Understanding How and Why Older Adults Use Technology

Understanding How and Why Older Adults Use Technology

Johanna L.H. Birkland

Gwen, born in 1946, is a grandmother with a large family who is deeply involved in her community. She texts her grandchildren every day, keeping her cell phone close. Gwen is saving for a tablet, as she prefers mobile technology that allows her to stay in constant contact with her large intergenerational network. Margaret, born in 1938, is generally skeptical of technology and concerned about its effect on society (particularly on children and young people). While Margaret owns a computer and a cell phone, she restricts how often and how long she uses these devices, choosing to keep her computer and television in a basement den and her living room free of any technology. These two women, close in age, have very different perspectives on the same technologies. Such diversity in technological perspectives is common among older adults. But why does such diversity exist, and why is it important to study?

Worldwide our populations are aging. At the same time, our societies have become increasingly digitalized, with Information and Communication Technology (ICT) use increasingly essential to everyday life. Combining these two factors has led people to fear a gray digital divide—in which older adults will be excluded from many functions of society due to their lower rates of computer and technology use. However, from a practical standpoint, many of us know that there is a great diversity of older adult ICT use—individuals like Gwen and Margaret. This post discusses a theory, the ICT User Typology, which captures this diversity in ICT use and non-use among older adults. The ICT User Typology is comprised of five user types, each of which has a unique way in which they are introduced to new technologies, use (or reject them), and display them around their home. Most importantly, each user type has a unique set of meanings that technology and its use holds for them.

These five user types were developed from an in-depth study of 17 cases of older adults ICT use and non-use, including multiple interviews and observations. For each older adult several of their friends, family members, or coworkers (if applicable) were also interviewed. Over 156 hours of interviews were collected to complete the study. From the interviews, five distinct patterns in how older adults were using, displaying, and finding meaning in technology emerged. The Enthusiast, Practicalist, Socializer, Traditionalist, and Guardian user types each represent a distinct approach older adults take in using technology:

  • Enthusiasts love ICTs, viewing them as fun toys. Approaching technologies with a sense of play and wonder, they are the most likely type to experiment with and try new technologies.
  • Practicalists are focused on the functionality of any ICT and are particularly interested in those ICTs that have a demonstrated purpose. Approaching technology as a tool from this practical standpoint, they care that any ICT is easy to use—and useful.
  • Socializers, whom have very active social and community lives, view ICTs as connectors. Technologies are a vital instrument of connection to the younger generations for this user type. Socializers often adopt the same devices younger individuals use and mimick their use patterns.
  • Traditionalists reject newer forms of ICTs, particularly those which were developed after they reached mid-adulthood. They instead have a strong preference for the technologies and ways of communicating of their youth. Traditionalists love these ICTs of their youth, finding their lives so full of these older technologies that they simply do not have room in their lives for newer innovations.
  • Guardians are cautious about all technologies, believing that their potential misuse leads to individuals wallowing negative traits, such as gluttony and laziness. They believe that any technology, no matter its vintage, can lead to such negative consequences. Guardians self-restrict and carefully control their own use, setting limits on how much they use various technologies.

The ICT User Typology has multiple implications for those who know, work with, or hope to sell to older adults. Each user type is a unique approach to technology, with specific needs when it comes to their living environments, the types of technologies that help them lead satisfying lives, and how they are introduced to and learn about new technologies.

Enthusiasts prefer to surround themselves in technologies, having them scattered throughout their living spaces and a focal point in their design. Technology use is central to their identity and their main hobby. Being unable to use technology due to functional decline, a change in living arrangement, and/or the cost of such technology is stressful. This type is the most likely to not only accept, but embrace, technological solutions to functional declines or independent living, such as smart homes. However, they, like all older adults, do not want to have stigmatizing technology that marks them as old. Eager to try the latest and greatest, they do not so much need to be convinced to try new products, but rather simply made aware of them. They are self-sufficient learners and often surround themselves with other technology buffs.

Practicalists, who believe that every technology should have a function, think that every technology should have a place in their living environment. They prefer separate computer rooms or offices as well as spaces in which they can communicate and chat (technology-free) with others. For Practicalists, technologies must be easy to use and understand. They prefer technological training as opposed to being left on their own to explore a device. Marketing to Practicalists involves proving that any new technology offers them functionality that they need in their everyday lives.

Socializers lead busy lives so they prefer mobile ICTs that allow them to remain constantly available to their large networks. Socializers pay attention to technologies that are advertised to young people, particularly those that focus on the communication potential of a technology. They learn to use new technologies and the norms surrounding their use by observing their youngest contacts. Socializers do not adopt new technologies to be young or hip, however, but rather use them because communication with and connection to others is central to their lives. They believe that in order to communicate with the young people in their lives, they must adapt to the young’s communication patterns, adopting the same communication devices.

Traditionalists’ love for technology matches the Enthusiasts’ in magnitude, but it is distinctly different. Whereas Enthusiasts love and surround themselves with all technologies with a preference for newer innovations, Traditionalists love only the ICTs of their youth and young adulthood. Traditionalists have these older technologies placed liberally throughout their living spaces, allowing them to constantly use these technologies whenever they are home. While they may occasionally try innovations (often after significant urging from their younger family members), Traditionalists find these new technologies pale in comparison to the beloved ICTs of their youth. There is an opportunity to design devices that mimic the function and appearance of the beloved older devices of Traditionalists, while integrating cutting-edge technology behind these simpler, more nostalgic interfaces for this user type.

Guardians view all ICTs with suspicion and are cautious about their use. They deeply value face-to-face contact that does not involve technology use, so they often create technology-free areas in their living spaces in which they can read or enjoy conversation. Guardians, while they may restrict their own technology use by placing self-imposed time limits, often own and use many modern devices. In order to ensure that they can self-moderate their use, they place technologies in lesser-used areas in their home and/or hide technologies in their living spaces. Concerned about privacy and digital security, Guardians want such information presented to them upfront in order to understand the risks of using a technology.

The five ICT user types provide insight into how older adults think about and use technology in their everyday lives. In the future, there will be numerous opportunities to create and design technologies for the diverse and growing older population, with the ICT User Typology providing guidance in understanding this diversity.

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Van Volkom, M., Stapley, J. C., & Amaturo, V. (2014). Revisiting the digital divide: Generational differences in technology use in everyday life. North American Journal of Psychology, 16(3), 557-574.

Johanna L.H. Birkland is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Virginia, USA. Mixing a variety of approaches, including information studies, communication studies, and gerontology, she studies how older adults use Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and intergenerational communication and technology use. She is the author of Gerontechnology: Understanding Older Adult Information and Communication Technology Use, which will be available online open access from March 14, 2019.