The advent of computers has made many things much easier in our lives. With mobile phone contact lists, we no longer have to memorize phone numbers, and with Google, we rarely have to remember anything because we can always just look it up again. Calculators and now advanced systems, like Wolfram Alpha, have reduced the need for being able to solve complex math problems. While these conveniences may have been good for our productivity and efficiency, there is still cognitive value to being encouraged to think and learn. Researchers have been exploring the ways that different activities can slow cognitive decline and onset of age-related memory disorders, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s. More recently, games such as Nintendo’s Brain Age or Lumosity.com are a start to putting these types of activities within reach of everyday users.
We have been researching and designing ways that computing interfaces can actually make us think more rather than less. The research includes determining opportune times to make tasks cognitively harder, methods that make users think more without being frustrating or annoying, and activities that can be seamlessly integrated into people’s everyday tasks. Example ideas include a Firefox extension that requires you to solve 10 simple arithmetic problems before you load Facebook, switching the order of items on a person’s iGoogle home page every visit, and a digital picture frame that quizzes you on facts about your family. Our work has included formative work, design ideation, prototyping, and the definition of a design space framework for technologies in this space. We are also working toward developing a design framework for categorizing and generating new ideas.