moments is nothing like experiencing a progressively-worsening challenge or living with a barrier for many years.

A multi-faceted framework and assessment tool

To learn more about the seven barriers and for a tool to assess whether you, or someone close to you, is experiencing one, download the two-page handout from our session.