Voice interfaces in home healthcare

Usability | April 2018

illustration of mans speech spreading across page

How AI driven tech is being used to assist older people

UX Consultant, Michelle Parfitt, considers the potential of voice interfaces in home healthcare for older people.

Artificial intelligence (AI) powered voice interfaces in home healthcare are becoming increasing available and accessible to the public. Now that this technology has matured sufficiently to be useful in everyday products, such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, it’s time to consider how we can design for these interfaces with particular audiences in mind.

A natural technology for older people to use

Whilst conducting research for the Stroke Association, we spoke to a woman in her 90s who had dementia, and used Amazon Echo. She struggled to use a computer because of her poor vision and lack of familiarity with the computer interface. However, she was able to use the Amazon Echo with ease, and enjoyed ‘asking Alexa’ for the weather and news. This illustrates why voice interfaces seem like a natural technology for older people to use, however there are still design considerations to be made in the context of home healthcare.

Saturday Night Live ‘Amazon Echo Silver’ sketch

You may have seen a Saturday Night Live (SNL) sketch called ‘Amazon Echo Silver’, which imagined a version of Amazon Echo tailored towards the older generation.

alternative names to alexa next to fictional voice interface deviceThe sketch included features such as: responding to a wide range of names similar to Alexa (such as Allegra, Aretha and Alberta), a quick scan function that helps users find misplaced objects, and a ‘uh-huh’ feature that listened to users’ long stories and occasionally intercepts with ‘uh-huh’. It is unlikely that any of these features will be installed into a voice-activated personal assistant any time soon. However, designing voice interfaces tailored towards the older generation should certainly be considered.

A voice interface is particularly accessible to older people:

  • It provides a natural way of engaging with technology that requires minimal prior knowledge of interacting with digital products.
  • It’s accessible to those with certain age-related disabilities, such as degenerative eye diseases, arthritis or other motor and visual impairments.
  • It does not rely on users ‘checking it’ or charging it, as is required with cell phones or diaries. It is therefore also particularly well suited and accessible to elderly people who have memory or other cognitive impairments.

Voice interfaces in home healthcare – maintaining people’s independence

There are many ways in which voice activated personal assistant devices could help older people maintain their independence. For example they could: provide medication prompts; talk users through their prescribed exercises; answer questions about their plans or appointments; order a taxi; and the list goes on.

UK local authority adopts Amazon Alexa to support home care service users

Hampshire County Council is the first local authority in the UK to use Amazon Echo to support older people with additional care needs. New ‘skills’, the equivalent to apps for Amazon Echo, will be added to the device, which will allow the user to ‘ask Alexa’ to remind them to take their medication or check when their carer is due to arrive. The hope is that this will help support people to live independently in their own homes for longer, reducing social isolation and the need for additional care packages.

Dedicated apps

There have been a couple of other apps for voice interfaces dedicated to older audiences. For example, Marvee aims to connect older home care recipients with their friends and family more easily. When an older person gets up in the morning, it allows loved ones to be notified, and requests for a visit or call can be made.

SOS alerts to friends and family

My SOS Family allows users to send for help from a loved one easily. It is compatible with Amazon Echo, as well as a range of different mobile phones.

This is an example of how voice interfaces may start to replace panic alarms or buttons, especially if they are not in reach when they are needed. Apps such as these may start to revolutionise home healthcare for the older generation, due to their greater accessibility and usability relative to previous technologies.

Design challenges

What kinds of considerations need to made when designing voice interfaces for older people?

For example, how do you design a voice activated app that most accurately monitors medicine intake? How do you design a voice interface that is supposed to have some ‘personality’ to provide assistance, without becoming annoying or smothering? How do you build trust? How do you reassure people that any medical information that they share will remain private and protected?

Particular health conditions present a range of further challenges. For example, how do you make voice interfaces accessible to those who have speech impediments, perhaps due to Parkinson’s disease or a stroke? Users with these health conditions may find a voice interface particularly useful because they are likely to require additional care, and may have physical impairments that stop them using physical interaction devices.

And what about users with memory impairments? For example, it is important that voice activated personal assistants remind users if they initiate unintentional re-purchases, due to memory impairments. Designing without aspects such as these in mind may result in serious, in this case, financial, implications for the user.

Looking forward

The possibilities for artificial intelligence driven voice interfaces in home healthcare seem endless.

Voice interfaces currently wait and ‘listen’ for commands, operating more as a ‘call and response’ technology. However, it is likely that artificial intelligence will learn to decipher human emotion too. If this becomes a reality, voice interfaces may be able to recognise when a user is feeling lonely or distressed. The personal assistant may subsequently be able to trigger a connection with someone else in their support network or engage in another activity designed to combat loneliness or distress.

Other applications?

The potential benefits of voice interfaces do not, of course, end with home healthcare for older people. They also have potential to help users who have, for example, mental health conditions or physical disabilities, in unique ways. Home healthcare apps for voice interfaces is currently an underserved market, and more research is needed on how interface design for these audiences.

Test your early concepts and flows

We can help you optimise your product development process by testing early concepts and flows, using methods such as ethnographic research and in-depth interviews. We can also support you in further improving the interaction flow, as well as test fully functional beta/live skills in the real-life context.

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