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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog


Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


Some reflections on intuitiveness

Georgiana Murariu15 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.

Circle of life – Ageing in Dar al-Hawa

Maya De Vries Kedem27 October 2020

By Laila Abed Rabho and Maya de Vries

While doing our ethnography in Dar al Hawa for almost two years, one of the songs that kept playing in our heads was Elton John’s “Circle of life”. It is not our intention to compare the ethnographic work to a Disney animation movie. However, when talking to people in Dar al-Hawa, young and old, “the circle of life” was a main concept in people’s lives. This notion is deeply embedded in everyday life, in terms of religious practices, beliefs, culture, language and the relationship to older people in the community. But it is not only older people that this notion is important to. We came to learn that the notion, or better said, the perception of “the circle of life” in Dar al-Hawa applies, first and foremost, to the individuals in society who are considered to be more vulnerable, whether it is older people, children, or those on low-incomes. This is also based on one of five foundations of Islam, that of Zakat: giving charity to those who are in need. This practice is one of the duties every Muslim should do.

The concept of “the circle of life” starts with childhood (Al-Tufula in Arabic مرحلة الطفولة  ) and includes several periods, starting with birth and continuing through to childhood, when the person, as a child, is considered to be vulnerable and cannot help others or take care of themselves without the help of another person, especially their mother’s help. The second stage is the youth stage) Al-Shabab in Arabic مرحلة الشباب), which includes adolescence and can be extended until the age of 30, depending on whether the children leave the house or not. Usually, during these stages, the person in question is considered to be at the height of their power, and he or she does not have any major life problems, he or she is ‘accepted’ as someone who can take care of himself as well as others.

Palestinian girl scouts performing at the seniors’ club at Dar al-Hawa. Photo by Maya de Vries.

The third stage is the stage of adulthood, which extends from the age of 30 to about 40,  sometimes 50, and is also considered to be the period of the middle age (in Arabic Kahel كهل), when men and women are starting to feel, to some extent, that they are becoming older. We spoke with several women aged 40 and over and they were pleased to be living in this period, especially because most of them did not suffer from any serious medical conditions. However, an issue they raised in the interviews was that of stress – some of them said that they are suffering from mental stress in their lives.

The fourth stage is the elderly stage, seniority. This is defined by the word Sheikhuha (in Arabic شيخوخة), meaning an old man or an elderly person who is either physically or mentally/cognitively vulnerable or not necessarily physically or mentally vulnerable, but is aged above 60. The word Sheikh has a positive meaning in Arabic and refers to someone who has extensive knowledge, as defined by Muslim scholar Ibn Taymiyyah. So older people are acknowledged as wise individuals that the community should listen to, simply because they have lived longer than us and have more life experience.

The last period, after Sheikhuha , is that of Ardel al-Omar (أرذل العمر), which refers to a period that signals the beginning of dementia, when a person does not know who he or she is anymore. It can be said that the ageing process is divided into two parts: the first is the ageing of the body, which is the beginning of frailty and various diseases, when the person becomes unable to carry out his or her duties and take care of themselves. However, not every person who reaches this stage is unable to take care of themselves, and there are older people who do not need anyone’s help and are able to take care of themselves and are still residing in their homes. They usually live near their family, near to at least one of their children, which means that family care is available, at different levels, according to the older person’s needs as well as the family’s capabilities.

Old woman and a young woman in an activity at the seniors’ club in Dar al-Hawa. Photo by Maya de Vries.

Geographical closeness, the actual living in the same physical space as the family usually has a positive connotation and is an integral part of the notion of “the circle of life” in Dar al-Hawa. A person is born in a specific location, which becomes his or her home. They then raise their family there, grow old there, and eventually die there. ‘The home’ is not just four walls of concrete but also means the land, the territory the home was built upon. Hence, the holding of the home equals to the holding of the land, the family’s territory. In many ways, being an owner of land provides stability, especially when the owner becomes older and cannot work anymore. This stability is extremely important to one’s tranquillity and serenity, which are highly important when getting old. In Islam, as in other cultures, mental health and the ‘health’ of the soul are part of older’s people condition – it is important to have a healthy mind to have a healthy body. When the ‘soul’ starts to lose its connection to the body, meaning memory gets lost, a different stage begins.

When talking with older people in Dar al-Hawa, it felt that there is an acceptance of the notion of “the circle of life” as part of people’s faith and religion. Below, 77-year-old Yasmin’s quote reflects this kind of acceptance of ageing and death quite well – an acceptance we found was widely present among most of the women we spoke with:

“We’ll see what happens next year, maybe I’ll die. Am I thinking about death? I am a believer; I believe in God… Whatever comes will come. This is our religion. The way we look at life in Dar al-Hawa is almost always done through the religious prism, God is the one who determines and determines our destiny, He sees and knows everything. Moreover, the default setting of medical care in Israel, including care for the elderly, is to save and extend lives rather than maintaining the quality of life. This thesis is based on a religious belief in the sanctity of life, on the idea of ​​the circle of life – the emphasis is on the stages, on how each stage is necessary, and probably has a purpose, even if you do not see it at that moment, God knows what, and Man, in the end of things, will know what it is.”

The religious-cultural perception, and to a large extent, the moral perception in Islam, according to the popular interpretation in Dar al-Hawa, is that (older adults are among the most vulnerable in human society and should be taken care of within the community out of respect. This is a moral duty, a religious duty. When thinking about the concept of the circle of life as a framework that shapes daily life and routine in Dar al-Hawa, it is important to understand that it is embedded within the religious practices that shape how a young person should behave with older people and the reasons for behaving in this way. The young person should respect older people, speak to them with dignity, and take care of them as much as he or she can. When he or she reaches this stage (that of being older and eventually elderly), another young person will do the same for them. This is the basic understanding of the circle of life.

Social activity at the community centre, for young and old alike. Photo by Maya de Vries.

With this framework in mind, we return to one of the central topics of the ASSA project: that of smartphone use. Smartphones are carried by most older people in Dar al-Hawa. When contemplating their role in the “circle of life”, we did not see them as violating or breaking the cycle, at least not for the current older generation we were in contact with. On the contrary, we found that smartphones were making the meaning of the circle of life stronger, at least in the sense of helping maintain relationships with the family and community. Things might have been different if older people in Dar al-Hawa were strongly embracing digital culture (e.g. using apps other than WhatsApp and Facebook, paying for services and goods online, paying with their smartphone and so forth). This is one of the topics we will be tackling in our upcoming monograph, ‘Ageing with Smartphones in Al-Quds’, which is due next year.