School of Engineering and Digital Arts

SEEDS: An Organic Approach to Virtual Participatory Design


In a world where the internet and digital communication would seem vital to many of us, there are those that do not participate, for a variety of reasons. One group of people that is often reported as being ‘digitally excluded’ are older people, those over 60 years of age. Factors that may discourage older people from engaging with technology range from physical design of devices and products to cognitive load required to interact with a product or technology, and fear of not being able to understand how technology works. Whilst designers can capture the attention of younger people relatively easily and understand young people’s needs and values, designing for digitally excluded groups, such as older people, presents a particular challenge. For example, too often the focus is placed on making a large-buttoned and basic item, rather than developing a true understanding of how the products will be used by older people to enhance their quality of life.

Our project aims to gain a better understanding of people excluded from the Digital Economy; to develop technology and interfaces which are sensitive to their needs and requirements, and to determine new methods of engaging them with digital technology. In order to do this, we must define a methodology for working with this community.

During the 18 month feasibility study, we will develop a methodology for working with older people in relation to digital technology design. Six months into the project, we are demonstrating a ‘user-push’ methodology, which both empowers users to participate in developing their own solutions, whilst at the same time uncovering motivational factors that could facilitate adoption of digital technologies. To date, 14 interviews have been obtained from people who do not currently use computers or the internet, or use them to a limited extent. As well as answers to a quantitatively-measurable questionnaire, each interview yields a rich personal story which both relates to the person’s experiences and values, and to technology and what people feel it could offer them.

We have exploited digital technologies to set up a virtual environment in which the collected stories can be made available to a range of student-designers in order to prototype realistic solutions to the problems and wishes that have emerged from the data collection stage. The stories have been recorded in audio, and photographs have been taken of key items and features relating to each individual. Following the transcription of the stories, we will undertake a thematic analysis in order to identify emerging themes. The audio clips, person profile analysis and photographs will form a virtual resource for the student-designers to engage with and to assist their understanding of this group of people, before designing potential solutions. In line with a user-centred approach, we will work with older people on evaluating these digital prototypes in order to provide feedback on how well the products meet their needs.

Team Members

School of Engineering and Digital Arts, Jennison Building, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NT

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Last Updated: 30/08/2017