Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Know your user: it's hard to imagine being older

I've just been reading Penelope Lively's enchanting article "So this is old age". It's an engaging read – at least for someone who sometimes thinks that they are experiencing old age! I love some of her description: for example, "the puzzling thing in old age is to find yourself as the culmination of all [your younger selves], knowing that they are you, but that you are also now this someone else". She is very articulate, and presents something like a persona for an older person. She also reminds us that it's easier for the older person to imagine what it's like to be younger than the reverse.

And yet, the older person who she portrays is importantly different from any individual (over the age of, let's say, 75) that I personally know. It is much easier to assume that we all age similarly – that people get more similar as they get older – than to get your head around all the individual differences. But as far as I can tell the converse is actually the case: variability increases as different kinds of degeneration compete against different enhanced competencies (kinds of wisdom, perceptions, appreciations).

We all have a tendency to stereotype "the other", whether they are older or younger, male or female, a nurse, teacher, cleaner or astronaut. It's much easier to design for people "like me" than to put yourself in someone else's shoes and design for them. Personas have an important role in helping to design for others, but they need to be used with sensitivity to real people. That's surely the best design: designing for people who are different from oneself in ways that empower and delight them.

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