The Effect of Age, Gender and Role on Users’ First Impressions of Coaches – Tech Episode 3

One more interesting publication acknowledging the Council of Coaches Project came into light written by Silke ter Stal, Monique Tabak, Harm op den Akker, Tessa Beinema and Hermie Hermens in the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction.

For the adaptation of eHealth applications it is known that the use of Embodied conversational agents may be used to engage users. The aim of this research is to investigate which design features establish a positive first impression of an agent. In this context of our project, the Council of Coaches we allow virtual agents to automatically perform appropriate communicative gestures and dialogues so as to support users across every aspect of well-being, including physical, social, cognitive and mental support. But how does the age, gender and role of each embodied conversational agent affect user’s experience and activation?

The researchers set eight static agent images, different in age, gender and role which were subjected to testing in an online questionnaire so as to answer the previous question. Respondents (n = 155) selected their preferred design and rated the characteristics – friendliness, expertise, reliability, involvement and authority – and the likeliness of following the agent’s advice for all designs. In addition, focus groups (n = 13) were conducted for detailed understandings supporting these impressions.

Results show that, for both a general and elderly population, (1) people seem to prefer images of young, female agents over old, male agents, (2) the (a) age, (b) gender and (c) role of the agent image affect the perception of the agent’s characteristics and the likeliness of following the agent’s advice, and that (3) both the general and elderly population prefer an agent image that is similar in (a) age and (b) gender.

But how did this come across?

There were combined both quantitative and qualitative research methods. First, the researchers investigated the impressions of a general and elderly population using an online questionnaire. Next, they investigated impressions of an elderly population by means of focus groups.

Participants were fluent in the Dutch or the English language so as to cooperate well with the questionnaire which was accessible via a public link of the survey program Qualtrics and available for two months, in July and August 2018.

The focus group interactions were audio recorded. All participants signed informed consent at the beginning of the focus group. Two researchers not involved in the study led the focus groups. Focus group process seemed like:

The attitudes of the participants toward the functionalities and characteristics of virtual coaches were thematically analyzed. The themes were coded using ATLAS.ti 8, based on the steps proposed by Pope and Mays (2006). In addition, the sheets of the card-sorting task were digitized. The importance of a characteristic was labeled as either “important” (left side of the sheet), “neutral” (center of the sheet) or “less important” (right side of the sheet). For each characteristic, the frequency of each label was counted.

As a conclusion what we need to remember is that although life becomes digital nowadays, face to face communication remains significant in a way that a face-to-face interaction with virtual Health Agents who have specific characteristics is preferable. As happens in real life, first impression matters.

Link to the official publication site (Open Access article)

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