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Lessons learned: Designing Participant-centred research - Understanding benefits and risks of social robots for the elderly.

MPCER Workshop 10 November 2020.

by Prof. Dr. Dominik Mahr, Prof. Dr. Gaby Odekerken-Schröder and Dr. Martina Čaič

Users are experts of their own experience

This workshop showed how to use design-thinking, or rather design-doing, as Dominik Mahr explained, in a participant-centred research project to understand benefits and risks of social robots supporting elderly. The participants in the workshop experienced what a design-doing approach entails. In fact, the workshop mimicked the steps that the researchers had employed in their participant-centred research project with elderly people who were partly dependent on formal and informal care givers.

The researchers’ method was driven by their interest in addressing real-world challenges. Robots are increasingly suggested as an alternative option to scarce and expensive human labour force. Depending on their functionality, robots’ social capabilities to interact with humans may vary widely. From a cleaning robot this is not required; for robots placed in restaurants or as assistants in elderly homes it is a key requirement. In these latter cases, robots are increasingly seen as social entities. The research carried out by Mahr, Odekerken and Čaič aims to find out, via a participant-centred, design-thinking approach the opportunities and risks of introducing ‘social’ robots for assisting elderly living on their own. In the workshop, we focused more specifically on the role of that a social robot could play in a situation where an elderly person would experience a fall.

The research method takes a holistic approach described as human-centred, participatory, creative, transformative and systemic. The method boils down to studying innovations in context, analysing value networks (and value co-creation) before and after a disruptive transformation, namely the introduction of an imagined care robot. The network is thought to comprise at least three different entitities, the elderly, the informal care givers and formal care givers.

The workshop participants were asked to think of gains and pains in the value network, before and after the introduction of a social robot. The challenge here consisted in interpreting the world from different perspectives. And, of course, imagining what the introduction of a robot may imply. The third step consisted in developing ideas about future developments, without any restrictions of feasibility.

The researchers applied the method delineated above in the situation of elderly people living alone, supported by formal and informal care givers. The researchers employed various narratives and visualisations. The participant-centred approach led to distinguish three different types of elderly persons, each with their distinct value networks, highlighting functionalities, social connections or emotions and empathy. “Users are experts of their own experience”, was the general conclusion. A more specific take away concerned the mixed appreciation of the gains and pains of the introduction of social robots in health care. In regard to physical health, social robots can be seen either as an enabler or an intruder; with regard to psycho-social health, as an ally or a replacement, and in regard to cognitive health as an extended self or a deactivator. Dominik Mahr closed the workshop with a quote from the well-known inventor Nikola Tesla, emphasising the aims of MPCER: “Science is but a perversion of itself unless it has as its ultimate goal the betterment of humanity”.


Some lessons learned:

  • Evaluating innovations requires participatory methods
  • A human-centred and a systemic approach don’t necessarily exclude each other
  • Acknowledge different perspectives in value networks
  • The human drivers of head, heart and hands do not always go hand in hand
  • Imagining disruptions requires creative methods, including the use of narratives and visualisations

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