Empowering isolated older adults to find and stay engaged in their community
Voice Interface Design (Lead), Literature Review (Lead), Brochure Design (Lead), Video Production (Lead) Service Design (co-lead), Interaction Design (co-lead), Report Design, Usability Testing, Participant Interviews, Expert Interviews, Competitive Analysis
Cadence is a service that seniors can use to find, sign up and attend interest groups or volunteer opportunities in their communities. Cadence uses through simple conversational interactions and can be accessed through a phone-based VUI or desktop. The service handles discovery, signup, browsing, communication, transportation, and follow-up from the host to motivate continued engagement.
Social Isolation: The Silent Killer
Social isolation and loneliness are considered grand challenges in American social work. Social isolation as an objective situation in which someone lacks personal relationships to fall back on in case of need. This contrasts with the subjective idea of loneliness, which is when a person’s actual number of relationships is less than expected, or the quality is less than desired. People can be both lonely and socially isolated, and this can be situational (circumstances causes isolation) or structural (ongoing isolation for many years).
Various US national surveys have indicated that the instances of social isolation and loneliness in the “older adult” population (65+) in America are estimated to be at 40%. This is particularly troubling as their effects are amplified within this age group and include increases in stress and depression, high blood pressure, and ultimately, increased mortality rates.
The social ecosystem of older adults is complex, with several interrelated factors and opportunity areas. With this in mind, we set out to design a solution that would empower older adults to take the first step out of social isolation or avoid it all together.
Research Questions & Goals
- What are the barriers to social engagement that lead to social isolation?
- What do people who are not socially-isolated do to stay engaged?
- Identify elder technology use patterns.
- Make connections to our target population for future usability research
- Literature Review
- Competitive Analysis
- Expert interviews
- Target demographic activities (semi-structured interviews, guided storytelling)
- ‘Into the Wild’ (observational/ ethnographic studies on site)
To better understand problem areas of aging and to help identify where a design intervention might be beneficial, we combined primary and secondary research methods over 9 weeks.
We conducted interviews with 8 subject matter experts across industry and academia, including gerontology, multigenerational social work, HCI research, behavioral health and product design.
We also interviewed older adults (60+) and senior communities around the Greater Seattle Area to understand how seniors currently stay engaged in the community and major barriers to social engagement. We tried to talk with people from all walks of life and socioeconomic statuses in order to understand the problem from multiple viewpoints.
Each member of our team independently coded all of our primary research, totaling more than 20 participant interviews. We then came together to synthesize this information into themes and insights. This was a challenging task conducted over several days, during which we became familiar with all the interviews, including those which we didn’t personally attend. The insights are listed below.
1. Despite preparation, many people are blindsided by sudden changes in life circumstances during retirement.
2. Without shared interests, being in close proximity to others doesn’t necessarily alleviate loneliness.
3. Socioeconomic factors, such as access to money or transportation, are barriers preventing many older adults from engaging in activities with others.
4. Societal attitudes towards aging can discourage older adults from engaging with others.
5. Despite there being existing outreach programs, it can still be difficult to locate isolated individuals in the community and encourage them to take the first step.
6. Usability issues and general attitudes towards technology limit older adults from adopting new technologies into their daily lives.
7. Technology is often a real and perceived barrier to meaningful social interactions for older adults.
“They were telling Alexis or whatever to play certain music… and I don’t know if I want to go there.. I’m perfectly happy to go over there and turn it on.”
“I would get to know other people [at mealtimes] but I got tired… I sat with too many people who aren’t cognitively able”
// Design Principles
1. Make technology visible only to those who want to see it
Given the variance in technology acceptance among our target users, the solution should not force technology onto those who are not accustomed to it. Our focus is not to change current behaviors around technology, but to leverage older adults who are able and willing to embrace technology in order to reach those who cannot.
2. Be replicable with adjustments in different contexts
We will start by focusing on Puyallup and Seattle, since they are the first two AARP Age-Friendly Communities in Washington state, however we assume that more cities will follow this trend. Our proposed solution should be scalable and benefit other cities.
3. Employ accessibility standards for older users
Comply to accessibility guidelines to ensure that our primary users are able to fully utilize the technology. Secondary research identifies that basic accessibility issues are a major barrier to older adults adopting regular technology use. We found that this sentiment to be echoed in our interviews with our target population who cited that the following prevented them from using technology: text sizes too small to read; keyboards on phones, smartphones, and computers too difficult to use due to limited finger dexterity; screens to small to make out any iconography.
4. Protect users from age-specific harms
Acknowledge that target users are vulnerable to age-specific harms related to technology and protect them through design decisions that deliberately mitigate against them. Particular sensitivities of the older adult population include:
- Loss of dignity or being treated like children by caretakers and support networks
- Higher susceptibility to being scammed (eg. tax scams, phishing scams, impulse buying, “Nigerian prince”-type email scams, etc.)
// Ideation & Prototype Testing
We went through two rounds of ideation, starting with 30 concepts each (120 in total), narrowing down to six, which were then discussed with our experts and participants. These six ideas formed the basis of the Cadence service.
Two rounds of usability testing then followed.