User involvement in the development of smart assistive technologies
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The rapid growth of the aged population puts inevitable strains on health services and support networks worldwide. This growth continually increases the financial expenditure for physical care, not only because of a growing demand, but also because of an insufficient availability of professional caregivers. In addition, older adults have an increased need for the provision of care at a convenient location, which is most frequently in their own home and not in a nursing- or elderly home. Therefore, there is a growing interest in technologies, which can both supplement and/or replace high quality care at home. This technology is generally referred to as smart assistive technologies, or smart ATs. However, designing these smart ATs, particularly for the biggest group of potential users, is not a straightforward process. The proper consideration of abilities, disabilities, needs and desires of potential users is crucial for the success of these products. In current literature, two main differences of approach can be established. The first difference occurs between the broadness of definition of users being only end-users or also ‘additional’ users, such as professional caregivers, informal caregivers and relatives. The second difference is discernible when creating a proper ‘image’ of potential users. Design literature puts forward the idea, that users ideally should be physically involved in the developmental process, while innovation literature suggests that users can also be represented by ‘other sources of use information’, such as experts. During the course of this research, I interviewed people involved in the development processes of smart assistive technologies in The Netherlands. The goal of these interviews was to give an informed answer to the main research question I have pursued: When and how is information about (potential) users of smart assistive technologies (smart ATs) brought into the design and development processes of smart ATs in The Netherlands? An attempt was made to determine which of the two design strategies is preferred by developers, and why this strategy is legitimate in creating an ‘image’ about potential users and use. Additionally, the way in which developers consult different sources of information (and how these sources obtain information on use and users) is explored. Results show that the majority of current developers of smart ATs in the Netherlands consider both older and younger adults as their potential users. Because of the nature of smart assistive technologies, this is a striking phenomenon. Developers working on developmental processes of more complex technologies (which in this study were the technologies frequently related to healthcare) also assigned importance to additional users. Both rationales given for considering additional users, or explicitly ignoring them, seem to be legitimate. This means that at least some development processes benefit from the broader definition of users, as advocated by innovation literature. In addition, the results show that most development processes do not apply user participation as advocated by the practical design literature, because it is expensive, time consuming and the expected benefits are limited. Instead, developers rather apply other sources of use information to create an ‘image’ about use and users, such as consulting experts or applying knowledge that was obtained during previous experience and/or research. These sources of use information are considered equally (or sometimes even more) useful and valuable when creating an ‘image’ of users and use and they are considerably cheaper and less time consuming.