Friday, 4 March 2016

What's in it for me? The challenges of designing interventions for others

"Uninvited guests" is an entertaining short video showing possible, compelling, responses to well-meaning digital interventions for wellbeing that an elderly relative is encouraged to use.

Recently, a friend (I'll call her Hanna) told me about her experience of something similar, and it highlighted to me just how challenging it is to design well to help others to live well, and how important it is to make new designs of direct value, and easy to understand.

Hanna's parents are elderly, and had been plagued by nuisance calls: some just irritating, but others that involved mis-selling, "fixing" a computer virus, or otherwise leaving her parents feeling unsettled and cheated. She wanted to work with them to help avoid these calls. They installed Truecall on the line. And for a couple of weeks, it seemed to be working really well: letting through trusted callers while blocking unknown callers. A couple of unrecognised callers contacted her to request access and she extended the list of trusted callers in response. All good!

Then things started to unravel. An elderly acquaintance who wasn't on the list tried calling, did not understand the 'blocking message' immediately, and promptly drove round to her parents' house to ask what was going on. They found this really embarrassing, and it undermined their trust in the system. Hanna worked with her parents to add every known acquaintance to the list of trusted callers. But their fear of missing even one 'real' call had been triggered. At least: that was the surface presentation; I suspect there was more going on.

Apparently, when adding names to the list of trusted callers, Hanna's parents talked about the data entry as if they would then be able to use the list as a phone book. That would have been useful to them. But of course it didn't have that functionality (it's a call blocker, not a call enabler). They had a poor mental model of how Truecall worked and what it did. I'm guessing that this lack of understanding made them feel alienated and disempowered.

Hanna showed her parents their own call log, highlighting all the nuisance calls that had been blocked, and that therefore had not been disruptive. But this was apparently not persuasive at all: they could not remember the occasions where they had been persuaded by mis-selling, and now the concern about missing genuine calls dominated completely. Indeed, Hanna's parents seemed to grow in confidence regarding their ability to manage nuisance calls with every day that passed, and Truecall seemed to become a device that questioned their competence.

They told her about one of their friends also using Truecall. But she tells me she couldn't work out whether this was a positive comment (this is catching on; we're ahead of the curve) or a negative comment (that friend is getting old and having difficulty screening nuisance calls).

At one level, Truecall is a technology that does one job and seems to do it very well. At another level, it is a social device. The fact that them using Truecall was visible to a few of their friends and acquaintances seems to have made it unacceptable, even "embarrassing". I'm guessing it is preferable to them to be autonomous, to feel in control, and not to be seen to be using a call blocker, than to avoid nuisance calls. 
We all use technologies that we don’t fully understand. But we need to understand them well enough to feel in control, and it seems as if Truecall went beyond that for these elderly people and their equally elderly friends.

Truecall has had rave reviews, and it really does seem to do its job very well. So it was a surprise to me when Hanna told me about her and her parents' experiences. Maybe, even though I'm pretty sure that Hanna's parents are in the target market segment for Truecall, for something to work for Hanna's parents it would have to be even easier to use, even more transparent. I'm guessing it would have needed the following features:
  • everything accessible without obviously accessing the internet (so, visible on a dedicated display with the phone).
  • offering the 'phone book' capability so that they could more easily make calls.
  • having three call categories that are simultaneously enabled: trusted (come straight through); zapped (blocked, including all withheld numbers); and unknown (with a really easy way to move unknown numbers into trusted or zapped, whether before or after accepting the call).
I'm not sure that this is technically possible at the moment – or if it is, it might be prohibitively expensive to implement. But hopefully it will be possible in the near future. For me, the most important insight is that there are some very subtle emotional and social values that tip a technology from being something to engage with to being something that is rejected. In the uninvited guests video, the star of the show is technology savvy enough to subvert the best of intentions of his family and of the technology design; in Hanna's case, it seems that the only option for her parents was to reject the technology completely. We still have a lot to learn about how to design technology that is truly empowering.

No comments:

Post a Comment