Illustration Methods and Drawmetrics to Understand Privacy Perceptions


Prior work suggests that older adults are less aware of potential digital privacy risks compared to younger groups. We seek to expand on these findings by using drawmetrics with 20 older adults (60+) to visualize their experiences with digital privacy via drawing sessions.

Key research questions and areas:

  • Do older adults have incorrect mental models about privacy technologies?
  • Are there any differences or similarities in privacy perceptions between older and younger users?
  • Are there any concerns about online activities and social media?
  • Do users adopt any online security measures?


A one-year mixed methods study to understand the privacy and usability perceptions of older and younger adults using illustration methods, semi-structured interviews and online surveys. Study participants were located across the United States.

  • Phase 1: Conduct illustration methods and interviews with older adults.
  • Phase 2: Conduct illustration methods and interviews with younger adults.
  • Phase 3: Show older adults’ illustrations to younger adults and understand their reflections.
  • Phase 4: Conduct online surveys with a larger population and validate findings.


Demographic: Older adults and working-age adults.
Gender: 50/50
Ethnicity: Mix
Devices: Sheets of paper to draw illustrations.


Participants were prompted with a simple phrase: “what does privacy mean to you?” in both a digital and non-digital context. The question was intentionally open-ended to provide room for interpretation. Participants were then instructed to illustrate their response to the question and label or annotate those areas. They were also asked to verbally describe both the visual elements of the drawing and their intent behind choosing the imagery.

If they were not comfortable or required assistance drawing, there were asked to explain what they envisioned to the researcher who would assist them.

P1: “[Drew a castle]. This is ideal-ish privacy. But even though it is a castle, it can be breached by a battering ram or a Trojan horse over time, or if the guards are not paying attention. And then the castle just falls.

P2: “I imagine a world of doors that I can open/close with the keys I possess.”

After the drawing session, we asked follow-up questions to further gauge the older adults’ experiences with technology. This included questions about the participants’ online experiences, and their confidence in maintaining privacy in those actions.

This led me to the following findings:

  • Older adults feel overwhelmed by the abundance of privacy threats online.
  • Older adults may consider abandoning certain technology to protect their private information.
  • Older adults desire a sense of control and ownership over their own private information, and do not trust technology to do it for them.


The online survey was developed to test hypotheses derived directly from the illustrations describes above. This includes 5-point Likert response questions. For example, to verify whether older adults consider abandoning technology to protect their private information, we asked a question relating to frequency: “How often do you consider abandoning the use of mobile devices to safeguard your private information?” Open-ended questions were also asked regarding privacy protection measures.

In addition to Likert response questions, participants were asked to review pairs of images, one drawn by each age group.

Using Mann-Whitney U-tests and Fisher’s Exact tests, the following were deduced:

  • Older adults are in stronger agreement that their private information can be accessed from anywhere in the world (p<0.001)
  • Older adults are more apprehensive of giving private information to strangers provided there are safeguards in place (p<0.001)
  • Older adults are less concerned about giving permission to social media to access their private information (p<0.001)


Both age groups depicted privacy via enclosed spaces by either drawing buildings with doors or circles/boxes around personal possessions. A theme of empowerment was identified from our studies, where older adults were helping themselves to better understand issues relating to security and privacy. This was found to be motivated by concern to threats and concerns about their own lack of awareness.

A theme of being resigned to threats being faced was detected among younger adults. The abundance of information about threats in the mass media (e.g., ransomware attacks) had begun to desensitize certain users.


To better understand the practical implications of our findings, we offer “risk scenarios,” which are condensed narrative exemplars of the core findings regarding the primary privacy concerns of older adults, as compared to working age adults. While these narratives are not validated themselves, they can provide starting
points for designers and future research, by allowing designers to develop empathy and understanding circumstances older adults face while using technology, which
may be different from their own.

Example Scenario: Alan’s experience: Alan’s “haunted” Alexa has been speaking at night while he tries to sleep. While most of these verbal messages from Alexa are not harmful, Alan is afraid that it may have access to his personal details and may vocalize them against his will. He is now concerned about technology having access to his information, and is careful whenever he uses devices or applications on them.

“Who knows when the day will come. Is this what they call identity theft? Whatever it is, it’s quite unsettling really.”

This example shows Alan’s worries about sharing his personal information with applications on devices. He will now be less likely to give his applications access
to his private information, such as his location or his contacts list.


We conducted two studies to elicit perceived privacy concerns and risks of older adults as compared to their younger, working age counterparts. We used drawmetrics to assess older (n=20) and working age (n=20) adults’ mental models. Through the analysis of emerging themes, we found that older adults are more willing to abandon technology to protect their private information. Working age adults were understanding of older adults’ privacy concerns, but often felt it to be a naive way of thinking. They often felt resigned when faced by privacy attacks, and were mindful of the trade-offs necessary for convenience and connectivity. However, both groups shared the same desire to see a better way to protect themselves from privacy attacks, illustrated through visual metaphors and animated narrations of past experiences.

In the second study, an online survey was generated based on findings from the prior study. We found that older adults perceive a greater threat from using online banking, e-commerce, and global threats to privacy, while working age adults showed more privacy concern regarding social media. Despite key differences regarding privacy concerns and risks between older and working age adults, there is also significant overlap. Future studies should consider performing more direct comparisons rather than focusing on older adults in isolation, as it should provide more direct and focused paths to impact this important user group.