Living labs have an important role for collaborative innovation, but elderly consumers may have difficulties participating in a virtual cafe. Researchers Elisa Thomas, Kristi Bjørnes Skeie and Hong Huang in their paper “Inclusion of elderly users via virtual spaces in the early stages of the innovation process” investigate the role of intermediates and found they have a valuable role in facilitating the involvement of the older population within the innovation process, particularly at the fuzzy front end.
Innovation at the fuzzy front end
As people live longer the need to involve retirees more in the front end of innovation increases, as this is arguably where the highest impact can be made on the outcomes. Known as the ‘fuzzy front end’ this pre-development phase is where idea generation and project planning occurs and activities to define the concept, definition, strategy and market analysis take place.
Capturing the input from potential end users is vital but the complexity of this stage of the innovation process creates many challenges, particularly for smaller firms who usually lack the skills and resources required to perform all the relevant tasks.
For this reason innovation intermediaries such as “Living Labs” have become popular for supporting user-centric innovation. They use a variety of techniques to engage end-users in collaborative innovation, but increasingly they are using online environments such as virtual cafe’s.
However, for an older generation less familiar with digital technologies there is potential for this development to create another obstacle to participation.
Role of the living lab
The three authors of this study are part of a research project that included the Norwegian Smart Care Cluster (NSCC) which hosts a living lab. The project involved two clients: the Rogaland Fire Department on a fire prevention initiative and Sensio, a Norwegian producer of welfare technology.
The NSCC was involved in recruiting the participants and facilitating the sessions to ensure virtual inclusion of elderly individuals. It used a number of different approaches and reviewed both the process and the learning points.
Interestingly the study revealed a strong insecurity from the client firms regarding virtual cafe’s and their ability to simultaneously manage the technology and run the workshops. However, after the study it was agreed that the virtual cafe format had been very beneficial and the fire department was inspired to run a similar workshop with substance users.
Learning points from the Virtual Cafe
The study looked both at the process and the outcomes and collated learning points to improve the design of future projects.
It discovered the following:
Motivation – the motivation for elderly people to participate was multifactorial and included: desire to learn new things, curiosity, feeling useful and being entertained.
Trust – trust is key to successful collaboration as it allows users to provide their honest opinions without fear or hesitation and is also important to sustain participant retention. Trust is created through mutual respect and shared responsibility, this also promotes ownership of the innovation with different stakeholders, which in turn has a positive impact on the motivation to participate. The researchers found developing trust a substantial challenge in a virtual environment and so they incorporated trust building activities at the start of the programme. The recruitment process was through trusted third parties such as friends, family and respected organisations. They also allowed time for participants to get to know each other and the technology before the innovation workshop.
Diversity – the researchers noticed a gender difference. The men of this age were more likely to have had active working lives and to have had involvement with unions and other groups that had transitioned to digital technologies. The women were less likely to have encountered technology through work or to have spoken in public. It was noted that women were less likely to voice opinions in the mixed environment, suggesting that some separate groups would provide opportunities for more female participation.
Technology – the elderly managed the technology very well, but this was enhanced by having a practice session with zoom prior to the innovation meeting to build confidence in using the technology. This insecurity was also shared by the clients, so it should not be assumed that confidence is dependent on age. For the clients having an intermediary responsible for the technology, leaving them free to engage with the participants was highly regarded.
Novelty – participation in an innovation process was a novelty for both the clients and the participants.
Benefit – individuals were found to have greater motivation to participate if they were learning something of personal benefit. Firms planning to include elderly individuals in the innovation process should consider this a two- way process and offer some knowledge or other incentive in return for participation.
Structure – in a virtual environment it is more difficult to grasp social cues such as hints, emotions and feelings and this requires the intermediary to create a structured approach for capturing and responding to interactions.
Both the client organisations found the living lab a positive experience and valued the work of the intermediary in facilitating the experience for the participants.
The researchers conclude that to gain maximum benefit from the virtual cafe consideration must be given to building trust at all stages, familiarising all parties with the technology ahead of the workshop and providing a sufficient benefit to the participants to ensure their commitment and ownership.
Read the full paper
Inclusion of elderly users via virtual spaces in the early stages of the innovation process, Elisa Thomas , Kristi Bjørnes Skeie and Hong Huang, R&D Management 2022.