“You must unlearn what you have learned!” – we know too much about YEDHIs?

To get my story straight and nicely told: It all started with a book. A while ago I read Harari’s Homo Deus. You may noticed that I liked it due to the many quotes I shared through this blog and elsewhere. A month ago during extensive thinking about a possible topic for my PhD thesis, something from this book popped up in my head. An acronym that is easy to remember: WEIRD. It stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. Harari did not invented this acronym, it comes from an article written in 2010 by Henrich et al. and published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences with the clever title: The weirdest people in the world? If you do not want to read 20 pages, you can read the short piece in the Opinion section from Nature in July 2010. What is important for my research is the assumption that most psychology studies picked their participants from a population that is WEIRD and generalizing on that basis ignores most of the worlds population. There were some responses to this idea at the journals website, you can look at them here. I liked the response of Prof. Greg Downey. It is really long, but his writing style makes it less exhausting.

The acronym popped up during my literature study. I read: “Experimental research in human – computer interaction commonly uses participant groups that are unrepresentative of demographic realities, being young, technically knowledgeable and highly educated.” It is the first sentence of report from Dickinson, Arnott, and Prior in 2007 about methods for human – computer interaction research with older people. It sounded WEIRD to me. After puzzling a bit I decided Human-Computer-Interaction (HCI) studies YEDHIs: Young, tEcnically knowleDgeable and HIghly educated personS. As a source for this creativity with acronyms, I refer you to PHD comics.


Clever Acronyms
Fig. 1: Clever Acronyms by Jorge Cham

Besides the nice acronym, the content shares the same assumption. In HCI research YEDHIs are overrepresented in the same way as WEIRDos: that participants of studies are not heterogenic enough. Dickinson et al. report that from 39 HCI papers, only two had participants over the age of 60. HCI research works a lot with User Experience (UX) methods. UX research is necessary in the HCI field, because interaction with a computer (or any other technology) always means that there is a human/user experience. I drew the conclusion that you can also say that UX research studies YHEDIs. My current dissertation topic has its origin there. Before I get deeper into that, I need to take a critical look at the WEIRDos again, because it applies also to YHEDIs. Downey writes in his blog entry, that he does not disagree fundamentally with the idea of Henrich, but he is concerned “that the parameter of difference we choose to highlight, even in the simplest designation, might itself be a culturally-generated bias.” In the end he wants to say, that being rich is the opposite of being poor, but all poverty is not the same. This is also true for being rich. He asks the question if one could assume that young college students are shaped by democracy, if a large number of them do not vote. In the same way you can discuss what highly educated can mean, or technically knowledgeable. Luckily for me, my focus will be on the Y in YEDHI, which has also problems. The first question I wrote down was: Does UX research study only young people? I define every person under the age of 60 as young (enough). Why? While we age physically our sensory perception deteriorates. This manifests itself conspicuously by poorer vision, hearing or restricted motor movements. Such problems are not automatically connected to psychological aging. As you get older, you may forget things more often or be disoriented. However, this is not the same as diagnosed diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Dementia. You can have Alzheimer but be in good physical shape, or you have no psychological issue but you getting almost blind or deaf. Both extremes make everyday life difficult enough, and research more complicated than with younger people. There are of course blind and deaf people in every age and physically disabled persons too, but the probability that such impairments occur increases in old age. While the mass of healthy (enough) young people is like Candyland for researchers, you have a hard time easily finding a number of healthy (enough) older people for your research. Especially when it comes to the kinds of experiences that UX research is based on, because to experience the world, we need our senses and cognitive processing. As you get older, it’s very likely that brain or body may not work so well. Candyland is shrinking and that is the reasons why 60+ is an interesting research area.

My assumption is Dickinson et al. are right: like most researchers with no particular demographic group, we test young people who can use all their senses. There are two reasons for this. Most of the Information Communication Technology is built for people who can use all their senses. They are the majority of the population and have the biggest purchasing power. Therefore they are the target group in the economy. If we only build technology for such people, we can only test it with them and the other way around it is a dead end too. Building systems for older people and their disabilities is not profitable enough for the private economy and so, besides some funded projects from public agencies, there is little out there to test with such persons.

My research begins not at the end but somewhere in the middle. It is about the research methods we use in testing. Just as we build systems for the biggest target group, we also test them mostly through methods where people need good eyes and ears. Everybody who has experiences with Eye-Tracking knows how crucial good eyes are for this technology #astigmatism. Cardsorting, think-aloud tests, interviews or surveys – we just assume that the other persons can respond quickly to the task.
If it is true, that seniors will be a larger percentage of the population, we may have to be ready to test with them – disabled or not – at the moment we are not, in my opinion. So my project will test the current UX research methods with older people to see if I am right, and if I am, check out if there are ways to improve methods for this target group. My second research question is: How could methods in UX research be improved to study older adults or are new methods needed? I am looking forward to whether this idea will survive in the opinion of my boss and then whether the OzChi Doctoral Consortium likes it. If so, I will spent some days in Australia this year. *fingers crossed*


Link to the headpicture by Brian Rood on deviantart.

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