Field Research, Amongst the Elderly

Vanessa Fuller

Mobile Media

Field Research

March 17, 2014


Elderly Application


                On Friday February 28th 2014, AARP delivered a package containing a cellular phone to my home. It was my duty to take said device to my Great Aunt Thelma, a Brooklyn Native, and to teach her how to use her phone. My Great Aunt is in her early 70s. AARP designed this flip phone for elderly customers as an easy-to-use mobile technology.  My site was actually her home, where I stayed for over two-hours trying to teach her how to use and navigate through the device.


                Bearing in mind that I want to design an app for elderly persons that make it easier for them to use mobile devices such as cellular phones, I thought my focus would be on how she received and  retained the information I was giving her, as well as her ability to demonstrate that she could manipulate the device independently. I discovered the devices most useful features, discarded the ones I felt did not matter, and taught her what I remedied as, “The Basics.” This means teaching her how to dial, access contacts, how to answer calls, how to hang up the phone, and how to charge the device. I did not show her how to input contacts, nor how to access the camera options.


                We spent almost 3 hours going over the phone’s features, and I also wrote down all the information I had verbalized to her in our time together. Surprisingly during my observation, I realized that a major aspect of elderly usage of cellular devices is patience. It takes patience to learn and patience to teach. Secondly I had to take into account not my own prior feelings and thoughts, but hers. She approached learning the new technology with a disheartened attitude, so a primary tool for me as an instructor, was to acknowledge that this technology is intimidating, and her esteem was not at its fullest confidence. She often said, “I’m not going to get this,” or, “I’m not going to learn how to use it.”


                Other forms of electronic mobile media in her apartment was a cable remote control, her house phone which has caller ID, a television set, and I believe a DVD player. Often times my sister and I get calls about, “How do you work this,” or “What to do if,” from my Aunt Thelma and other elderly persons we have in our lives. I didn’t think I could make it plain or relay the connection with these devices as all being a part of the mobile media family. Instead, I had to take a patient and relative approach. I had to make comparisons where necessary (or possible), really had to drive home certain points about the phone’s features, and constantly reassure her that not only can she “do it,” but she doesn’t have to do so alone.


                She was able to catch the gist of how to operate the phone, which was an improvement on her prior perception that it was too complicated a contraption for her to use. We joked to ease that tension; however I was serious about her being able to demonstrate conversationally, and physically, her understanding of its functions. This experience led me to a fork in the road in terms of research and app design. Would an app that taught elderly people how to use these sorts of devices respectfully, be more beneficial than an app that taught their families, how to teach them? I had to think about how plausible these apps would be, how applicable they would be, and what the limitations for them would be as well.


I think a familial app that optimized the elderly’s usage of cellular devices would be beneficial in an assortment of ways. If the app could boost the esteem of the elder, and give teaching tips to the individual responsible for teaching them, it could be very beneficial. My experiences with elderly persons are extensive as I have a lot of elderly loved ones, and even the strangers that take to me in the streets. The other day a mentor of mine told me, “You guys have Star Trek! Right now! Anything you can think of…” she went on to press imaginary buttons in the palm of her hand. (She is a spry young woman in her 50s and cannot send a text message in less than an hour!) 


I’ve observed elderly persons with cellular phones and not all of them are disadvantaged in usage, and not all of them have “dated” or specialized devices. I’ve also seen some struggle with how to use them just the same. I’ve held conversation with them and have crossed multiple attitudes of their take on this form of modern technology. (Some express wonder, amazement, disdain, and apprehension.) So I understand the gap, its intimidation, and its need to be bridged.  Not all senior citizens are home bodies, and the ones that are mobile need to have their cellular experience optimized. 


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