RAA #5: The benefit of simulated social interaction for older users


Chattaraman, V., Kwon, W., & Gilbert, J. (2012) Virtual agents in retail web sites: Benefits of simulated social interactions for older users. Computer in Human Behavior 28(6).Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563212001598


This study focused on exploring the effects and benefits of simulated social interactions through virtual agents for older users’ experience with online shopping websites.

This research is composed of two separate studies.  The first identifies the barriers to older users when they use an online shopping website.  The second study demonstrates that using a virtual agent to help with search and navigational functions increases an older user’s perceived trust, social support and their intent to perform online shopping functions again.


The first study used focus group interviews. The overall topic was, “What factors inhibit the adoption of online shopping among older users?” The group’s mean age was 73, and there were 48 participants.   the order to triangulate the data, this study used a semi-structured interview about online shopping use and adoption, an experiential task on viewing an online shopping site and buying something, as well as another semi-structure interview focusing on the challenges of performing the task.  There was also a questionnaire.

The second study used an experiment were the older user explored and used an online shopping website that either had a virtual agent to assist them or lacked a virtual agent. After they performed their task, the participants filled out a questionnaire about the experience.

Main Findings

The first study found six barriers to online shopping adoption by older users: Perceived risk barriers, trust barriers, social support barriers, familiarity barriers, experiential barriers and  search barriers.

The second study found that social presence in online shopping websites via a virtual agent helps older users perceive greater social support from the web interface.  This led to a greater sense of trust for the website and reduced older user’s fear of buying an incorrect product online.

Overall, the inclusion of a virtual agent in an online shopping website improved older user’s experience and increased their willingness to use the procedure more often.


This is of course assuming the virtual agent was programmed well enough to answer a majority of the older user’s questions, as well as understands what the user was asking.  I often get annoyed with the “chat” functions you see on websites.  They often are not real people and it annoys me that it says “Chat with …” They are not there and I don’t want to speak with a computer, I can interact with the computer perfectly well on my own and I am often skeptical of its own ability to tell me how to use it.  However, this does not seem to be the case with older users and this articles presents an excellent description of their barriers. I hope to remember this list in the future.

I think that even if it annoys other more tech savvy users to see the chat option, it should be included.  It doesn’t harm anyone and this study shows that it does actually help older users feel more comfortable with technology.  It is important to remember to design for all levels of use.  It is much better to go to the trouble of including a feature that will attract an entire age group of the population than to just give up the group as a lost cause. It only takes time and can pay off well for your website. I also am reminded to consider age as a factor when designing personas.  Not all website users are technologically minded!


  1. Yes. In fact, it’s often necessary to create a persona who is older or who has some kind of physical characteristics that affect interaction (poor eye sight or motor skills, etc.)

    Congratulations on being done with your RAAs! Wise woman!

    Good RAA. Your points on Bb.

  2. Wow, I never knew those chats are not real human! No wonder the AT&T online chat service people didn’t really help anything the once I tried.

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