Assisting Family Members with Technology in a Remote World

Assisting Family Members with Technology in a Remote World

Published as a poster in American Psychological Association’s Technology, Mind, and Society Conference 2021

Epstein, B., & Marengo, L. (2021). Assisting Family Members with Technology in a Remote World. In TMS Proceedings 2021. Retrieved from


The coronavirus pandemic imposed a dependence on technology unfamiliar to many, amplifying the need to learn new systems and troubleshoot problems. This study aimed to understand user behavior in the context of adult children assisting their parents with unfamiliar digital technologies in order to recommend improvements to digital technologies’ capacity to support less confident users. Naturalistic observations were conducted over Zoom of 3 pairs. Participants chose a desktop-based task the parent needed assistance with from their child. Natural communication between participants throughout their interaction with their chosen systems enabled robust data collection and unobtrusive observation. Data was analyzed through two theoretical Human-Computer Interaction frameworks: Resilience Strategy, proactive contributions users make to avoid mistakes and maintain performance, and Distributed Cognition of Teams (DiCoT), which examines how users with a common purpose interact with technology. The results show that children more readily deployed resilience strategies, transferring their comfort using technology to unfamiliar systems and communicating with their parents to avoid errors. Digital technologies can adopt this role by anticipating common errors and making the resilient action evident, supporting less confident users and reducing anxiety around making mistakes. Analysis through DiCoT revealed how children filter interface feedback into task-centered language, helping their parents understand the result of an action, reassuring them, and prompting them to continue. Hints, descriptions, or tooltips placed where users need confirmation and written from the user’s perspective can explain the purpose of an interface element, extract important information, and empower less confident users to make sense of unfamiliar systems. 

Theoretical Approaches

Resilience Strategy

Resilience strategies are proactive contributions users themselves make in interacting with technology that help to avoid mistakes and maintain performance. In this study, analyzing how younger users’ resilience strategies compensate for older users’ susceptibility to errors promotes understanding of older users’ needs and informs principles for supporting less confident users by nurturing these strategies.

Distributed Cognition of Teams

Distributed cognition of teams (DiCoT) examines the context in which a pair of users with a common purpose interacts with a system and how contextual factors, coordination of knowledge, physical layout of the environment, and flow of information impact performance and ability of users to collaboratively accomplish their goals.

Observation and Data Collection

Participants were asked to choose a task and system the parent currently needed assistance with from their child. While participants knew the purpose of the study, they were unaware of any specific behaviors being analyzed so as not to influence their actions. Participants were asked to behave as naturally as possible, as if they weren’t being observed.

Participant-chosen tasksParticipant-chosen system
Upload documentsBank website
Create an account and rent a pre-chosen audio bookAudio book website and app
Edit an existing digital designOnline graphic design platform

All participants carried out their chosen task in their homes using their own devices. Observation was conducted remotely over Zoom, enabling video, audio, and screen recording of qualitative data. While observation in the home has previously been considered a rather controlled environment, restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic made this context natural for participants.

Inherently in the task of helping another person, participants communicated out loud regarding their thoughts, actions, and understanding of the system at hand. This achieved similar goals to a think-aloud study by furthering insight into participants’ reasoning while avoiding data bias from probes, allowing the observer to remain as unobtrusive as possible and collecting more candid data.


Resilience Strategy

Examining how these younger users’ resilience strategies compensate for older users’ susceptibility to errors gains important insight into how technology might better support less confident users.

  • Perception: Parents, in turning to their adult children to assist them, perceived the children as more skilled with technology despite the fact that these were not tasks the children carried out on a regular basis. Equally, the children assumed they would be successful in helping their parent with the technology at hand despite its unfamiliarity to them, a confidence in part based in their adoption of resilience strategies.
  • Compensation: Instead of the parent being aware of their own limitations concerning technology, their child, having seen them make mistakes previously, utilized resilience strategies to avoid potential mistakes and make the task go more smoothly.
  • Communication: When using a resilience strategy, all three children communicated to their parents the action they were taking and why, and while the parents were not explicitly asking for their children to look out for potential errors, this communication seemed to reduce parents’ anxieties at having to recover from mistakes in the process.

Distributed Cognition of Teams

How participants collaborated to achieve the aim of the task itself, as well as aid the parents’ understanding, learning, and comfort provide insight into supporting the act of assisting less confident users in completing tasks when more confident users are not available to help.

  • Physical arrangement of the space: In all three observations, parent and child sat directly next to each other facing the computer, so both people could see what was happening on the screen, access the mouse and keyboard controls, and hear each other well. This common arrangement determined how information moved through the environment. In all three teams, both parents and children referenced what was happening on the screen out loud and pointed to elements on the screen with either mouse or finger, facilitating more effective communication and a shared understanding between parent and child.
  • Filtering information: In all three observations, communication from the child to their parent focused, distilled, and translated information and feedback from the interface to directly connect it to the task at hand and make it easy for the parent to understand. This act of filtering information on the children’s parts helped the parent to see feedback on the screen and successfully complete the task at hand, informing recommendations for future technologies to take on the role of filtering information to make its meaning more easily understandable for all users.

Design Principles

Incorporate assistance for less confident users into digital technologies. Younger, more confident users more readily deploy resilience strategies, even when using unfamiliar digital technologies, as their comfort recognizing conventional elements extends their confidence. Children identified shortcomings in their parents’ ability to use a given system more aptly than the parents themselves, and used this awareness to prevent potential mistakes before they were made. Digital technologies can take on this role by anticipating common errors, making the resilient action evident, and explaining the reasoning to users. Integrating the resilience strategies children utilized in aiding their parents into digital technologies can better support less confident users and reduce anxiety around making mistakes, encouraging longer-term confidence using technology.

Translate feedback into task-centered language. A close analysis of how children filtered information from the interface exposed a common theme of translating feedback into wording directly connected to the task at hand. Doing so made it easy for the parent to understand the result of an action, reassuring them that they were on the right track and prompting them to continue. Hints, descriptions, or tooltips placed strategically where users need confirmation can be made to function in a similar way by explaining the purpose of an interface element. Explanations should be written from the user’s perspective in the context of common tasks and free of system-specific jargon. Empowering less confident users to explore and make sense of systems themselves will help to build confidence when children are not there to fill that role.

Design interface elements to support the act of helping others with technology. Less confident users rely increasingly on others to help them with unfamiliar technologies. Understand that someone may be helping the user, or multiple users may be collaborating to complete a task that is typically thought to be more individual. Interface elements can be designed to aid communication by using easily identifiable colors, labels, shapes, or icons that make them easy to describe. Doing so allows users to effortlessly reference elements on the screen in a way that is easy for the other user to recognize, creating a shared understanding between users, supporting effective communication, and facilitating the act of helping others with technology.

Make it easy to help others with technology from a remote location. Not all users have access to in-person support. Screen mirroring technologies that facilitate this same effective, supportive helping when users and their helper cannot physically be in the same place. Users’ understanding and communication benefitted from their ability to view the same screen, point to and reference elements of the same interface, hear each other well, and share access to mouse and keyboard controls. Current or future screen mirroring technologies should consider these factors in their designs. For example, if the less confident user is to share their screen, that action must be as easy to find and initiate as sitting down in front of the same device. The user doing the assisting should also be able to access mouse and keyboard controls from their own device, with permission, to take on the role of showing how an action is carried out. Perhaps, both users’ mouse pointers are visible to facilitate referencing elements of the interface. Keeping the important elements of in-person helping in mind in designing screen mirroring technologies that enable remote helping will aid communication, promote a shared understanding, and support feelings of comfort and reassurance for less confident users.

A full report is available upon request.

CONDUCTED AS PART OF INM314 Understanding User Interactions (PRD1 A 2020/21) as part of MSc HCID at City, University of London AND AWARDED A DISTINCTION.

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