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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.

Learning how to do a “gambiarra” on WhatsApp: the power of improvisation

Marilia Duque E S19 November 2020

(@Jornal do Sudoeste: http://www.jornaldosudoeste.com.br/noticia.php?codigo=105255)

In Portuguese, the term “gambiarra” is used to describe someone fraudulently tapping into the electricity supply. In everyday life, the word also refers to an improvised solution that was achieved with limited resources. In that sense, “gambiarra” is an exercise of creativity. I have previously talked about my experience teaching old adults in a WhatsApp course aimed at the third age in Sao Paulo, where I conducted my fieldwork. In this post, I will address how I taught them to do a “gambiarra” on WhatsApp. My goal was to turn WhatsApp into a diary that could help them in their daily tasks, from shopping to managing their intake of medication. This idea came from my observation that students usually bring pen and paper in order to take notes and systematise what they learned. Their notes were basically step-by-step lists that conveyed the information they received that day in the more linear way of thinking they were more familiar with. Moreover, writing things down was also a strategy they used in order to remember what they learned.  During the course, I noticed that they used this strategy not only for the WhatsApp classes but also to help them to remember what they have to do, where they have to go and how to get there.

I could have taught them to use an app designed for that purpose, such as Note or even Calendar. However, among these students and among my research participants in general, WhatsApp is the app they feel most comfortable with, as this is where their conversations with family and friends take place. Therefore, the choice to build a diary on WhatsApp would avoid any constraint related to the adoption of a new app. In other words, the diary on WhatsApp would be ready-to-use, as my students were already basic Whatsapp users. Whatsapp doesn’t have a diary functionality, so we then started our “gambiarra”. The idea was that each student would add their own contact on WhatsApp, so they could start a conversation with themselves (which would be enhanced by features like audio messages and photos). There are two ways to do this and no guarantee as to whether which of them will work, as it depends on the device students have. The first way to do this is to add yourself as a contact by saving your own phone number under ‘Contacts’ and then search for the name you have given to this contact and to start a conversation with yourself. When this option fails, you can ask someone to share your contact with you on a conversation or on a group on WhatsApp you have access to. You will then have the option to click on “message” and you will be able to start a conversation with yourself.

Option 1 (left) and Option 2 (right): starting a conversation ‘with yourself’.

I also gave students a bonus. After the “gambiarra” was done, I taught them to “pin” this chat on the top of the WhatsApp conversations list, so they could easily access their diaries.

The diaries on WhatsApp could help them in multiple ways. They could create their shopping list directly on the app. They could do so by typing the items, they could use the audio to record them and they could also take a picture of the list they had on paper.

Examples of a shopping list on WhatsApp Diary: text message, audio message or picture

Taking pictures is a powerful resource for registering, organising and accessing information they come across during their daily routines. Like any of us, older people may also use the WhatsApp camera to record a particular street name they want to remember for later reference, the bus they intend to take or the useful phone number they might want to use later to have pizza or even medication delivered.

WhatsApp Diary used to remember a street name or a location.

WhatsApp Diary used to register information about public transport.

WhatsApp Diary used to take note of a useful telephone number.

Keeping diaries on WhatsApp can also be used for self-care. Older people can type or use voice messages to register a particular symptom or event they want to report to their doctors, like a day when they felt dizzy, for example. WhatsApp can help them make a note of these events, plus the app automatically registers the date and time when the event was reported.

This functionality can also help older people manage their medicine intake. My mother’s case is one example of how this works. She is in her late sixties and has to take a pill to manage a chronic condition every day, as soon as she wakes up. This allows her to then start her day. The problem was that sometimes, she was not sure whether she had already taken the pill or not. Together, we decided to do a “gambiarra” on her WhatsApp, so she could have her own diary to manage her pills. Since then, as soon as she takes her pill, she sends a message to herself. The message (“okay”) is registered there on her WhatsApp diary together with information about the time and date, which she can access anytime she is not sure whether she has taken her pills that day.

In that sense, the use of WhatsApp for health purposes can itself be seen as a “gambiarra”. WhatsApp was not designed for health purposes, but its functionalities can be used to deliver and improve care. This requires improvisation and creativity, but also a pinch of empathy. Especially among older people, exploring the apps they are already comfortable with can save them time and effort in adopting new technology.

WhatsApp can actually be a time-saving and low-cost tool whatever the target audience and objective is. That is why the use of WhatsApp for health can become more than a “gambiarra”, that is spontaneously adopted due to a constraint on resources. Indeed, as I observed in the Brazilian health landscape, there is a shift in Whatsapp use from informality to formality, as it is also used by doctors, clinics, hospitals and health insurance plans as their institutional channel to communicate with patients. You can read more about these examples in my book “Learning with Whatsapp: Best Practices for Health”, where I describe different uses of WhatsApp for Health based on what I observed during my ethnography in São Paulo. You can find out more about the book here, and download it free here.