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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog


Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


Some reflections on intuitiveness

By Georgiana Murariu, on 15 January 2021

Photo by Bonneval Sebastien on Unsplash

Technology as intuitive design

The word ‘intuitive’ has become a go-to adjective for design that is perceived to be user-friendly and easy to use. Some claim this is the secret to Apple’s success – they design and manufacture products that people almost instantly ‘know what to do with’ when they get their hands on them. The Internet-of-Things and smart homes are also touted as being intuitive ways of automating household-related tasks such as stocking up on ingredients or controlling central heating, although they still have not been adopted en masse (at least not in Europe).

Sure enough, intuitive design as a set of principles does exist, and intuitiveness is what we often imagine we want from a device: to pick it up and simply know what to do. Indeed, inclusive design is often perceived as being the manufacturer’s responsibility, and many will be aware that they have a myriad of consumer segments, not all of whom are necessarily proficient at using technology. It is common, then, for manufacturers and tech companies to conduct extensive user research for the purposes of developing a product that meets a minimum number of requirements, is widely accessible and helps meet their needs. This often involves researchers giving tasks to users and watching them figure out how to complete them. This can test whether the options, paths and menus laid out before them give sufficient information to allow them to progress to through the different stages of the task. You might say they are, to some extent, testing whether the device or software in question is ‘intuitive’.

This research is vital. However, it may not always be enough to provide an in-depth social context as to why certain users behave the way they do, which is where ethnographic fieldwork comes in.

Can ethnography help us better understand creative uses of devices?

In the ASSA project’s upcoming collaborative monograph ‘The Global Smartphone: Beyond a youth technology’, my colleagues describe the ways in which their ethnographic insights are based on ‘holistic contextualisation’. That is to say, that in order to reflect the reality of people’s lives, they studied with people in their normal life circumstances rather than say, in the context of a focus group. As the fieldwork was conducted over a fairly long period of time (16 months) and many of the researchers became good friends with the people who participated in the research, they were able to observe the many and varied ways in which older adults used smartphones. There were participants who were proficient and there were many who were new to the devices, but more than that, the anthropologists were also privy to the deeper, more specific context around their device-related behaviour – whether that was something to do with a specific event within their family, or the way they thought about retirement.

ASSA team members Marilia Duque, Alfonso Otaegui, Maya de Vries, Pauline Garvey, and Daniel Miller all volunteered at local cultural centres where they taught older adults how to use smartphones. All of their projects included a particular emphasis on certain vital tasks such as sending or sharing photos as well as messaging apps such as WhatsApp. Several of them have all written about their experiences: here (Maya), here (Marilia) and here (Alfonso), and Marilia has published an extensive manual that takes her ethnographic observations and formulates a set of best practice protocols for adapting a ubiquitous app like WhatsApp to health purposes, such as doing a rapid evaluation of a patient via messaging and photos. I recommend downloading this (which can be done for free) here and going through it. It is an instructive piece of work that shows how something like WhatsApp can potentially be adapted for use in clinics, hospitals and other healthcare settings. More importantly, it highlights the importance of meeting users where they are, rather than building a new app, since the great majority of older people in Brazil are already on WhatsApp.

Even before COVID-19 hit, in-person free training for older people in many regions was already quite limited. This means that older people or people who had recently started using smartphones (now that these are increasingly affordable) had to rely on family members and friends to teach them how to use the device. Alternatively, they could learn how to use it themselves – not an easy feat if one is starting from scratch, even if one grew up with technologies such as early computers. The issue with this, which is another one of the findings of the ASSA project, is that family members often lack the patience or time to teach older adults how to use their phones, often assuming that the user will work it out for themselves, as smartphones are ‘meant to be’ quite intuitive. This may ring true as an expectation to users who have gone through the many different iterations of phone-related upgrades and improvements which mean that the phone is now better equipped than ever to respond to their needs. But those who are just starting out might question why it should be considered intuitive for something like the ‘share’ button or icon, represented as dots connected by lines (see below) to mean one wants to share a file. What about the three dots/lines makes it obvious something is about to be shared? This finding comes from Alfonso Otaegui, whose students did not always find it easy to choose the best option for going forward when they were in their phone’s Gallery app, where they faced a multitude of options, all represented by various icons.

An example of how the option to share a file is typically depicted on Android phones. Image from the Noun Project (created by David Vickhoff)

In their smartphone use courses, the team members who taught older adults were able to help their research participants gain confidence in a device that doesn’t always ‘make sense’. In Alfonso’s class, to take an example, some students took notes on paper – this may appear ‘counterintuitive’ to someone who is an experienced content creator and sharer, but what it does is show the ways in which ‘learning by doing’ is not always effective. This is especially the case if the ‘doing’ relies on the user decoding symbols and actions that are considered by many to be intuitive but do not make sense to them. The ASSA project’s collaborative book ‘The Global Smartphone’, due to come out 06 May 2021, discusses claims and narratives around the concept of the intuitive phone in more depth.

A preview of the cover of the Global Smartphone

“Is my grandmother using this tablet incorrectly or is she just being creative?”

To bring a more personal anecdote into this, I was recently discussing a friend’s grandmother and her newfound use of tablets. The grandmother in question lives alone in her home country, while her son and grandchildren are abroad. She is not particularly mobile and relies on a carer and friends/neighbours to do her shopping and other tasks. Not having used any technology beyond a basic Nokia mobile phone until the age of 80, she was given a very basic tablet a few years ago, which she began using at home, initially by borrowing the neighbours’ wi-fi. Not having a particularly good understanding of what the internet is and what can be done through it, she began using the tablet in what she considered to be instinctive ways, quickly understanding that information can be sought on Google and music videos can be played on YouTube.

However, when she talks about her tablet use to her son and grandchildren (on the phone), they discover they barely have anything in common when it comes to their understanding of technology. For example, she has been saying she has made friends with a young girl who is a member of the diaspora in Chicago and who is giving her virtual tours of the city. She is hugely appreciative of this, as it gives her something to do and allows her to travel to countries she has never been to. Her grandchildren do not understand how this virtual connection could be possible, as it is unlikely she is proficient enough to be visiting chatrooms and meeting new people. They, therefore, conclude that she may have stumbled across a live-streamed event which is likely being regularly broadcast on Facebook. They do this by piecing together her different descriptions of the event: there were many people on the screen, everyone seemed friendly, and the host got into her car and drove around the city for a few hours whilst on video.

Similarly, when she received multiple photos of a family pet which looked similar but were taken from different angles, she insisted these were multiple cats. This was quickly revealed to be a ploy to amuse other family members by making them believe she was extraordinarily bad at technology. It gave her a reason to ask for more photos of the pet to be sent so she can check the likeness. This also encouraged her family members to stay in touch more frequently. Here, it becomes apparent that being familiar with the social and familial context behind her behaviours is crucial to understanding the way she uses her tablet: one could easily say she is simply ‘not a good user of the device’ yet. However, family members and others who know her well have observed that she is simply using the device as best she can (and sometimes tactically/strategically) in a context in which she has no formal training or teaching. While she found googling to be fairly ‘intuitive’, tasks such as sending photos are more difficult, further highlighting that these should not necessarily be thought of as universally intuitive.

While the above is far from being a complete ethnographic account, it can act as an example to illustrate the importance of the full context behind her use of the tablet.

Smartphones, ageing and intuitive tech

As mentioned above, the ASSA project’s Global Smartphone book expands on this topic much more broadly and with more evidence from across all of the 10 fieldsites the team did research in.

Although it can be said that technology design is trying to become more inclusive and accessible, it is impossible for it to be free of bias or exclusion. Where possible, paying attention to the ways in which users adopt creative ways of making an app or device work for them can be particularly useful and ethnographic research is a great tool through which this can be done. Longer-term ethnography has the great advantage of giving the researcher the opportunity to build the depth of relationships necessary for them to contextualise particular behaviours to do with technology, such as a user refusing to use a particular app or feeling the need to ‘tidy’ their home screen in the same way they would tidy their home (to take an example observed by Patrick Awondo in Cameroon). Once some of the researchers had built a good enough relationship with their research participants, they were even able to get them to ‘open up’ their smartphones to them and go through the different apps they had acquired over the years, talking about their use or non-use of each one in more detail.

There is a lot of guidance out there for designing more inclusively and designing for users with what is termed ‘low digital literacy’. This guidance is vital and very important, but I would argue that where anthropology can make a real difference is in providing the necessary methodology, context and empathy that are needed to go beyond observing behaviours and situating these within a more holistic context, be it cultural, social, material or political.

Beyond anthropomorphism – pet dogs and the philosophy of smartphones

By Daniel Miller, on 18 December 2020

One of the main theoretical ideas explored in our forthcoming book The Global Smartphone (out on the 6th of May, 2021) concerns the concept of ‘Beyond Anthropomorphism’. To be anthropomorphic normally implies a machine such as a robot that looks increasingly like a person. The smartphone is beyond anthropomorphic, first because this issue is not one of appearance. Rather, its intimacy with human beings comes by inveigling its way into the very heart of our social relationships and as an extension of our individual personality.

I have previously suggested that the best analogy today for the smartphone would be with the figure of the ‘daemon’  in Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials. The ‘daemon’ is an animal and this suggests that perhaps by considering our relationship to animals we might better appreciate these possibilities. I am currently writing up ethnographic work from my Irish fieldsite of Cuan, concerning people’s relationship to their pet dogs. In this case, what is meant by anthropomorphism is that the sensibilities that are extended to dogs are growing ever closer to those that we extend to people.

There were many examples of these trends. The first is the way dogsitting has become more like babysitting. It used to be that families went on holidays and took their dogs to kennels. But the dog may have become so fully integrated into family life that the absence of the family is now much more traumatic. People in Cuan prefer to try to leave the dog either with a regular friend or relative or with a dogsitter, that is again regularly used, so that the dog has an independent relationship with the person they are staying with and the experience is much less traumatic.

A second example would be with the rise of environmentalism and the green movement. This has several parallels with the treatment of dogs. For many people, the high-status dog is no longer a pure breed, but rather what is called a ‘rescue dog,’ perhaps one that has been left when the previous owner has died or the children rejected their Christmas present. Many people in Cuan now actively seek out such ‘recycled’ dogs in preference.  A further development is that those who oppose bio-medical health interventions have similar views when it comes to their dogs, so that we see a rise in the use of acupuncture and other complementary therapies both in relation to the dogs’ physical and mental health.

A third example is one that relates perhaps to the context of Ireland, where funerals are such a major part of sociality. It seems that even people who have great difficulty affording veterinary bills will pay the extra 200 euros to have their dogs cremated and keep the ashes. Finally, there is also the rise of concern for mental wellbeing and recognising conditions such as depression in dogs. Occasionally, this may extend to prescribing antidepressants, but mostly, it is about mental stimulation for the dog, which is done primarily through giving it tasks.

There are two current trends in philosophy that seem to speak to a trajectory of Beyond Anthropomorphism. One is called Post-Humanism (e.g. Braidotti 2013) and the other Object-Orientated Ontologies, which was introduced in the work of Graham Harman.  There has certainly been discussion as to whether treating dogs as part of kinship implies a shift beyond the anthropocentrism of seeing humans as the measure of all things and thereby evidence for post-humanism. Most discussions (e.g. Charles 2016, Haraway 2016) suggest otherwise. The examples described above are better seen as anthropomorphism, that is projecting human qualities onto dogs.

When it comes to smartphones, however, the case seems much stronger. In many ways, the emphasis in journalistic discussion is on how human beings have changed as a result of the smartphone, rather than projecting human idioms onto them. I don’t however, feel that either the approach from Post-Humanism or that of Object-Orientated Ontologies capture the nature of this relationship. Our book The Global Smartphone is really about the extraordinary dynamic through which we constantly transform smartphones in use as they simultaneously change our capacities. There is an older tradition within material culture studies (see Miller 2005) that refused to reduce objects to social relations but emphasised instead their mutual constitution and thereby seems like a firmer base for creating a philosophy of the smartphone.

Braidotti, R. 2013 The Posthuman. Polity Press.

Charles, N. 2016 Post-Human Families? Dog-Human Relations in the Domestic Sphere. Sociological Research Online 21 (3) 2016

Haraway. D. 2016 The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, people and significant otherness 91-198 in Manifestly Haraway, University of Minnesota Press.

Miller, D. 2005 Introduction Ed. Materiality. Chapel Hill: Duke University Press