Half-and-Half: Alleviating Loneliness Among Seniors — a UX case study

Design Interactive Spring ’20 Cohort Project.

According to a study published by UCSF, more than 40% of seniors experience feelings of loneliness and isolation. As a part of Davis Design Interactive, a student-run design group at UC Davis, our team worked to develop a solution to this pertinent issue.

In seven weeks, our group validated a collaborative making concept, using technology to enable quality time and to bridge physical distance. The concept resulted in Half-and-Half, an app where people can create sessions for collaboratively making things like recipes and craft projects. Each participant receives a different half of the instructions needed to complete their task, encouraging cooperation and communication.

Virtual demo of Half and Half.

Half-and-Half was awarded ‘Most Innovative UX Design’ at Davis DI Presentation Day by Daniel Amara, lead UX designer at Fitbit.

All names have been changed to protect interviewee privacy.

A Timely Issue

In addition to experiencing high rates of loneliness and feelings of isolation, seniors are considered “at risk for severe illness” upon contracting COVID-19 by the CDC, a factor that seriously limits opportunities for seniors to socialize and stay in touch with friends and family.

As a team we felt strongly about addressing this timely dilemma, and chose to start work on developing a product or initiative that could help seniors feel a sense of belonging and community.

Our high level goals were to:

  1. Create a platform where seniors can strengthen their interpersonal relationships.
  2. Allow seniors to socialize in familiar ways while staying at home.
  3. Make design decisions with accessibility for seniors in mind.

Our Team

Half-and-Half is the result of seven weeks of work, conducted remotely over Zoom calls with a team of diverse interests and expertise. Our process involved conducting research, ideating our concept, prototyping and designing, user testing, and reflecting on our project for future improvements.

Half-and-Half is the result of seven weeks of work, conducted remotely over Zoom calls with a team of diverse interests and expertise. Our process involved conducting research, ideating our concept, prototyping and designing, user testing, and reflecting on our project for future improvements.

We created Half-and-Half during a remote, seven week sprint.

User Research

Before working to develop a solution, our team first worked towards understanding the needs and concerns of our target audience. After conducting online research and sending questionnaires to family members, our team collectively felt that conducting in-person interviews would be a much stronger way to gather information and understand the needs of our target audience, especially considering how intense and personal loneliness can be.

Our team developed our most important insights when we scheduled an interview with Steven, a recently retired member of the Davis community.

Interview Insights

We conducted an hour-long interview with Steven and gained valuable insight.

Importance of quality time

Steven mentioned that he enjoyed calling his son on the phone as a means to socialize, but noted that this experience was entirely different compared to spending “quality time” with his son. He also mentioned that he misses cooking meals for friends and having conversation over dinner.

Distrust of social media

Steven mentioned that he had recently created a Facebook account, but was uncomfortable with the fact that anyone was able to look him up and send a friend request.

“I see all these people, strangers I don’t even know. Like somebody I knew once that I met. That I have no contact with. And it’s kind of spooky. How did they get through to my social media?”

Feeling lonely even when surrounded by others

Steven lives with a few college-age housemates, but still feels lonely because he lacks common interests with those in his immediate environment. Steven noted that he feels most connected with others when they share common interests and similar perspectives.

Narrowing Our Focus

Virtual affinity mapping in Figma in order to brainstorm broad solutions that address loneliness.

To conclude this initial research phase, our team began the process of tackling the broader concept of addressing loneliness by narrowing our focus through the development of three different problem statements.

Following affinity mapping and further discussion, we developed problem statements to guide our ideation.

Ideation

Brainstorming different solution spaces to address loneliness through concept sketches.

Each team member then developed concept sketches for potential ways to address each problem statement. Before building on any sketch, our team developed some guidelines in order to ensure that our product would best fit the needs of a user like Steven

Strengthening existing relationships

Because Steven expressed distrust of social media services, our team wanted our product to facilitate the strengthening of existing relationships, as opposed to providing a platform for users to start new relationships.

A strong sense of user control

We wanted users to feel as if they have control over their ability to socialize in lieu of submitting to an algorithm or artificial process in order to connect with others. Whatever our final product was going to be, we wanted to make sure our users would feel a strong locus of control.

After deliberation, our team felt that an early Half-and-Half sketch (then called Cook with Me) would best address these considerations, and we began building our product.

Conceptual Testing

Our next step was to further ideate Half-and-Half in terms of its capabilities and proposed architecture. Through conceptual testing among our team, we sought to answer these pending questions:

  1. “Does Half-and-Half create opportunities to socialize?”
  2. “What activities would best compliment the split-instruction concept?”
  3. “Should each user get half of an instruction set, or should users continuously alternate between each instruction step until the list is over? Is one or the other more conducive to meaningful conversation?”

We then completed four different tests: two testing sessions to try out origami, and two sessions to try cooperative cooking. In pairs, each group would be sent modified instructions and left to complete the activity over Zoom call while the other pair observed the activity and took notes.

Concept testing of Half-and-Half amongst ourselves with origami.

Testing Takeaways

Our team ended up having a lot of fun with testing. As we hoped, the added vulnerability of being reliant on a partner to understand sometimes complicated instructions facilitated lots of laughter and side conversation.

Soon after, our team began brainstorming new features that could aid user communication. First, we decided to split instructions between users in two large halves, as opposed to providing users with alternating steps — our team agreed that having each partner “take the wheel” for a larger period of time streamlined the activity completion process more-so than having partners constantly switching between listening and communicating instructions.

We made the following changes to address concerns we had during concept testing:

  1. A “hint” button

…which would allow the partner without instructions to see instructions for the current step, and would unlock after a set period of time. With origami, we found that one team member had trouble understanding how to complete certain folds, making it difficult to explain the step to their partner who was more experienced. If they were stuck for too long, allowing the partner to see the instructions for the step would help us avoid potential frustration.

2. A thumbs up verification system

…which would allow users to continue onto new steps, even with messy hands.

Lo-fi Prototyping

Low fidelity wireframes, with options to choose an activity and start a video call.

Following the drafting of some features, we created some prototype screens in a collaborative Figma doc. We initially designed for a vertical, mobile app.

After creating these prototypes, we felt that we wanted to minimize the scope of our app as a means to more effectively show off the “gimmick” of the split-instruction system. Originally, users could choose from one of six social activities on the homepage. We narrowed this down to three activities — cooking, origami, and puzzles — all of which we knew could work within the confines of our existing split-instruction system without heavy modification.

As an example, adding card games to the app was proposed but ultimately reconsidered, as we could not come up with a way to “split” the activity, and felt that the act of playing a competitive game did not align with our goal of creating a collaborative platform.

Initially, we considered implementing a “friends” feature reminiscent of social media platforms, but decided that we wanted our app to be defined by the collaborative nature of its activities rather than as a social media platform. As opposed to users creating a profile and “friending” other users, we decided that users should choose their activity partners directly from the contacts stored on their mobile device. We thought back to Steven’s concern over being found by people he didn’t recognize on Facebook, and felt that this solution would give users more control over their network of activity partners.

Hi-fi Prototyping

After lo-fi prototyping, we went back and did more research regarding designing for seniors. Our first major design change was switching from a phone to a tablet design, as seniors make up the largest population of iPad users.

Thumbs-up approval system to limit touch interactions during cooking.

We learned that image overlays, abstract icons, and the color blue should be avoided, so we implemented larger visuals and subtitles, along with moving recipe instructions to a static side panel to avoid overlapping of video and text. We changed the hamburger menu to a static sidebar with medium-sized icons and subtitles to avoid “hiding” content and to prevent any ambiguity or confusion created by minimal, abstract icons. After receiving user feedback, we also redesigned the homepage to be more interactive and engaging by including more content such as articles and activities.

High fidelity wireframes in an iPad format, designed for simple visibility and usability.

Lessons Learned

Designing for another demographic

We made research-based design decisions and changes in order to make our app accessible to senior citizens. Our research motivated many of our choices regarding font sizes, application interface, and design structure, and we learned the importance of concept testing and usability testing when designing for another demographic.

Conducting balanced research

Our interview with Steven was immensely informative in making our design decisions and understanding the needs of our user base. Our survey helped in understanding several users’ needs and wants but did not give us as enriching information as our interview did. During this project, we had to learn how to balance quality and quantity of research methods when working according to a strict timeline. Interviewing more seniors would have certainly helped us gain a broader perspective regarding loneliness amongst seniors.

Acquiring user feedback

We believe that our project could have benefited from additional user testing. At the end of the day, the most important thing about Half and Half is that users enjoy and feel compelled to use it. We conducted concept testing amongst a pair of seniors who enjoyed the activities and idea of interacting with the application but would have liked to get additional feedback. We believe that further feedback is essential to further developing our project and want to systematically measure participant enjoyment to analyze the effectiveness of Half-and-Half in the future.

Conclusion

Our team was proud of our final product and all of the work that we accomplished within seven weeks.

Through rounds of exploration and testing, we were able to validate this novel format that creates a sense of “togetherness,” using technology to bridge physical activity rather than to replace it. In our testing, we found that people valued quality time and enjoyed being able to have time doing something together while seeing each other. We believe in the potential of this form of technology-mediated interaction to solve challenges in senior loneliness, and we hope to explore ways in which we can take this concept further in the future.

We’re a student-run design consultancy @ UC Davis!