‘Alexa, set the alarm for me to take my medication’

April 21, 2023
Older adults talking to a voice assistant device. Image credit: Nicole Smith, made with Midjourney

Older adults use voice assistant devices more often with training and flyers with instructions to complement their daily routine, according to a new University of Michigan study that looked at long-term usage.

Voice assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Nest, are low-cost computing devices that use voice and conversation as the primary interaction modality. In recent years, they have become increasingly popular with hands-free methods to retrieve information or to listen to music.

These devices also provide better information access for older adults, who may not use computers and mobile devices due to late-life vision or motor disability.

Previous research has examined how older adults have used voice assistants on a short-term basis. The U-M study involved older adults in a long-term care community who used Alexa devices for at least one year.

Participants learned to use Alexa through a training program that encouraged exploration. Training flyers were placed near the participants’ devices, which gave them time to explore new skills relevant to their daily lives. All participants used Alexa at least twice a day.

“We have been using the wrong approach to introduce these technologies and train people how to use them,” said Robin Brewer, U-M assistant professor of information. “As such, we show how older adults are actively using voice technologies.”

When they interacted with Alexa, it complemented their daily routines, improved their mood, engaged in cognitively stimulating activities, and supported socialization with others.

The researchers also noted that some participants felt Alexa also provided comfort through conversations, especially valuable when they were lonely.

The findings will be presented next week at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Hamburg, Germany. Pooja Upadhyay, lead author and doctoral student at the University of Maryland; Shiri Azenkot, associate professor at Cornell University; and Sharon Heung, doctoral student at Cornell University, contributed to the paper.