• Universal design;
  • Design for older people;
  • User-centered design;
  • Mobile social networking


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  11. References

The increasing proportion of the older population and changes in the Chinese family structure make older Chinese people more vulnerable to social isolation than they previously were. This article illustrates the development of a mobile social application for older people in urban areas in China. The application facilitates the organization of leisure-time activities between older people with similar interests living in adjacent areas. Preliminary social requirements of older people were collected through user interviews, and the major functions and features for the application were determined from the results of the interviews. Usability considerations for user interface design for older people were collected from literature and were integrated in the prototype of the mobile application. Older people's acceptance of the application was assessed by demonstrating the prototype to and interviewing 100 older people living in Beijing. The results highlight the critical impact of perceived benefits or relevancy on older people's adoption of new technology. Implications for the mobile social application for older Chinese people are discussed.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  11. References

Older Chinese people are becoming increasingly vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness. Until 2011, the proportion of people 65 years and older reached 9% in China (Population Reference Bureau, 2011). Although this figure seems relatively low when compared with the statistics obtained from developed countries, such as Japan and Germany, where the percentage of people 65 years and older has exceeded 20%, it is estimated that the percentage of people 65 years and people in China will surpass that of Japan in 2030; in 2050, 30% of the Chinese population will be 60 years and older (China National Committee on Ageing, 2007). Meanwhile, Chinese family structure has undergone a large change with the majority of families transformed from an extended family structure (i.e., grown children living with older parents) to a nuclear structure (i.e., grown children living on their own). Especially in large cities, such as Beijing, where older people are more likely to be economically independent and to have better access to health care resources, the co-residence of older people with adult children is declining (Logan & Bian, 1999; Logan, Bian, & Bian, 1997; Zimmer, Kwong, Fung, Kareda, & Tang, 2007). According to a national survey on the living status of older people (China National Committee on Ageing, 2007), the average rate of the “empty nest” family has reached 49.7% in China's urban areas, with a 7% increase since 2000.

The impact of this increased proportion of older Chinese people living alone cannot be underestimated. In contrast with the United States, where older people show a strong preference to stay in their own home and live independently (Sabia, 2008), intergenerational co-residence has been the typical living arrangement in China for centuries. Living with adult children was considered the primary way for older Chinese people to maintain social contact and to receive emotional support in addition to financial and instrumental support. The household structure change raises serious concerns for the emotional well-being and possible loneliness of older Chinese people (Yao, 2007). Loneliness not only is harmful to older people but also is expensive to society. Research has found that the social isolation and loneliness of older people is associated with low morale, poor health state, high mortality risk, and high susceptibility to depressive symptoms and mental disorder illness (Becker et al., 1998; Fratiglioni, Wang, Ericsson, Maytan, & Winblad, 2000; House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988; Litwin, 1998; Stafford, McMunn, Zaninotto, & Nazroo, 2011). Loneliness is also associated with early institutionalization and intensive use of health care resources (Ellaway, Wood, & Macintyre, 1999; Geller, Janson, McGovern, & Valdini, 1999; Ross & Kedward, 1976). Given the immense population base and the rapid aging of China's population, protecting older people from loneliness not only is necessary for improving older people's quality of life but also is critical for ensuring the sustainable development of the country.

A possible support for older people's social life is to bring older people online and connect them to others. Research found that online social software is effective to help users stay connected with loosely connected contacts, to intensify and develop new tightly knit relationships, and to expand one's social network by linking like-minded people (Davis, 2003; Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007; Koku, Nazer, & Wellman, 2001). With the fast development of mobile devices and wireless network infrastructures, mobile social software has become increasingly popular as indicated by a report from GSMA in 2010, which found that mobile users spend more time on social networks than do personal computer (PC) Web users (GSMA, 2010). Given that there were about 859 million mobile phone users in China through the end of 2010 (Ministry of Industry and Information Technology of the People's Republic of China, 2011), mobile social software has the potential to increase older Chinese people's social connectivity and to support their social interactions.

A number of barriers, however, must be addressed before mobile social software can benefit older people. First, social interactions are highly socioculturally dependent activities, and social software designed for the younger generation may not satisfy the social needs of older people. Second, age-related capability impairments present challenges for usability engineers (for a detailed review of age-related impairments and associated impact on the use of information technology, please refer to Hawthorn, 2000). Design guidelines with specific considerations for older people need to be implemented in the design. Whereas the first perspective refers to the usefulness of mobile social software, the latter is concerned with the usability of such software.

This article reported analysis, design, and validation of a mobile social application designed to help older Chinese people in urban areas to find nearby friends and meet for collective leisure-time activities (LTAs). We targeted older people in urban areas because they are more likely to be empty nesters than are older people in rural areas of China (China National Committee on Ageing, 2007); and they are more likely to be able to accept and afford new technology because of their relatively high income and more opportunity to experience new technology in daily life. Both socialization and usability perspectives were considered in the design process. Whereas preliminary usability requirements were extracted from the literature, preliminary socialization requirements were elicited through an interview study of eight older Chinese people in urban areas. On the basis of the interview results, we defined functions and features of the mobile social application, called LonelyNo; age-related usability principles were integrated into the user interface design in the prototype of the mobile client of the system. Following that, we interviewed 100 older Chinese people living in urban areas to assess the acceptance of the application from older people. Implications for future design were drawn from the results.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  11. References

2.1. Potential of Mobile Communication Technology to Support Older Chinese People's Social Life

Compared with a personal computer, mobile communications technology may have an inherent advantage for providing social support to older people's social lives. Wired telephones, an ancestor of mobile phones, were adopted as a mainstream method for social interaction for decades. The similarity between the two technologies may benefit the acceptance of the new technology among older people because experience with existing products could improve their opinion of the usefulness of incremental new products (Hoeffler, 2003). On the other hand, however, the similarity may also diminish the added value of the new medium. Melenhorst, Rogers, and Bouwhuis's study (2006) provided evidence for both sides: older people recognized more social benefits for mobile phones compared with another new medium, namely, e-mail, but they also mentioned more absence of benefits for mobile phones compared with traditional telephones. The study also suggested that a recognizable benefit rather than a cost reduction is the primary incentive for older people to adopt new technology in their activity repertoire.

One possible social benefit that mobile communications technology can deliver to older Chinese people is to help the development of a social network outside of the family by facilitating relationship establishment and maintenance with friends and neighbors. In a survey of 2,998 older people living in three large cities in China, interaction frequency with nearby friends and neighbors was the highest among all of the types of social partners (Xu, 1994). In an additional recent research study in Wuhan, which is one of the top 10 large cities in China, the results were that Wuhan older people were more likely to seek emotional support from friends than from their children (Xu & Chen, 2003). Liu and Lin (2008) found the availability of nearby friends that older people can turn to for emotional support has a major impact on perceived loneliness. These findings are consistent with Litwin's study of Israeli older people (1998), which found that diversified and friend-and-neighbor network types were associated with better subjective well-being ratings.

Mobile communications technology has the potential of helping older people find new friends with shared interests and maintain existing relationships by enhancing the reachability of friends. Helping older people to organize collective LTAs with friends may also be an effective way to maintain contact and reduce the risk of loneliness. The positive impact of physical LTAs on the well-being of older people has been proved in numerous studies (e.g., Borge, Martinsen, Ruud, Watne, & Friis, 1999; Buchner, Beresford, Larson, LaCroix, & Wagner, 1992; Mensink, Ziese, & Kok, 1999), whereas the impact of LTAs on intellectual functioning and socialization has begun to be discussed (Schooler & Mulatu, 2001). In a national survey of older Chinese people's requirements for services for older people, providing support for older people's physical and recreation LTAs was the second largest demand, following the demand for health care support (Huang & Liu, 2006). Specifically, older people emphasized the importance of LTAs to satisfy their intellectual and emotional needs. In another survey on the social adaptation of older people, 32% of the open-ended comments about possible measures for improving older people's quality of life referred to the diversity and quality of LTAs (Chen, 2008). Although seeking social interaction may not be the largest reason for participating in LTAs, collective LTAs naturally create a social environment in which older people can find and interact with their friends, and active participation of LTAs may essentially reduce the time that older people stay alone.

2.2. Barriers to Older People from Benefiting from Mobile Communications Technology

Whether the potential of mobile communication technology will become true relies on how mobile systems are designed and introduced. The lack of perceived benefits or relevancy to older people's lives was found to be the biggest barrier for older people to adopt new technology (Carpenter & Buday, 2007; Goodman, Syme, & Eisma, 2003; Selwyn, Gorard, Furlong, & Madden, 2003; Wagner, Hassanein, & Head, 2010). In studies of computer use among older people in the United States and in the United Kingdom (Carpenter & Buday, 2007; Selwyn et al., 2003), no interest was reported to be the top reason for nonuse of computers and was mentioned more frequently than those issues that were considered to make computers difficult to use for older people (e.g., financial cost, interface complexity, functional limit). The phenomenon can be explained by socioemotional selectivity (Carstensen, 1995), as suggested by Melenhorst, Rogers, and Caylor (2001). The theory postulated that emotional regulation is the most salient goal for social contact for older people because of the limited construal of the future and the reduced need for obtaining information or developing self-concept. As a result, older people tend to use their resources selectively, and their decision of technology adoption is often based on a serious cost-benefit analysis. Through a systematic analysis of older people's use of communication technologies, they found that perceived benefits and the lack thereof determined the results more than costs. It suggests if the benefits are sufficiently desirable, older people may overcome the difficulty brought by low usability and interface complexity. This is consistent with other researchers' findings, indicating that older people are open to new technology if they find the technology useful and beneficial (Demiris et al., 2004; Rogers, Campbell, & Pak, 2001; Rogers, Meyer, Walker, & Fisk, 1998). For those technology benefits that are well acknowledged by older people, such as the convenience of automatic teller machines, Rogers, Fisk, Mead, Walker, and Cabrera (1996) found that, though the use level of older people was lower than the use level of the younger cohort, the majority of older people showed a willingness to use technology if they had been trained to do so.

On the other hand, older people were reported to be less confident in their ability to use such technology and less comfortable using it (Czaja et al., 2006; Rogers et al., 1998; Tacken, 2005). In addition to a lack of experience and knowledge and low self-efficacy beliefs, a decline in cognitive abilities is an important cause of low comfort level and high anxiety among older people with new technology (Czaja et al., 2006; Demiris et al., 2004; Umemuro, 2004). Understanding age-related capability impairment is important for mobile communication system design for older people. Several studies on mobile system design reported that inadequate attention to such considerations leads to usability problems for older people, such as icons and characters on the screen that are too small and too numerous and complex functions in one mobile application (Kim et al., 2007; Lee & Kuo, 2007). To facilitate accessible and usable user interface design for mobile social software, we present a review of design implications and guidelines in relation to age-related ability impairments.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  11. References

3.1. Age-Related Sensory Impairments and Implications for Interaction Design

Perhaps the largest obstacle for older people to use mobile applications is the decline of vision, including reduced near-focus ability, decline in contrast sensitivity, reduction of effective vision field, impaired ability to distinguish colors, and reduced figure-background perception. Age is also associated with a loss of aural ability, especially the ability to detect high-pitched tones, to decipher fast speech, and to understand speech in noisy environments (for detailed reviews of age-related sensory impairments, please refer to Hawthorn, 2000; Schieber, 1992). Interface design guidelines in response to the failing vision of older people include the following:

  • Use large visual elements: reduced vision necessitates a large size for the visual elements, such as text, icons, and buttons. Morrell and Echt (1997) suggested that 12- to 14-point fonts were favored by older people for screen reading. Bernard, Liao, and Mills's empirical study (2001) showed that older people read faster with 14-point text than with 12-point text.
  • Use sans serif typeface and large spacing for text: although not always associated with better performance, sans serif fonts were preferred by older people over serif fonts in different studies (Bernard et al., 2001; Morrell & Echt, 1997).
  • Provide spacing between lines and letters: increasing the interletter spacing and interline spacing is recommended by web accessibility guidelines and standards (Hodes & Lindberg, 2002; W3C, 2011). The effectiveness of this guideline was supported by the empirical study of Wang et al. (2008), which found large spacing between Chinese characters and spacing between lines was associated with fast reading speed of older people. Using spacing too liberally, however, should be avoided, as it will cause less to be visible on the screen, requiring extra scrolling motions from older people (Wright, 2000).
  • Put important information in the center: the narrow visual field of older users adds to the difficulties for them to compare widely separated screen objects (Cerella, 1985), and putting all of the important information in the center will help them to access important information easily (Wright, 2000; Zaphiris, Kurniawan, & Ghiawadwala, 2006)
  • Color and contrast: Colors should be used conservatively, and strong contrast between the foreground and background should be present, especially for text messages. Empirically derived guidelines (Chadwick-Dias, Bergel, & Tullis, 2007) suggested that that the difference in “gray values” between the text and background should be kept greater than 66% and that numbers below 33% should be avoided.
  • Audio displays should use middle-to-low pitch tones (Kurniawan, King, Evans, & Blenkhorn, 2006).
  • Speech communication should be used with consideration for the possible noise level in the context of use. Systems that involve speech communication, such as online news and weather forecasts, provide audio captioning for older users (Kurniawan et al., 2006).

3.2. Age-Related Psychomotor Impairments and Implications for Interaction Design

Major age-related psychomotor impairments include the lengthening of response times in complex motor tasks, the reduced ability to track a moving target, and the low accuracy in fine motions (Jagacinski, Liao, & Fayyad, 1995; Spirduso & MacRae, 1990; Vercruyssen, 1997). Psychomotor-related design guidelines include the following:

  • Do not use moving targets: moving text and targets should be avoided to reduce the need for visual or motor tracking (Kurniawan et al., 2006; Zaphiris et al., 2006).
  • Do not demand fast and repetitive movements for interaction: interaction techniques requiring fast speed, such as double clicks with a short interval and fast flicking on touch screens, should be avoided (Zaphiris et al., 2006).
  • Minimal use of scrollbars: controlling the scrollbar combines multiple actions, including clicking and holding the mouse, while moving and is suggested to be avoided (Hawthorn, 2000).

3.3. Age-Related Cognitive Impairments and Implications for Interaction Design

Memory ability declines with age. It has been generally accepted that the capacity of working memory significantly decreases with age (Salthouse, Hancock, Meinz, & Hambrick, 1996). Regarding long-term memory, however, the decline is not global. Whereas semantic memory is trivial, age-related loss is episodic, and procedural memory is common (Hawthorn, 2000). In addition, deficits in prospective memory, that is, the ability to remember to carry out an intended action, are prevalent among older people (Huppert, Johnson, & Nickson, 2000). Older people also gradually lose the ability to concentrate on relevant information in the presence of distracting stimuli (Kotary & Hoyer, 1995) and the ability to maintain attention over a long period (Hawthorn, 1998; Kotary & Hoyer, 1995). Although there are conflicting results regarding the relationship between age and the decline in divided attention, to pay attention to more than one task at the same time is usually difficult for older people (Brouwer, Waterink, Van Wolffelaar, & Rothengatter, 1991; McDowd & Craik, 1988). Cognition-related design guidelines include the following:

  • Minimize demands for working memory: tasks that demand high working memory, such as comprehending complex texts, navigating through deep menu hierarchies, and performing a large number of successive operations, should be simplified (Kurniawan et al., 2006).
  • Avoid deep and complex menu hierarchies: older people have difficulty in remembering their current location or previously followed links in a complex menu hierarchy. Shallow depth of menu hierarchy is associated with better navigation performance and user preference and, therefore, should be adopted (Kurniawan et al., 2006; Zaphiris et al., 2006). There is disagreement, however, about whether menu items should be presented all at once (as an index). Holt and Morrell (2002) found that older people performed better when the menu was explicitly provided, whereas Gao et al. (2007) found that index-like menu design leads to high disorientation and visual crowdedness for older people.
  • Avoid moving and expandable menus: in addition to accurate movements required by such menus, older people also have difficulty with remembering where they saw options previously (Coyne & Nielsen, 2002).
  • Provide an advanced organizer if possible: compared with young people, older people benefit more from the use of advanced organizers, such as clickable tables of contents and process bars (Gao et al., 2007; Wright, 2000).
  • Minimize irrelevant information in task environments: older people need to avoid paying attention to irrelevant information, especially graphics, in their task environments. Therefore, the use of graphics should be meaningful and relevant, not solely for decoration. Overly dazzling or complex interface designs should be avoided when possible (Hawthorn, 2000; Zaphiris et al., 2006).
  • Avoid tasks requiring continuous scanning: according to Vercruyssen (1997), it is difficult for older adults to maintain attention over a long period. Tasks that require rapid or continuous scanning are especially fatiguing for them.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  11. References

4.1. Methods

Because few studies about the socialization needs of older Chinese people in urban areas were available, we carried out a preliminary study of such needs by interviewing eight older Chinese people living in big cities, with ages ranging from 60 to 83 years (M = 71, SD = 7.5). Three of them lived in Beijing, two in Tianjing, two in Chongqing, and one in Shanghai—all cities were municipalities directly under the central government of China. These people were recruited from the personal social networks of the research team. Because we expected potential users would be able to engage in a variety of LTAs, physical and cognitive functioning of older people was required. Thus, we invited only those without serious physical or cognitive function impairments (e.g., paralysis, senile dementia). Half of the participants were females and the other half were males. All of the females were widowed with three living with their children and one living alone. Two males lived with their wives and children, and the other two lived only with their wives. Two participants received only elementary school education, four received middle-school education, and two had bachelor's degrees. Two females had been housewives for their entire lives, and the rest were retired from jobs as government officers/clerks, teachers, and engineers. The selection of such a mixture of genders, living conditions, educational backgrounds, and occupations reflects our desire to collect data on a range of possible user requirements.

The interviews were conducted either in face-to-face meetings (for participants in Beijing) or via telephone (for participants outside of Beijing). We acknowledged that the difference between the two methods might influence the dynamics of interview. Because of the lack of nonverbal cues, participants might be attending to other distractions instead of the interviewer in telephone interviews; on the other hand, they might be more willing to comment on sensitive topics over the phone that they would not comment on in person (Lazar, Feng, & Hochheiser, 2010). To mitigate the problem, the interviewer was accompanied by a young relative of the participant (e.g., grandchild) in each interview. Before the interview, the young relative introduced the research purpose and the researcher to the participant; during the interview, he or she also helped to explain questions if the participant had difficulty understanding. It was expected that involving close personal relationships in interviews would make older people more willing to engage in the conversation and more likely to express their opinions.

Demographic information and participants' use of computers and mobile phones in their daily lives were collected as background information in the beginning. Next, participants were interviewed about the type of leisure-time activity they usually engaged in. Special attention was paid to the type of activities they shared with friends and how they organized such activities together. Questions about their social situation followed: how they stayed in contact with their friends and relatives and their level of perceived loneliness. Finally, the interviewer discussed with the participant about the possibility of using mobile social software to help older people to stay connected and to share leisure-time activities, and older people's attitudes and suggestions were collected.

4.2. Results

4.2.1. Use of Technology

All of the participants had mobile phones for at least 2 years (M = 5.4, SD = 3.36). The functions they used, however, were very limited. Calling family members and relatives was the most important usage. Only two participants sent short messages (SMS), and one used his phone to play music. The two main reasons for the limited usage were overly small characters and complicated operations of mobile phone applications. Older people's lack of experience with computers is more obvious than with mobile phones. Only four participants used computers, and three of them were male. The major use of computers was for reading news and playing games. One participant also used the computer to check stock prices. None of them used e-mail or even had an e-mail address, but two participants used QQ, the most popular instant messenger in China for communicating with others, mainly for videoconferencing with distant family members. Five out of eight participants reported a positive attitude toward new technology, but they also expressed concerns about the difficulty of learning the technology for their age.

4.2.2. Social Life and Leisure-Time Activities

Loneliness seems to be a more serious problem for female participants than for males. All of the females reported loneliness in their lives. In contrast, no male participants complained about loneliness, and only one of them reported a feeling of “nobody to talk to” from time to time. A major cause may be that all of the female participants were widowed, and none of the males were widowed. Women's higher expectations for intimate relationships may also explain the gender difference in loneliness perception (Pinquart & Sörensen, 2001). The lack of company from their children was a major source of loneliness, but nearly all of the older people understood the situation. When talking about social interactions outside of the family, five mentioned that it was difficult to meet some old friends because of their geographical dispersion and their reduced mobility. Yet four of them exhibited an effort to stay in contact with them by organizing special events (e.g., birthday parties, dinners at the end of a year), keeping a regular “ritual” between them (e.g., visiting temple together once a month), and calling one another from time to time. Meetings and conversations were initiated either by a telephone call or by accidental meeting in the streets.

All of the participants actively joined collective leisure-time activities in addition to solitary activities (e.g., reading). Six participants played Mahjong, Chinese chess, and card games, most often with their neighbors or friends living nearby. Two participants joined an amateur chorus/Beijing opera team, which has regular practice sessions, and one participant visited a temple with her friend regularly. The ways that these people organize such activities include the following: 1) make an appointment at a face-to-face gathering, which takes place regularly (e.g., meet at a morning exercise place) or occasionally (e.g., meet in the street); 2) plan for the next activity at the end of a previous activity; and 3) arrange activities on a fixed schedule. The interview subjects reported difficulties when they wanted to immediately find someone with the same interests to play together occasionally without prior arrangements. Also, half of the older people reported that sometimes they had problems but had nobody to talk with, which left them helpless and lonely.

4.2.3. Attitudes toward Mobile Social Software for Older People

When introduced to the possibility of mobile social software for older people, half of the participants were positive about the idea, and the other half showed the opposite reaction. Among the participants with a positive attitude, two participants showed security concerns for making new friends online because “strangers are not reliable.” One of them also worried that people would chat and talk online for most of the time they were together, and thus reduce time for real-world meeting, which would be a great loss for physical activity and “real intimate interaction.” Another participant emphasized that the interface must be easy enough to use, and there should be a large enough number of his friends going online. Among people giving a negative response, two considered that it would be too complex for them to learn new things, and the other two said that they do not like computers or computer-like technology. It is necessary to note that many older people in China do not learn Pinyin (a standard coding system that encodes Chinese characters in the form of Roman letters, which is widely used for keyboard-based text input of computers and mobile phones), and this lack of knowledge may contribute to their difficulty in using computers. With touch-screen phones that enable handwriting input, this barrier may be alleviated.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  11. References

5.1. Use Scenario

Based on the findings obtained from the literature and user interviews, we found that older Chinese people in urban areas actively seek social interaction outside of their family. Collective leisure-time activities are a good way to keep them both physically and socially active. Currently, they organized such activities mainly through face-to-face meetings and occasionally via telephone. But these activities are insufficient in satisfying their spontaneous needs for company.

Motivated by these findings, we developed a concept of mobile social software, called LonelyNo, which help older people to organize leisure-time activities with friends. An older person at home who wants to find people to play Mahjong with can open LonelyNo on his mobile phone, select Mahjong from the activity list, and search for nearby friends who share similar interests. Based on information about their temporal availability and current location, the older people can decide whom to invite. Without text input from the user, LonelyNo can help the user to schedule the time and location (e.g., cafe) to meet through point-and-click operations and to send out invitation messages automatically. Older people can also contact friends through phone calls from LonelyNo without disclosing their phone numbers. The location that is selected will be marked on the embedded map system with locations of committed friends, and a time reminder will be set automatically for all of the participants in the activity.

5.2. System Architecture

Figure 1 shows the overall architecture of LonelyNo. The host end consists of a server and a database where user profiles and lists of leisure-time activities (called LTA in the system) and locations are stored. The server end also maintains the primary list of LTAs from which older users can select their favorite LTAs and develop a customized LTA list. There are two types of clients of LonelyNo. Desktop clients enable registration, profile editing, and LTA preference setting. Using Internet connections, such information is transmitted to and stored in the service server. After the initial setup of the profile and LTA preference, older users can then log into a client on their mobile phones to manage friends and search for LTAs. The location information of the mobile phone is collected by looking up a wi-fi hotspot database when indoors or using embedded GPS sensors when outdoors.


Figure 1. System architecture of LonelyNo.

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The two clients were designed with different use scenarios in mind. Registration and LTA setting tasks involve text input and require a certain level of knowledge of computers. However, such work could be done all at one time, and it is reasonable to assume that people who are technologically capable (e.g., older users' children, social caregivers) can help with this task. Such work is performed on the desktop/PC, whereas the work that must be done by the older people themselves is allocated to the mobile unit. After the initialization work, older people are expected to interact mainly with the mobile client, which requires no text input at all and little computer literacy.

5.3. User Relationships and Privacy Management

The central idea behind LonelyNo is to stimulate older people's social behaviors and to maintain their social ties as well. Privacy is a critical issue for this purpose. On the one hand, older users should be protected against unwanted contacts; on the other hand, we expect to provide a possibility that they can expand their social circle by meeting new friends who live nearby. Therefore, we differentiated user visibility for friend and nonfriend relationships. When a user sets his or her status as online, he or she becomes visible to all of the other users of the system. The system subsequently suggests LTA arrangements between users who may not know one another but share the same LTA at a certain point in time and are available in an adjacent area. When the user's status is set to online and invisible, only users who are his or her friends can find the user and invite the user to LTAs; the user can also set his status to offline, which conceals the user on any other users' lists. In addition, the built-in messaging and calling functions were implemented, which allow older people to contact new friends without disclosing private information, such as cell phone numbers.

5.4. Functional Design of Mobile Client

A prototype of the mobile client was developed on ASUS Mypal A639, which is equipped with a 3.5-inch display of 240 × 320 resolution and runs on a Windows Mobile 5.0. The large display of the device allows more space for displaying larger texts and graphics favored by older people; and the touch screen enables direct manipulation as well as handwriting Chinese input—an important feature for older Chinese people since many of them have not learned Pinyin and cannot type with the Pinyin input method using the number keypad. In addition, the processing power (Intel XScale PXA270 CPU, 416 MHz) and memory (64 MB RAM, and 1 G ROM) of the device meet technical requirements for running the client application with satisfactory response speed. The prototype was developed with Microsoft .NET compact framework 3.5 and C#.

The following sections describe the functional design of the mobile client and presents major user interfaces.

5.4.1. Start Page

The start page is a portal to major functions of LonelyNo, and it allows a quick switch of a user's status, which is indicated by the color of a status flag (green stands for online, gray stands for invisible, and red stands for offline) shown at the bottom right of the start page, as shown in Figure 2.


Figure 2. Start page of LonelyNo.

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5.4.2. Search for Users and LTAs and Invite Friends to LTAs

Starting a new LTA can be undertaken with one of two approaches:

  • Search for users or friends who have a similar LTA preference: once the search query is sent, the system will return a list of nearby users and friends who are interested in LTAs preferred by the current user. Figure 3(a) shows an example of a search result for an older user whose favorite LTAs (preference ranking >3 stars) are going to the cinema and watching TV. The returned list includes online users who also prefer these two LTAs (preference ranking >0 star), who are ordered according to their distance to the current user. Those people who are friends of the current user are marked with an avatar icon with a red heart.
  • Search for LTAs: the user can also search for a specific LTA, which may not be included in one's favorite LTA list; for example, it is possible that people who usually like playing chess happen to be in the mood for walking. Figure 3(b) shows a list of users who have walking as their favorite LTA; this list is ordered according to their distance from the current user.

Figure 3. Search for users and LTAs. (a) Search for Users, (b) Search for Activities.

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In either way, the user can subsequently invite selected friends to the LTA through one of two ways:

  • Send an Inquiry (automatically generated message) through LonelyNo: the user can send an Inquiry to the target user with the specific LTA information as well as the related time and location information. The system will provide time and location suggestions based on the assumption that the user would like to share the LTA at the nearest location among all of the locations related to that LTA and the earliest time; the time suggestion is based on the estimated time for walking from their current position to the target location. The time and location information can also be changed by the user through a set of point-and-click operations. The suggested place can be viewed on a map together with the location of all of the users who join the LTA. The invited user can accept the Inquiry or deny it. When an inquiry is accepted by other users, the system will record the LTA arrangement and put a reminder on the front page, which can be reviewed and changed later. Figure 4 shows the user interface for sending an inquiry.
  • Call the user or friend and talk about details directly: for those older people who find online messaging unfamiliar, they can also call the target user right from the application and talk about meeting details via voice communication. With this approach, however, the system would not be able to provide reminders for the LTA.

Figure 4. Possible response of a user inquiry for a specific LTA. (a) Inquiry accepted, (b) Inquiry denied.

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5.4.3. LTA Review and Reminder

Users are able to review LTAs arranged through the Inquiry from reminders on the front page. Time and location information of the next LTA will also be present at the bottom-left corner for quick access, whereas the “meeting” menu lists primarily the upcoming LTAs. Figure 5 shows an example of reviewing meeting information of an LTA to visit the cinema.


Figure 5. Possible response of a user inquiry for a specific LTA. (a) Inquiry accepted, (b) Inquiry denied.

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5.4.4. Search the Map

LonelyNo allows older users to look for nearby friends without a specified LTA intention from the map. As shown in Figure 6, the current user is represented by a red dot, and online friends of the current user are displayed by blue dots. Clicking a friend's name will call up a pop-up window from which the user can make a phone call or check the current LTA preference of this friend. Note that nonfriend users are not shown in this situation for two reasons: 1) it is unlikely that older people would contact an unknown person without a clear intention and 2) considering the growth of the system, presenting all of the online users nearby would soon crowd the screen.


Figure 6. Map browsing for nearby friends.

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5.4.5. Manage Friends

The phone book allows users to manage their friends list. The user can choose to show all of the online users, friends only, or nonfriends only. To prevent a long and cumbersome list of nonfriends, only those nonfriends whose home address or current location is adjacent to the current user are shown. A new friend request can be sent from a detailed information page of the corresponding user as shown in Figure 7, which can be accessed from different routes (e.g., from the LTA search result or from the “show all users” list of the phone book). The detailed information page also lists the top three favorite LTAs of the target user.


Figure 7. Phone book and friends management.

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5.4.6. LTA Preference Rating

Adding new preferred LTAs is done on the desktop-end client, but older people can use the mobile client to rate their current preference of LTAs at any time on a scale from 0 (meaning least preferred) to 5 (meaning highly preferred). The user can also sort LTAs by preference rating as shown in Figure 8.


Figure 8. LTA preferences rating.

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5.5. Implementation of Usability Considerations for Older People in the Mobile Client

5.5.1. Avoid Text Input from Older Users

Both the literature and our pilot study show that a major impediment for older users to use mobile applications is their difficulty in entering text inputs. Thus, we eliminated the need for text input in the mobile client of LonelyNo by the following means:

  • Eliminating text-input needs for registration and profile setting by carefully allocating functions between administrator, desktop-end clients, and mobile client as shown in Figure 9. On the mobile client, only those functions that depend on the changes in the older users' current goals and contexts and those requiring mobility are implemented.
  • Eliminating text inputs needed to search by smart search based on the user's current location and LTA preferences.
  • Eliminating text inputs needed for communication by providing location and time suggestions and automatically forming invitation inquiries. Changes to the schedule can be done by point-and-click operations.
  • Providing voice calls instead of short messaging functions for more personalized communication.

Figure 9. Allocation of tasks between administrator, PC-end client, and mobile client.

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5.5.2. Minimize Navigation Effort

We minimized the navigation efforts for LonelyNo by using a notably flat menu structure in which all of the main functions are directly accessible from the start page, and functions involving multiple steps are structured in such a way that the maximum number of clicks necessary to complete a task entirely is five clicks, as shown in Figure 10.


Figure 10. Flow diagram of LonelyNo.

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5.5.3. Support Declined Vision with Enlarged Font, Icons, and Strong Contrast

LonelyNo uses a sans serif font (Tahoma) because of its proven advantages for on-screen reading. All of the labels of buttons are set to 12 points, the titles are set to 14 points, and the long texts are set to 11 points when the screen size does not allow a 12-point size. Moreover, the size of buttons, icons, and other symbols in LonelyNo is 120% of the default size. The text-to-background contrast ratios in LonelyNo are set to 15.4:1 and 21:1 for buttons and other texts, which are well above WCAG 2.0's minimum criterion of 4.5:1 and its enhanced criterion of 7:1 (W3C, 2011).

5.5.4. Simplify the Tasks for Older Users

We adopted a simple and consistent layout design and made the process with the least pages, steps, and options. The following measures were taken to simplify further the tasks for older users:

  • Each pop-up window comes with a meaningful title, such as Meeting Arranged or Suggestion Denied, in combination with an easy-to-understand icon to enable recognition rather than recall for older users.
  • Alternative operations in corresponding situations were provided. For example, when the user is offline and clicks one of the first three main functions on the start page that requires the user to be online, a pop-up window appears that allows the user to go online to use the function or to cancel the request to the function.
  • We avoided the use of scrollbars because the associated complex movement presents great challenges for older users. Instead, forward or backward navigation buttons at the bottom of the screen are used when the content is longer than one screen, as shown (a).
  • No double clicking or holding while moving gesture is used in LonelyNo. All operations can be accomplished by single clicks.
  • Provide help whenever possible. On each window, a shortcut to help the current window and task is provided on the left side of the navigation bar, except for where the place is occupied by a backward navigation button (for multiple pages of content) and a shortcut to Meetings (for the start page).


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  11. References

6.1. Participants

As discussed in Section 'Barriers to Older People from Benefiting from Mobile Communications Technology', providing benefits perceivable by older people is critical to their adoption decision. Previous research showed that older people, whether computer users or nonusers, had similar difficulties in computer use (e.g., availability, skill), but for users, these difficulties seemed to be overcome by the perception of concrete benefits that were not perceived by nonusers. Therefore, we found validation of perceived benefits related to system functions and features a priori to user acceptance. The biggest challenge for LonelyNo is that such benefits may be only assumed by young and technology-savvy designers or developers and do not mean real benefits by older users.

Our goal was to assess benefits and costs perceived by older people and consequently their acceptance of the functions and features is necessary. For this purpose, we found interviews more appropriate than user testing because it allowed us to explore a wide range of concerns, reasons, and contexts related to decision of use or nonuse of the application without distractions from trivial device or interface issues; it also gives participants the possibility to provide detailed responses. The chance to talk encourages reflection and consideration. Consequently, the researcher could obtain more in-depth understanding of participants' attitudes.

We demonstrated our prototype to 100 older people living in Beijing followed by in-depth interviews to study benefits and costs related to LonelyNo perceived by older people and to assess their acceptance of provided functions and features. Fifty older people were recruited from Tsinghua Senior Citizen University (TSCU). Most of them were residents of the faculty and staff community of Tsinghua University. Another fifty older people were from Chang'an Xincheng (CAXC), one of the largest residence communities within the fifth ring in Beijing, with the help of the community's residents committee. Participants were ages from 55 to 79 years (M = 67.1, SD = 6.36), and the group included 44 males and 56 females. Chi-square test results show there is no significant difference between the age distribution of our sample (shown in Table 1) and that of the national population (China National Committee on Aging, 2007). However, the educational level of our sample was obviously higher than that of the national population. About 45% of our participants had a bachelor's degree or higher, whereas the national aging survey showed that only 7% of older people in urban China had a bachelor's degree or higher. The average income of our sample was 3,044 yuan per month (SD = 1,691), which was much higher than the average level of older people's income in urban China (997 yuan per month). However, this average income was approximately 25% lower than that of in-service employees in Beijing (Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics, 2010). This discrepancy may be attributed to the fact that Beijing is one of the most developed cities in China, and the overall education and income level in Beijing is higher than in other areas of China. Ninety-four percent of the participants had used mobile phones before, and 77% of them also had experience with computers.

Table 1. Demographic Information of Participants
 SampleTSCU GroupCACX Group
Ageinline imageinline imageinline image
 SD = 6.36SD = 5.59SD = 5.44
80 and above000
0. Uneducated1.0%0%2.0%
1. Primary school6.12.110.0
2. Junior high school10.22.118.0
3. Technical9.2018.0
secondary school   
4. Senior high school10.36.314.0
5. Junior college18.316.720.0
6. University40.864.618.0
7. Master degree1.02.10
8. Ph.D. degree3.16.30

A comparison between the two samples showed that TSCU participants have better education (χ2 = 21.11, p<001) and higher income than CAXC participants (MTSCU = 3,560, SDTSCU = 1,271.9; MCAXC = 2,537, SDCAXC = 1,899; t = 3.16, p = .02). The TSCU group has more experience in computer usage (t = 5.46, p < .01) than the CACX group, and the majority of both groups have experience with mobile phones (98% of TSCU and 90% of CAXC) and computers (92% of TSCU and 62% of CAXC). A major reason is that 56% of the TSCU participants were retired professors and professionals, whereas only 10% of the CAXC participants had worked as professionals. Whereas the CACX group may be more representative of the aging population in Beijing, we found that recruiting participants from the TSCU group has unique advantages. These participants used computers at the workplace and at home and could be more representative of members of the currently graying workforce, who will retire with years of computer experience.

6.2. Method and Procedure

The interviews were conducted from April to May 2010. The interviews for the TSCU group were conducted in the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory of Tsinghua University, and interviews for the CACX group were conducted in the meeting room of the residents committee. Each participant read and signed two copies of informed consents before the interview. The interview was divided into three parts: in the first part, they were interviewed about their demographic background and use of computers and mobile phones. The second part concerned their socialization pattern and perceived loneliness. This part was loosely related to the evaluation and would not be reported in this article. In the third part, a Chinese version of LonelyNo was introduced to the participants. The interviewer first described the scenario for finding nearby friends to carry out an LTA together (the selection of an LTA was customized based on participants' responses to questions in the second part), and then demonstrated how to do it through LonelyNo in detail with the prototype. All functions were covered in the demonstration. Older people could ask questions and request for repeating demonstration of particular functions. But they did not interact with the application directly. Because of the diversity in information and communications technology (ICT) experience and the fact that many of them had never used touch-screen mobile devices before, we were concerned that frustrations occurred in first time use of a new device may shift their attention (e.g., to issues such as required force or speed for clicking action) and distort their opinions about desirability of functions and features. Thus, direct interaction with the application was avoided. Feedback regarding the following aspects was collected:

  • Whether he or she was willing to use the system and why.
  • What were the expected use scenarios and functions of the system.
  • Gaps between LonelyNo and their expectations and other concerns.

Each interview lasted an average of 40 min. All of the interviews were recorded by a digital voice recorder.

6.3. Results

6.3.1. Willingness to Use and Reasons

Three participants had difficulty in understanding the concepts and could not answer the questions; thus, we had 97 valid interview sessions. Nearly all of the participants appreciated the concerns of older users' special requirements in the user interface design; however, only about two thirds of the participants indicated a willingness to adopt the technology. Among 97 valid interviews, 42 expressed a strong will to use the system, 36 refused to use it, 17 would like to use it under certain conditions (e.g., their friends are also using it, or the system provides more LTA information than is organized on their own), and two participants felt indifferent. There is no significant difference in users' acceptance with LonelyNo between the two communities as shown in Table 2. Further correlation analysis showed that there is no significant association between user acceptance and education and computer experience as well.

Table 2. Acceptance of LonelyNo among Older People from Two Communities
Attitude toward LonelyNoTSCUCACXTotal
Willing to use202242
Maybe useful under certain conditions8917
Refuse to use191736

To understand further what benefits and costs were perceived by older people for the mobile social networking system and what factors affected their choice, we transcribed older people's responses to the question of why they decided to adopt or reject LonelyNo using a coding scheme that consisted of “benefit,” “lack of benefit,” “cost,” and “other barriers.” The coding scheme was adapted from the motivation dimension of the coding scheme that Melenhost et al. (2006) developed. Benefit was defined as an advantage of LonelyNo, for example, “I can know new friends with similar interests with its help,” or “It is good that I can know more leisure activities and select the one I like the most”; cost was defined as a disadvantage of LonelyNo, for example, “Anything on mobile phone is too small for me to view,” or “It is too complex for people of my age”; lack of benefit was defined as a negative statement about a benefit, for example, “I do not need to join more LTAs,” or “It is not more convenient than telephone contact”; less or no cost was defined as a negative statement about a cost; finally, other barriers included other personal, technological, or social impediments for adoption. If an older person talked several times about a single benefit or cost, only one record was kept.

Table 3 shows a detailed decomposition of perceived benefits and costs for LonelyNo. Lack of benefit and benefit, representing 34% and 32% of all of the considerations, were the two largest categories. The next categories were cost considerations (23%) with a small contribution from other barrier considerations (8%) or lack of cost considerations (3.5%) mentioned.

Table 3. Number of Mentioned Cost-Benefit Considerations for Using LonelyNo
 Willing to UseRefuse to UseUseful under Conditions/Neutral
Considerations(N = 42)(N = 36)(N = 19)
Facilitate LTA participation and organization
Find and join more LTA1002
Selectivity in LTA selection302
LTA organization easier600
Make new friends1101
Enhanced connection and connections with existing friends703
Acquire information and get navigation aid403
Convenience of the mobile device510
Learn new things and keep up with the trends300
Social conformity102
Lack of benefits
Enough social partners and no strong need for new friends265
Enough LTA and no need for more LTA093
No remarkable advantages over other communication methods291
Not enough time136
Gathering at fixed time and location and no need for support of161
LTA participation and organization
Prefer being alone and no need for social activities080
Meet unfamiliar people
No fun1131
Not enough intimacy and trust260
Safety and security141
Possible frustration and trouble041
Information leakage and safety020
Difficult to use331
Require high-end mobile phone or other expense300
Less or no cost
No problem with unfamiliar people204
Not low availability of010
Other barriers
No skill or knowledge252
Impaired capability020
Low availability of mobile device or capable mobile device among older people320
Not enough people in the community121

The benefit and cost considerations for LonelyNo were different for older people who were willing to adopt, unwilling to adopt, and hesitant to adopt. Benefit formed the largest category of considerations (68%) for willing-to-adopt people, whereas lack of benefit formed the largest category (51%) for unwilling-to-adopt people. For hesitating people, the difference between the lack of benefit (43%) category and the benefit category (33%) was relatively small. The cost category was large for unwilling people (37%) but was a small category for the other two groups. Other barriers and lack of cost entries were small categories for all of the groups.

Thirty-four percent of all of the mentioned benefits of LonelyNo were related to finding, participating, and organizing LTAs. Especially those who were willing to adopt LonelyNo showed appreciation for the extra possibility and flexibility in finding more LTAs of interest. Six older people also appreciated the support of the new tool for LTA organization, but only one of them showed willingness to act as an LTA organizer. Other people said they prefer to join an LTA that is organized by a community (e.g., senior university) or other friends. Another major benefit of LonelyNo recognized by older people is the possibility of knowing new friends (19% of the mentioned benefits). Five out of 11 people who mentioned this benefit would like to make friends with people with shared interests, whereas others would like to make friends with people who live in the same community, who feel lonely and need friends as they do, or who are high-functioning persons. Other mentioned benefits such as enhancing the connection and communication among existing social partners (16% of mentioned benefits), acquiring useful information and navigation aid (11%), convenience and ubiquitous availability of the mobile device (9%), learning new things and keeping up with the society (5%), and conforming with others if many people around them use it (5%).

Having enough social partners and LTAs and no interests for new friends or more LTAs accounted for 29% of the mentioned lack of benefits. Another 14% of lack of benefit considerations was “no obvious advantages over current methods (such as face-to-face meeting and telephone).” Ten older people reported that their time had already been occupied by other commitments (most were to family, such as taking care of grandchildren), and they had limited spare time. Yet six of them mentioned that they would be interested in such systems if they had more spare time. Another 9% of lack of benefit comments came from older people; they previously arranged LTAs with friends at a fixed time or location and found the mobile support to be useless. Finally, eight older people said they preferred being alone and quiet.

Seventy-four percent of the cost category was related to the function of interacting with unfamiliar people. For people who refuse to use the system, unfamiliar people concerns made up 84% of the cost considerations. Forty-four percent of the unfamiliar people concerns were related to “no fun in playing with unfamiliar people.” Another 23% of the unfamiliar people concerns were related to a lack of trust and intimacy, which makes such social contact emotionally meaningless. Concerns for safety risks with unfamiliar people and possible frustrations involved in the process of making a new friend were also mentioned. A relatively small portion (15%) of cost considerations was related to difficulty of use. The reported difficulty mainly came from difficulty with cell phone usage in general and unfamiliarity with ICT technology; only one person was concerned with the complexity of our prototype. This number, however, should be interpreted with caution because participants did not interact with the application by themselves but by watching the interviewer demonstrate each function. It is possible that they may have more problems when they interact with the application by themselves. Other cost considerations included expensive high-end mobile devices that may be required to enable running such an application (7%) and possible information leakage (4%). Other barriers mentioned by older people for adopting such applications included a lack of required skill or knowledge, impaired vision and motor capability, and insufficient availability of the mobile device or capable mobile device among older people.

6.3.2. Expected Scenarios and Functions

By analyzing interview transcripts in depth, we found a number of discrepancies between users' requirements and the design purpose of LonelyNo. Support Formally Organized Collective LTAs

The initial aim of LonelyNo was to help older people to search for people with similar interests and to help them arrange activities by themselves. In interviews, however, we found a large portion of activities mentioned by our participants were collective activities formally organized by residents committees and other community organizations, such as a painting class organized by the senior citizen university or the daily morning tai chi training organized by the residents committee. The majority (92%) of our participants joined one or more LTAs organized by such associations regularly. Compared with activity pattern of older people in Western countries (Everard, 1999; Glass, de Leon, Marottoli, & Berkman, 1999; Lennartsson & Silverstein, 2001), formally organized collective activity seemed to play a more important role in older Chinese people's social life. Several participants found that such activities address multiple needs simultaneously: “I learn painting and singing with my friends in the senior university,” and “I am not lonely at all with friends meeting, learning, and chatting together.” Furthermore, most of the older people we interviewed would like to take a passive role in these LTAs (e.g., preferred to receive LTA information and attend LTA rather than publish LTA information and organize new LTAs). These findings suggest that LonelyNo would be more beneficial if it provides better support for such top-down organized and routine LTAs. Support Social Circle Maintenance and Development for Older Chinese

Small and tightly knit social circles were found to be important in older Chinese people's social lives. More than half of the participants suggested that their major interest was to maintain relationships within existing social circles rather than meeting new friends outside of such groups. They emphasized the importance of being affiliated and identified with such circles: “We older people already have fixed social circles.” “We know each other very well within our circle, and are not interested in other social circles.” Such social circles were often formed on the basis of shared life experience (e.g., from the same province, the same school), adjacency of living place, or common interests (e.g., Mahjong). They were highly aware of the clear distinction between in-circle and out-circle members and accepted this as a necessary part of social relationships: “I moved to Beijing several years ago and found older people here have their own circles. Even if you want to be part of them, you probably cannot.” “Everyone has his or her own circles. A stranger in the group will make people uncomfortable.” Within circles, older people had more intensive contacts, often routinely organized collective LTAs within the group, and developed their own social interaction patterns. For example, a participant reported that he played badminton with the same people at the same time and place every week. A self-selected leader was responsible for calling up and reminding his fellows to come to the stadium. They would communicate with one another, share life stories, and sometimes plan for other collective events when they gathered for badminton. They knew one another's phone numbers and contacted one another via phone when they returned home.

On the other hand, older people are also aware of their drop in social contact caused by death and geographic dispersion. Twelve participants mentioned that they were interested in meeting new friends to expand their shrinking network. Among the possible ways to initiate a new relationship, the majority of participants said introduction by known people was the most common way. In particular, being introduced by members of existing social circle members in collective LTAs was preferred. The reference from familiar people created a sense of trust and proximity, and attending LTAs together might reduce the embarrassment between unfamiliar people. The finding suggests that using mobile social applications to support maintenance of existing social circles (e.g., management of social contacts within circles, facilitating informational and emotional support exchange within circles, and protecting the shared goods of the circles from outsiders) and to help older people to connect to new social circles by sharing social circle information between friends could be beneficial for older people. Provide Information of Older People's Interests

A total of 21 participants would like LonelyNo as not only a social tool but also as an information platform from which they can receive information that is closely related to their interests, such as events in nearby parks and residential districts, good restaurants and hospitals, and travel information. Four participants wanted to search information about housekeeping services or volunteer service information (e.g., help to carry heavy things, help to solve their computer problems) through the system. Another four participants thought that quick access to emergency service would be necessary for older people. In addition, the motives of participating in LTAs for older people are often a combination of personal interests, socialization, and health concerns. Providing LTA-related health information (e.g., pros and cons of morning jogging, health tips for exercising) and tracking functions (e.g., time of playing tai chi per day) may add more value for older people. Given the difficulty that older people have in publishing information, contributions supplied directly from older people themselves should not be the major source of such information. Instead, the system should integrate with related stakeholders (e.g., social services, volunteer organizations, food and travel service providers, and health care services) to provide helpful information in a continuous and up-to-date way.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  11. References

This article illustrates the development and evaluation of a mobile social application for enhancing the social life of older people in urban areas in China. The reported design process emphasizes the importance of in-depth understanding of user requirements in specific social-cultural contexts for the development of mobile social software for older people. The definition and elaboration of system requirements needs to be assessed for older people repetitively through the design process, and iterations at an early stage are necessary for ensuring that the design concepts are beneficial. In describing the design process, we also presented an example of how considerations for physiological and cognitive degradation of older people were taken into account in the design of a mobile social networking application that features click-only operations, simple menu structures, and visually salient user interfaces.

The results highlight the critical impact of perceived benefits or relevancy on older people's adoption of new technology. In the second study, both participants who responded positively and negatively perceived similar barriers and costs of adopting the new technology, such as unfamiliarity, lack of skills and knowledge, and inaccessible devices. However, the former group perceived more benefits, whereas the latter group reported more lack of benefits, or “no necessity,” of the new technology. Many participants were aware of the convenience that ICT technology enables, but currently few services provide information tailored to older people's needs and interests. That 21 participants want our system to act as an information portal especially for older people highlighted the specific need for such a service. This observation is consistent with results from previous studies among Western older people (Carpenter & Buday, 2007; Melenhorst et al., 2001; Selwyn et al., 2003). Together these findings denied the assumption that ICT is inherently and universally useful and desirable. Involving older people proactively in designing ICT social tools for older people is necessary to fit the technology better with the lives of older people and ensure the ultimate usefulness and benefits of the application.

The results also reveal unique characteristics in socialization preference of older Chinese people. First, the type of activity preferred by older people seems different from those preferred by Western people. Most leisure activities mentioned by older people in Western studies were informal activities involving a small number of close people (e.g., visiting friends, going to cinema) and were likely to be initiated and organized in an individual-to-individual manner. Our study, however, found that collective LTAs formally organized by the residents committee or other community organizations play an important role in older Chinese people's lives. The preference for formally organized collective activities may be attributed to both the collectivism orientation of Chinese culture (Hofstede & Bond, 1988) and the “planned” lifestyle inherited from older Chinese people's life experience from the period of the extremely centrally planned economy in China. Furthermore, participating in formally organized collective activities was found to have either no significant or negative impact on Western older people's life satisfaction and well-being (Lemon, Bengtson, & Peterson, 1972; Litwin & Shiovitz-Ezra, 2006; Longino & Kart, 1982). Litwin and Shiovitz-Ezra (2006) found that the quality of social relationships, a facet of informal activity, counts the most in the association between activity and well-being. Chinese society, however, has a tendency to mix personal relationships and public relationships and to mix private life with public life. Thus, we suspect the impact of formally organized collective LTAs on older Chinese people would be different from what was found in Western studies and should be examined in future studies.

Second, the ways to maintain social relationship are different. Whereas both older Chinese people and Western people are selective of social partners, emphasizing emotionally meaningful relationships and preferring those they are familiar with, older Chinese emphasized the importance of affiliation with a few social circles. This is consistent with cross-cultural research (Farh, Zhong, & Organ, 2004; Triandis, Bontempo, Villareal, Asai, & Lucca, 1988; Yum, 1997), which suggested that East Asian culture tends to view a system made up of different groups connected by a symbiotic relationship, and Chinese people relate more readily to an in-group based on social ties. Furthermore, it was found important for older Chinese people to have an intermediary to help one initiate a new relationship. Such intermediary often has an in-group relationship with both parties and so can connect them. It suggested that mobile communication technology should facilitate communication within established social groups, support in-group cooperation, protect group welfare, and foster interaction between different social groups.

There are several limitations of the current study. First, the first study on older Chinese people's socialization needs was preliminary in its nature. Whereas the results provided useful input for the design of LonelyNo, future study with more systematic sampling procedure and larger research scope is required to capture socialization needs of older Chinese people comprehensively. Second, the prototype was demonstrated by the interviewer and direct interaction with the prototype of participants was avoided in the evaluation study. Results regarding perceived difficulty of use needs to be interpreted with caution. On the other hand, our study also suggested that perceived benefits of new technology is critical to older people's acceptance. Evaluating perceived benefits prior to evaluating ease of use would help development teams to focus on the right thing to do first and to save development effort caused by misunderstanding or neglecting older users' needs.


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