Accessible Digital Tools for Connecting to the World

Please find on this page a description of the research agenda I setup for myself in order to advance the design of Assistive Technologies supporting Active and Assisted Living. I have a particular interest in how we can empower end-users in customizing their own technologies.

Working Title: Accessible Digital Tools for Connecting to the World: How People Create Own Digital Interfaces for Analogue Life Challenges

Keywords: Ubiquitous Computing, Autonomy, Adaption, Customization, Active and Assisted Living, Smart Home, Internet of Things, End User Development, Empowerment.


Introduction: Staying independent in old age is the desire of most, if not all, of us. Given this longing and the growing aging of the Western population, tremendous research into technological interventions for healthy and active aging comes as little surprise. Ubiquitous computing is playing a leading role in allowing people to age gracefully at home, however, much work remains to be done in the domain of the smart home, ambient assisted living or assistive technologies. For example, smart home technologies have been explored and developed broadly from a utilitarian or deficit-driven perspective (see (Rashidi & Mihailidis, 2013) for a good overview article), nevertheless they are not in widespread use to date. As a response, researchers have started addressing the same domain in a more ‘designerly’, exploratory or playful fashion (Pullin, 2011), acknowledging that technology cannot only be useful in compensating deficits of the body, but also in enhancing the quality of life by supporting a more active, healthier life in a broader sense, for example, by fighting social isolation and promoting technology mediated communication (Baecker, Sellen, Crosskey, Boscart, & Neves, 2014).
My research agenda contributes to the more designerly approaches to exploring the design space of assistive technologies. In particular, I am interested in investigating a number of important notions when it comes to aging gracefully, namely autonomy, the creativity of the individual, and empowerment. While I am taking a perspective that is less influenced by technical engineering, I nevertheless investigate these notions through fully implemented interactive prototypes within a design-based research approach.

Methodological approach: The overall research approach to this agenda can be described as design-based research, project-grounded research or research through design (Gaver, 2012; Zimmerman, Forlizzi, & Evenson, 2007). It is characterized by an iterative exploration of the design space with a series of prototypes embodying different concepts, which are under investigation. Making, creating and building physical materializations of the ideas play a crucial role within the process. However, the making part is not restricted to the designers, but as we will see, becoming active and creators is also a key element in the everyday use of the finished prototypes by the end-users. In addition to this practice-based approach, my research also includes distinctive components of user-centered design and co-design with the targeted user groups.

Research story: The process of the research constitutes a multi-phase prototyping exploration of the notions of autonomy, creativity of the individual, and empowerment (c.f. above). It is facilitated by the availability of novel digital fabrication tools (at an affordable price for the broader public) such as laser cutters and 3D printers, which enable the practice-based and design-based exploration of assistive technology.

The endeavor started out with the design of more conventional assistive and sensor-based devices (Flexglove and ProxyCare) for monitoring people and health parameters. These two first prototypes, however, featured certain novel elements that gave the user the freedom to arrange and adapt them according to their specific needs. For example, HandCam was indented as a logging device for medical parameters, but it could also be used as a conventional photo camera with an accessible user interface. Later on, the  work focused on specialized computing devices for senior users and users with special needs in order to empower them by providing access to the Internet, additional communication channels, and other related applications (for example, see the TabletCompanion or PhotoGreetings product line).

All projects and design experiments of the research process, are united by the underlying design motivation to provide tools, which can be customized and adapted by their users to their specific needs to account for specific needs and interpersonal differences . With regard to customization, I focus on offering a high degree of freedom, and I do not restrict the concept strictly on one predefined task, problem or disability (compare HandCam). I believe in the creativity of the individual which empowers them to solve their particular problem supported by appropriate technology.

Throughout this research agenda, this degree of customization in the prototypes grows, eventually resulting in the development of a new programming paradigm for people without prior computer experience, which we named Thingy Oriented Programming (work-in-progress). In a sense, this constitutes a radical and ultimate ‘experiment’ of how far one can push the limits of letting lay people setup their own assistive or smart home technologies.



  • Baecker, R., Sellen, K., Crosskey, S., Boscart, V., & Neves, B. B. (2014). Technology to reduce social isolation and loneliness. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 16th international ACM SIGACCESS conference on Computers & accessibility, Rochester, New York, USA.
  • Gaver, W. (2012). What should we expect from research through design? Paper presented at the Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Austin, Texas, USA.
  • Güldenpfennig, F., Dudo, D., & Purgathofer, P. (2016). Towards Thingy Oriented Programming: Recording Macros with Tangibles. Paper presented at the TEI.
  • Güldenpfennig, F., & Fitzpatrick, G. (2013a). A monitoring device as assistive lifestyle technology: combining functional needs with pleasure. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 4th Augmented Human International Conference, Stuttgart, Germany.
  • Güldenpfennig, F., & Fitzpatrick, G. (2013b). Towards Rapid Technology Probes for Senior People Human Factors in Computing and Informatics (pp. 664-671): Springer Berlin Heidelberg.
  • Güldenpfennig, F., Nunes, F., & Fitzpatrick, G. (2015). ProxyCare: integrating informal care into formal settings. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Pervasive Computing Technologies for Healthcare, Istanbul, Turkey.
  • Güldenpfennig, F., Nunes, F., Ganglbauer, E., & Fitzpatrick, G. (2016). Making Space to Engage: An Open-ended Exploration of Technology Design with Older Adults. International Journal of Mobile Human Computer Interaction (IJMHCI). PDF
  • Pullin, G. (2011). Design Meets Disability. Cambridge: MIT Press. Rashidi, P., & Mihailidis, A. (2013). A Survey on Ambient-Assisted Living Tools for Older Adults. Biomedical and Health Informatics, IEEE Journal of, 17(3), 579-590. doi: 10.1109/JBHI.2012.2234129
  • Zimmerman, J., Forlizzi, J., & Evenson, S. (2007). Research through design as a method for interaction design research in HCI. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, San Jose, California, USA.

Images from different projects: