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Easier-to-hit 'targets' could help older people make the most of computers

Visit SPARC website

11 September 2008

Older people could make better use of computers if icons, links and menu headings automatically grew bigger as the cursor moves towards them.

A new University of Reading study has shown that ‘expanding targets’ of this kind, which grow to twice their original size and provide a much larger area to click on, could deliver:

  • a 50%+ reduction in the number of mistakes older people make when using a computer mouse to ‘point and click’
  • a 13% reduction in the time older people take to select a target

Although the potential advantages of expanding targets are well known in the computing research community, this study was the most comprehensive to date to focus specifically on their benefits for older people. Undertaken as part of the SPARC (Strategic Promotion of Ageing Research Capacity) initiative, the findings will be discussed at this year’s BA Festival of Science in Liverpool. SPARC is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

With age-related changes in their capabilities, many older people can find it extremely challenging to position a cursor accurately using a mouse. In some cases, this may even discourage some people from using computers altogether.

Automatically expanding targets could be introduced through simple changes to software products. They not only have the potential to make it simpler and quicker to use computers but could also play a role in encouraging wider use of computers among older people in general.

This could lead to a greater number of older people shopping and communicating online and accessing web-based information about healthcare services, for instance. It could boost their quality of life and enable continued independent living, especially if their ability to travel declines.

The University of Reading study involved 11 older people with an average age of just over 70. Recruited via Age Concern, these volunteers were asked to perform a series of ‘point and click’ exercises during a 40 minute test session, using a laptop computer and a standard computer mouse. This research studied situations where only one target expands at a time. Further investigations are ongoing to study how target expansion will work in situations where there are multiple targets on the computer screen.

"Using a computer mouse is fundamental to interacting with current computer interfaces", says Dr Faustina Hwang, who led the research. "The introduction of expanding targets could lead to substantial benefits because older people would feel more confident in their ability to control a mouse and cursor. A computer can be a real lifeline for an older person, particularly if they’re living alone, and expanding targets could help them harness that potential."

One of Dr Hwang’s PhD students is now investigating the specific difficulties older people experience when trying to double-click a computer mouse – an essential function in opening applications and other key computing functions.

ENDS

Notes to editors

The 12-month study ‘Improving Computer Interaction for Older Users: Investigating Dynamic On-screen Targets’ received financial support from SPARC of £42,703. Additional support was received from the University of Reading.

The study also assessed the impact of expanding targets on the mouse and cursor control achieved by younger people (average age early/mid 20s, recruited from the University of Reading). Expanding targets produced the same improvements in error rates and target selection times as for older people.

The Research Councils are taking this area of research forward through the cross-Council programme on Life Long Health and Wellbeing, which includes the Medical Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council in addition to BBSRC and EPSRC.

The BA Festival of Science will take place in Liverpool from 6-11 September bringing over 350 of the UK’s top scientists and engineers to discuss the latest developments in science with the public. In addition to talks and debates at the University of Liverpool, there will be a host of events happening throughout the city as part of the European Capital of Culture celebrations.

Dr Faustina Hwang will be giving a presentation on Thursday 11th September at The Foresight Centre, University of Liverpool (see http://www.foresightcentre.co.uk). This will form part of the ‘Older People Going Places’ event organised by SPARC which will run from 1.30pm on this date.

An image is available from the EPSRC Press office, see contact below.
Image caption: Taking aim: an older computer user tries out techniques that can make it easier to select targets with a computer mouse, observed by a University of Reading researcher

About SPARC

SPARC is a unique initiative supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to encourage the greater involvement of researchers in the many issues faced by an ageing population and encountered by older people in their daily lives. SPARC is directed, managed and informed by the broader community of researchers, practitioners, policy makers and older people for the ultimate benefit of older people, their carers and those who provide services to older people.

About EPSRC

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC invests around £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone’s health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK. http://www.epsrc.ac.uk

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £420M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

About the BA Festival of Science

The BA Festival of Science 2008 is being organised by the BA (British Association for the Advancement of Science) in partnership with the University of Liverpool. It is supported by the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, the Liverpool Culture Company and the Northwest Regional Development Agency.

About the BA

The BA (British Association for the Advancement of Science) is the UK's nationwide, open membership organisation that exists to advance the public understanding, accessibility and accountability of the sciences and engineering. Established in 1831, the BA organises major initiatives across the UK, including National Science and Engineering Week, the annual BA Festival of Science, programmes of regional and local events, and an extensive programme for young people in schools and colleges. The BA also organises specific activities for the science communication community in the UK through its Science in Society programme.

External contact

Dr Faustina Hwang, School of Systems Engineering (Cybernetics), University of Reading

tel: 0118 378 7668

Judy Moreton, EPSRC Press Office

tel: 01793 413084

Contact

Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382