Master's thesis - Intergenerational Aid in the 21st Century
Exploring the role of digital support in the day-to-day lives of seniors.
Graduate researcher and designer
Emily Carr University of Art + Design
Myself guided by my supervisors
Primary and Secondary Research, Participatory Workshops, Stakeholder and strategy map, Service Ideation, Low-High Fidelity Prototypes of a product, Usability Testing, Published Thesis
As digital immigrants of the 21st century, the current elderly always seem to have difficulty catching up with today’s technologies. When day-to-day services like banking, healthcare, travel, etc., become entirely digitized without giving seniors the required time, education, or support to get on board, it gradually chips at their independence, dignity, and agency. To keep afloat in this rapidly digitizing world, most seniors find themselves relying on assistance from the people around them, such as younger family members, neighbors, friends, and community volunteers. My research explores the various facets and multitudes of digital support that younger persons commonly provide seniors.
Common queries that often come up in our interactions with senior parents, grandparents, neighbours or even friends.
What factors influence this intergenerational digital support between seniors and younger generations? What is the role of technology and its design in this context?
Researched and identified key insights into the social connotations of this widely popular intergenerational support.
Created a stakeholder map with strategies that each party can take in order to tackle digital support for seniors.
Ideated, designed, and tested a mobile application that capitalizes on this intergenerational digital support, making it a warmer and more efficient experience for users.
Created low-high fidelity mock-ups for the product, in careful consideration of accessibility and inclusivity guidelines.
Coloured circles indicate my areas of involvement in the entire process.
A Global Ageing Crisis
Between 2015 and 2050, it is estimated that the proportion of the world's population aged above 60 years will nearly double from 12% to 22%. With the UN declaring this as the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing, it is imperative that we rise to the occasion as a society - in the way we include, design, and provide care.
Rapid Digitization & Seniors
To date, technology use among older adults is far less than that of younger generations, due to a multitude of reasons like affordability, access, and usability caused by age-related afflictions, lack of experience, and disinterest.
Technology woes for the elderly are rarely an individualized problem. A recent study in the US identified that almost half the seniors need someone, often being younger family members, friends, neighbors, and community members to help set up and show them how to use a new electronic device.
While technology has greatly benefitted humanity, we must acknowledge that it has a reputation for being complex, impersonal, and uncaring. 'Warm technology' is an alternative approach to designing technologies that improves quality of life in a wholesome and inclusive manner - fostering inclusivity, social connectedness, dignity, and self-reliance.
I conducted interviews with 13 research participants to understand their personal experiences and individual perspectives on intergenerational relationships, technology adoption and familiarity with digital products. A variety of research participants like seniors, younger persons, community volunteers, tech coaches, etc., were recruited to bring in diverse perspectives and lived experiences.
Following the interview, a hands-on participatory workshop was conducted with 10 participants exploring concepts of “reciprocity” and “support’. The workshop allowed participants to “make” and “explore” while conversing, allowing for more unconscious thoughts and beliefs to surface.
The first activity was designed to explore the ecosystem of support as seniors age independently. It helped identify what they considered their key support systems and preferred means of accessing these in the near future.
The second activity probed into the idea of reciprocity between generations in today's world. It gave a glimpse of what the current younger and older generations wish to 'give' and 'receive' from each other.
I also conducted a precedent study to understand the pros and practical concerns of existing products and services that aid seniors with digital technologies. Considering that many of these were paid products, most of the analysis was obtained from their websites; neither my research participants nor I have used these apps ourselves. It became evident that barriers like affordability, access, awareness, etc., affected the large-scale adoption of these services.
The research was also fundamentally informed by my experience as a regular volunteer at the West End Seniors' Network, an NGO offering social and community support for seniors in Vancouver. My role as an Information and Referral Desk Volunteer for a year allowed me to observe the impacts of digitization on the day-to-day lives of seniors while spending quality time.
Primary data gathered from the interviews and participatory workshops were initially organized into codes individual to each participant. A thematic analysis helped rearrange these codes based on similar themes and identify threads of compelling perspectives to map key insights.
1.) Stakeholder & Strategy Map
By examining intergenerational digital support, I understood how complex the larger issue of digital literacy is for the elderly. Intergenerational support is but one facet of tackling digital inclusivity for seniors. Though seniors like relying on younger family or friends and younger persons want to help, on a practical scale, the quantity and frequency of support required is too much to bear by just the younger generations. Other stakeholders in this picture, like the community, governments and technology companies, must also acknowledge their responsibility and shoulder this burden. There needs to be collective action from each of these stakeholders to truly progress with regard to bridging this digital divide. A systemic change is the only long-term answer considering the scale of a global crisis such as this. The following is a map of strategies that various stakeholders can implement to improve digital literacy for seniors.
2.) 'Una' - A product design exploration
While a systemic change of the scale proposed would take a long time to come into effect, we could now take small steps and solutions to contribute towards the larger goal, like capitalizing on the benefits of this already widespread intergenerational digital support and easing its barriers. While intergenerational digital support cannot remain a singular answer to the bigger crisis at hand, it can remain an efficient, quick fix until we start seeing more systemic changes. And even then, it can continue being one of the more affectionate systems of support for a senior. Informal digital support has the potential to create and maintain intergenerational relationships, a valuable asset in this age of widening generational isolation. In light of this, a mobile application is designed and prototyped to facilitate digital aid between seniors and younger persons, focusing on ease, efficiency, and warmth.
Named in the spirit of togetherness and oneness, Una allows seniors to call and share their screens with known younger persons to receive digital assistance. The warm experts are provided with a variety of visual guides like masks, pointers, gestures, etc., while screen sharing to efficiently guide and support the seniors. At the end of a call, with the aid of Una’s curation of warm gifs and stickers, seniors can reciprocate their gratitude to younger persons, allowing relationships to build and grow positively.
INITIAL PROTOTYPING & TESTING
Initially, I chose to start with a mobile version, considering that many seniors at least own a smartphone, if not a tablet or laptop. Using insights generated in the research, I pinned down key pain points and opportunities for seniors and younger persons regarding digital support. This analysis helped brainstorm potential needs and features for the product. Translating these into features into an information architecture and mid-fidelity wireframes, I tested this with 4 of my research participants (two above 60 years and two below 60 years). Their feedback helped shape the final product and its key features.
The following points encapsulate the user feedback that I received:
How will the app ensure safety and privacy if the senior is screen-sharing important information?
How will seniors navigate the app? Will the seniors need help learning how to use this app? (It should be, simple and not intimidate them.)
Most participants prefer to call for help option as opposed to trying to fix it themselves.
Wanted the app to be as straightforward as possible….gamification might complicate it.
Could there be a potential to message? Could the senior send screenshots if the younger person is busy?
They weren't confident about the app having resources for community learning and blog posts.
Sharing a simple pre-made gif or sticker was well appreciated as a token of gratitude.
The initial pitch of Una's idea was warmly welcomed by most research participants.
The coloured post it notes represent feedback from both generations of users.
Let me take you through the key features of Una using a simple use case of a daughter, Dianne, teaching her aging parent, Lisa, how to buy a product on Amazon. On the left, you will see Lisa’s screens, and on the right, Dianne's. This is to help you understand the two versions of Una, one for the warm expert and the other for the senior.
FINAL PROTOTYPE · FINAL PROTOTYPE · FINAL PROTOTYPE · FINAL PROTOTYPE · FINAL PROTOTYPE · FINAL PROTOTYPE · FINAL PROTOTYPE ·
Una has two versions, one for the warm expert and the other for the senior, to suit their varying needs.
Seniors can save and video call contacts of warm experts in their lives.
Seniors can also message their contacts and send screenshots of screens they are having trouble with, giving an opportunity to be more respectful of the warm experts' time.
Seniors can video call warm experts to share their screen and seek digital support.
Warm experts are provided with a variety of visual guides like masks, pointers, and floating commands to instruct seniors on the shared screen.
While these visual tools are mere guides, the actual clicking and 'doing' is done by the seniors. This ensures that seniors slowly learn how to do these digital tasks on their own.
Seniors are provided with a curation of warm gifs and stickers to express their gratitude, fostering relationships.
BENEFITS OF UNA
The convenience and speed that Una provides with digital support would save time and energy, which are precious commodities for younger persons. The variety of visual guides also makes the overall learning process more inclusive, comfortable, and easier for seniors. With intergenerational digital support already being a widespread and preferred option, Una can ease the experience for all generations involved until other stakeholders, like technology companies and governments, share the burden of digital inclusivity for seniors. Una intends for seniors and younger generations to rely positively on each other for digital support as an opportunity to grow and mutually benefit from their intergenerational relationships.
Una, as a warm and simple application, also has the potential to transcend beyond known relationships and act as a bridge between seniors and communities, governments, private sectors, etc. This reduces the burden on family members and creates multiple tiers of support for a senior.
As one of my first forays into participatory research, it was an invaluable experience to learn how to design and conduct workshops that were sensitive and appealed to various age groups of people.
I also learned to appreciate the iterative process of prototyping and testing. From initially pitching the idea of Una to testing the mid-fidelity wireframes, it was an entirely different experience to have that feeling of designing with the users.
I also got a taste of the scope in which both UI and UX design could be accessible and inclusive of various marginalized groups.
It was also challenging to work with and analyze so much qualitative data. I felt a deep sense of responsibility when shaping the insights that came from the lived experiences and personal stories of research participants.
I also deeply enjoyed taking a systemic approach to a wicked problem like digital literacy and support for seniors; examining both macro and micro perspectives.
I would like to continue the iterative process and see how the final prototype performs in a usability test.