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Full title

Socially dependable design


Older people; domestic technology; risk management; independent living; telecare; privacy

Socially dependable systems take account of social context, the need for sociability and are accessible to all who need them.
This client-centred approach to dependable system design was stimulated by findings from interviews with medical and care professionals and older people. Three needs are identified, along with an agenda for Human Computer Interaction (HCI) research to meet these needs more effectively.

The first need discussed is safety. The home is a hazardous environment, particularly for frail older people. Various technologies are being successfully used to monitor for falls and other emergencies, and also to assess and manage risk. The design of this technology is currently driven by a medical model of client needs and takes little account of the social context of the home. The design challenges for HCI are to make this technology attractive and not stigmatising, to provide privacy and to allow informed choice.

The second need discussed is for social contact. Here Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) could play a much larger role. The HCI challenge is to harness this potential within a social framework that reduces rather than increases the isolation currently felt by many older people. One example is our work on a telephone mediated online shopping service using volunteers called "Net Neighbours" .

The third need is for technology that is accessible to all who need it. George Orwell (1965) once pointed out that lampposts are only of benefit to everyone because the wealthy cannot turn them on when they are approaching or off when they have passed. Bill Gates’ experience of old age will be very different to yours or mine; but perhaps we can persuade him to make a few lamp posts rather than flash lights before we all head off into the dark. Questions like – is this a technology that will be of benefit to a whole community or just a part of it, should be paramount in the development of new computer systems.

Examples of the issues raised

Poor aesthetic design: some of our informants did not want telecare technology in their home, one occupational therapist summed this up as ‘We don’t want our homes looking like a clinic or a hospital’.

Privacy and informed consent: "Lifestyle monitoring" equipment is now beginning to be deployed by telecare manufacturers. This logs the activity of an older person and sends summaries to a call centre where it can be used to infer the wellbeing of the client. But do the clients understand what data is being sent out of the house and to whom? Older people often have different priorities to health professionals who have a duty of care. We cannot always assume that doctor knows best.

Loneliness and isolation: A number of participants in the field study pointed out how important the social aspects of shopping can be to older people. One of the drivers of the dial-a-bus service based at the ambulance station noted “it is a social thing, it means they’re not stuck in their four walls and they can actually go out and see somebody”. "Net Neighbours" allows volunteers to shop online for older people, providing them with a vital service and social support by phone.


Blythe, M., Monk, A.F. and Doughty, K. (in press) Socially Dependable Design: The Challenge of Ageing Populations for HCI, Interacting with Computers, accepted subject to revision.

Blythe, M. and Monk, A.F. (2005) Net Neighbours: adapting HCI methods to cross the digital divide. Interacting with Computers, 17, 35-56.


Andrew Monk, A dot Monk at psych dot york dot ac dot uk


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