How Human-Centered Design Creates Better Solutions

A Look Back at our Healthy Public Challenge-Part 4

                 Health Lab Director Erika Strong kicking off the Healthy Public Challenge

                Health Lab Director Erika Strong kicking off the Healthy Public Challenge

One of the principles we believe in is that a focus on Human-Centered Design can greatly improve the outcome of a project. In our Healthy Public Challenge, every team was forced to challenge their initial assumptions throughout our design process. Out of all the groups, the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance discovered some fascinating user insights that allowed them to greatly change and refine their product for the better.

The Initial Concept

The group had proposed a First Wave Intergenerational Technology Program. The idea was sparked after Hurricane Sandy: during the storm, many older adults in the Rockaway area wound up trapped in their homes and struggled to contact the outside world for help. Given that many of them in the area had no access to digital communication to get in touch with others, the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance decided to create a program to partner them with high school students who would teach them how to use social media and Skype to reach out during emergencies. They hoped that older adults would not only gain useful skills, but that their program would also help develop strong relationships between older adults and a younger generation, combating loneliness and isolation.

It sounded great in theory, but things did not go as smoothly as they hoped.

Challenging Program Assumptions

In early October, RWA began hosting weekly technology help sessions every Tuesday afternoon from 4:00–6:00 PM at the Rockaway Institute for a Sustainable Environment (RISE). The high school students prepared lessons on subjects ranging from Skype, computer basics, and cell phones. Although the older adults who did attend weekly sessions reported being pleased with them, attendance lagged. On average, only between two and ten adults attended each training.

These numbers were weak, especially in comparison to how many older adults said they’d be interested in a program like this. So instead of continuing with the project, Civic Hall Labs discussed how applying HCD methodology to the problem would reveal the cause of the low attendance.

With the guidance of Health Lab Director Erika Strong and Dr. Mindy FulliloveRWA decided to host a listening session in January with older adults who live in the Rockaways with the goal of better understanding their perspectives. To their surprise, RWA surfaced several barriers to their participation. Most importantly was the time of day of the sessions, which were not convenient for older adults, as many prefer not to drive at night, eat dinner early, or are uncomfortable leaving their home after dark. Participants also felt that sessions should be held at sites that seniors were more familiar with, such as NYCHA community rooms and senior centers. Lastly, they wanted to have an opportunity to share knowledge with the students as well. Rather than structuring the program so that the youth are the “teachers” and the older adults are the “students,” participants preferred a “knowledge exchange”.

It was a tremendous learning opportunity for the team, so RWA decided to conduct a listening session with the student volunteers as well. While students reported being happy to have gained the opportunity to interact with seniors, they also felt they needed more training on how to work with them and different technologies. For example, one student described not having used a flip phone in years and discovering that the older adults all had flip phones. Students also agreed they wanted sessions to be more interactive with the adults, rather than simply teaching them a skill.

Relaunching the Program

All of this re-emphasized the need for HCD thinking across technical and non-technical parts of a program. The program has relaunched with a focus on being a collaborative program between the two generations. In addition, it will take place on summer mornings, when teens are out of school, and will run two days a week rather than multiple days per week.

For our final post on the Healthy Public Challenge, we’ll discuss our overall takeaways from the program. See you then!