Saturday, 27 April 2013

When I get older: the uncountable positives

Last week, I was at a presentation by John Clarkson. It was a great talk: interesting, informative, thought provoking… Part-way through it, to make a point about the need for accessible technology, he presented a set of graphs showing how human capabilities decline with age. Basically, vision, hearing, strength, dexterity, etc. peak, on average, in the 20s, and it’s downhill all the way from there. It is possible that only two measurable values increase with age: age itself and grumpiness!

So this raises the obvious question: if we peak on every important variable when we’re in our 20s, why on earth aren’t most senior roles (Chief Executive, President, etc.) held by people in their 20s? Is this because grumpiness is in fact the most important quality, or is it because older people have other qualities that make them better suited to these roles? Most people would agree that it’s the latter.

The requisite qualities are often lumped under the term “wisdom”. I’m not an expert on wisdom, but I imagine there’s a literature defining and decomposing this concept to better understand it. One thing’s for sure though: it can’t be quantified in the way that visual or auditory acuity, strength, etc. can. The things that matter most for senior roles are not easily quantified.

We run a risk, in all walks of life, of thinking that if it can’t be measured then it has no value. In research we see it repeatedly in the view that the “gold standard” for research is controlled (quantifiable) experiments, and that qualitative research is “just stories”. In healthcare, this thinking manifests itself in many ways: in measures of clinical effectiveness and other outcome measures. In HCI, it manifests itself in the weight put on efficiency: of course, efficiency has its place (and we probably all have many examples of inefficient, frustrating interfaces), but there are many cases where the less easily measured outcomes (the quality of a search, the engagement of a game) are much more important.

As vision, hearing, memory, etc. decline, I'm celebrating wisdom and valuing the unmeasurable. Even if it can sound like "just stories'.

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