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Qualified Self – rethinking the Quantified Self movement for older people?

It is now widely accepted that having real-time data on what we eat, how much we exercise and how we sleep may be able to help us manage our health and wellbeing.

We’ve become accustomed to using digital technology to measure everything from steps and calories to heart rate and body fat. There’s even a movement that has grown up around this life-logging trend – the Quantified Self movement – and a burgeoning industry in wearable tech to do the monitoring.

Nike may have stopped making its famous Nike + FuelBand, once the poster child of the Quantified Self movement, but the ‘everyday athletes’ in the millennial workforce are today hooked on a wide range of devices that track every health-conscious move they make.

And that’s the trouble with the Quantified Self movement: its most passionate disciples and most consistent beneficiaries are those exercise junkies who least need a prompt to eat better or walk more. It’s rather like the provision of corporate gyms: the only employees who go in them are already super-fit; the rest of the workforce sulks at the desk with a bag of crisps and a sausage sandwich.

The people who really need to watch their weight, monitor their heat rate and remember to take their vitamins are older people. But wiring yourself up to get a better statistical grasp of your daily performance is of little interest to most people in later life.

In some ways this is a shame because the ability to respond to such information could help an ageing population manage its wellbeing much better than it does now. But there’s something slightly off-putting about the competitive gaming aspect of the Quantified Self and its hordes of self-obsessed ‘digital natives’. For ‘digital immigrants’ more comfortable with less tech-driven ways of being, couldn’t there be a design alternative that fits older lifestyles and that doesn’t involve reading graphics and charts?   

In the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art, we’ve been looking at finding a more analogue approach to address the issue. Working with a large Japanese consumer electronics manufacturer, whose domestic market is one of the fastest-ageing populations in the world, we came up with a modified version of the concept of the Qualified Self.  

The differences in approach with the Quantified Self are subtle but revealing. While the quantifying movement seeks to give people a better sense of their performance through the reading of empirical health data, the Qualified Self seeks to give people over 65 a better sense of themselves, by delivering personal insights and reminders at the time, in the place and through the media that is best suited for them. 

If a wearable fitness band epitomises the Quantified Self movement, then we thought that a digitally-enabled mirror sitting on the wall at the entrance to the home and using facial recognition to provide personalised health and wellbeing messages could be the poster child for the Qualified Self movement.

This device could remind you to take your meds as well as your wallet and Freedom Pass when you leave the house, communicating information in a (literally) reflective and reassuring way that contextualises your day – and all in a large, readable typeface too.       

We’ve been experimenting through device and interface design to find analogue ways to utilise the benefits of the digital revolution for the health of older people.  The smart hall mirror is just one proposal among many that sit locked in a box marked corporate R&D at present but could reach the market in the near future. As we age we don’t need to programme a fiddly new gadget to monitor our health – the familiar stuff all around us could be digitally enhanced to lend a helping and qualifying hand.

About the Author

Jeremy Myerson holds the Helen Hamlyn Chair of Design at the Royal College of Art and is an Honorary Fellow, Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, University of Oxford

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Comments Welcome: We welcome your comments on this or any of the Institute's blog posts. Please feel free to email comments to be posted on your behalf to or use the Disqus facility linked below.