Purdue University Graduate School
smith_aw_dissertation_7_9_2021.pdf (4.39 MB)

Digital Age: A Study of Older Adults' User Experiences with Technology

Download (4.39 MB)
posted on 2021-11-29, 15:17 authored by Allegra W SmithAllegra W Smith
Older adults aged 60+ represent the fastest growing segment of the US population, yet they are rarely seen as users of technology. Members of this age cohort often struggle with the material and conceptual requirements of computing—such as clicking small targets or remembering usernames and passwords for account logins—leading them to adopt technologies like smartphones and social media at much lower rates than their younger counterparts. Digital devices and interfaces are not typically designed with older adult users in mind, even though all users are always aging, and the “silver economy” represents a powerful, and often untapped, market for technological innovations. The little existing research in this area often conflates age with disability, framing elders according to a deficit model. While it is certainly important to consider the impacts that aging bodies have on technology use, they are not the sole factor shaping usage for older age cohorts. Moreover, if we reduce elder users to their “impairments,” we risk stereotyping them in ways that curtail design possibilities, as well as these users’ possibilities for full participation in digital life. For this reason, studies of technology users aged 60+ and their communities are necessary to shed light on the multifaceted needs of older age cohorts, and the interventions into technology design, documentation, and education that can help them reach their digital goals.

To build an understanding of the unique technology use of a group of the oldest Americans (aged 75+), as well as to assess their needs and desires for digital engagement, I conducted interviews and observations with computer users in a senior living community. Data collection revealed a great diversity of computing purposes and activities, ranging from social functions such as email and messaging, to managing finance and medicine, to art and design applications, and beyond. Moreover, participants’ accounts of how and where they developed their computing skills shed light on their motivations for engaging with technology, as well as their fears of technology’s intrusiveness. Analysis of participants’ performance on a series of digital tasks yielded insights into physical and cognitive factors, as well as a clear divide in forms of knowledge and mental models that older adults draw upon when attempting to engage with technology. To conclude, I provide recommendations for technology design and education, as well as future research to account for age as a factor mediating user experience.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • English

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Bradley Dilger

Additional Committee Member 2

Patricia Sullivan

Additional Committee Member 3

Michael Salvo

Additional Committee Member 4

Liza Potts