Participatory design project


As part of the Design Theory and Methodology module for the M.Sc. in Interaction Design at Cyprus University of Technology/Tallinn University, we tackled the problem statement: “Design a product, system or service to foster inclusion of older adults in our digital society.”

After completing a literature review and observational research, I conceptualized a digital messaging system to be used within active living retirement communities. The idea was further explored with participatory design sessions.

Watch the final presentation now or read on for details!


TIME FRAMESeptember - December 2017
METHODS & SKILLSCompetitive analysis, Observations, Immersion, Card sort, Brainstorming
TOOLSPen & paper, phone (for camera and voice recorder)
DELIVERABLESDesign plan, creative toolkit, final presentation


Older adults who use technology have a greater quality of life and decreased feelings of loneliness and depression. Though more older adults are adopting technology, they may not be as engaged because of products that are not easy to use or by their own potential feelings of low self-efficacy. Adults aged 60 and over will make up 21.5% of the global population by 2050 (according to the United Nations), so they have to be included in the digital society as technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous.

One way of making sure this population’s needs are met is to involve them in all stages of design; this way designers can best consider their needs, social influences, experiences, preferences and most importantly, how they use technology. 


I started by watching how older adults interacted with other people, with each other and with technological devices in public spaces (a shopping mall, a casino and a celebration in a community center). The observations were supported by sketches, text, diagrams, lists and/or photographs.

Using these observations – combined with research suggesting that digital technology can encourage virtual friendships and interactions which can be supported both offline and online – I concluded that the initial design should:

  • Be non-intimidating and easy to use,
  • Have obvious success messaging, and,
  • Provide prompts to engage with others within a social network.


I came up with RAPP Connections (Responsive Application for Peer to Peer Connections) for older adults living in retirement communities to foster and nurture social networks and reduce social isolation.


  • tablet-based digital messaging system
  • calendars detailing upcoming activities within the community
  • prompts for residents to invite friends who have similar interests


The target audience would fall under the following psychographic profile:

  • Values: strong connection with family and/or friends
  • Attitudes: wants to remain independent for as long as possible.
  • Interests: reading, walking, going for coffee with friends, writing, art, dining out.
  • Behaviors: health-conscious. May consistently participate in physical activity and/or planned exercise.
  • Social class: upper middle class
  • Lifestyles: retired; stays connected to friends; may be married, single or widowed


I found a couple of similar products exist on the market, though they are not limited to a closed system (like the retirement community). These include k4connect and grandPad. Similar to RAPP, k4connect is a tablet-based system for senior living communities with a calendar system. Unlike RAPP, it has many features beyond communication, including an app for family members, a health tracking system and a remote control.

GrandPad is a tablet designed specifically for older adults. Similar to RAPP, it is designed only for communication; unlike RAPP, it has an accompanying app for family members and a gaming system.


Though there are similar products in the competitive landscape, I wanted to be sure I was on the right track before producing a prototype. So to further examine the viability of the concept, I conducted three generative – or participatory – design sessions: immersion, card sort, brainstorm. These sessions were guided by IDEO’s Human-Centered Design Toolkit.

I engaged three older adults in the sessions; the only inclusion criteria was age.



Because the immersion technique requires spending a day observing and listening to a stakeholder to better understand their life, I felt it was best to spend time with a potential user living in a retirement community. 

I spent 2 hours with V.A., a 71-year old female living within an independent retirement living complex. She is highly independent and navigated the technology in her home (smartphone, laptop, Smart TV) with ease. The common areas within the building include, among other dedicated spaces, a large TV room and Arts & Crafts room. 

In the end, she connects with her neighbors in person in their apartments or in the common areas. (Accordingly, she prefers face-to-face interactions with her friends in the city as well.) She got her information about weekly events from the bulletin board to plan her time. So, communicating digitally in this environment did not appear to be important.

Card Sort

The other two participants (T.M. and K.E.) completed the card sort whose cards consisted of terms reflecting personal values (including family, autonomy, communication, friendship and commitment). Since the values a person finds significant and adopts may reveal insight into their consumer behavior, I wanted to see if the values of these two participants aligned with the perceived benefits of adopting the product. 

They sorted 50 cards into three categories: Very important to me, important to me and not important to me.

Both participants viewed these values as “very important to me”:

  • Health: to be physically well and healthy
  • Faithfulness: to be loyal and true in relationships
  • Achievement: to have important accomplishments

Notably, they valued face-to-face communication when possible. K.E. then preferred phone calls followed by email. T.M. preferred phone calls as a second means of communication followed by texting. So, if they were close enough to their network, they would take the time to travel and meet in person.  


For the brainstorm session, I took a step back and posed the problem statement to T.M. and K.E.: “Design a product, system or service to foster inclusion of older adults in our digital society”. The focus was to generate as many ideas as possible in 40 minutes. Everything was captured with photos and audio and video recording.

The rich discussion ranged from how free-cell and solitaire were used to teach mouse-fluency to stories about friends coming up with creative solutions to problems. But the highlight of the session occurred near the end when T.M. started brainstorming issues that arise as we age.

“What happens [when we age]? Sometimes the memory goes. Generally, as you get older you take more meds…sometimes people forget so they have those dishes for pills for days of the week. You could come up with something like…”

He then picked up nearby objects and built a rudimentary prototype of an alarmed pill dispenser.

The session transformed into T.M. creating a “product” and using it to tell a story about how it might solve the design problem. Ultimately, the session ended with a creative solution which capitalized on existing behavior to create the digitized version of a familiar product.



  • It was challenging to find more participants. I would have loved to meet more older adults living in the target environment, but privacy issues (among others) played a role. In addition, the card sort could have been distributed online for more data points.
  • Ultimately, the product wouldn’t be valuable to this small group. These three participants all valued face-to-face communication more than communicating digitally. In addition, they were comfortable and satisfied with existing technological tools. Even for V.A., who is living within the target environment, the perceived usefulness could be considered low, possibly affecting any acceptance of the technology. 
  • Although the proposed product was not supported by these results, the sessions ultimately identified a new theme: Health, which featured prominently in both the card sort and brainstorm sessions. 
  • One of the biggest takeaways was the importance of patience in facilitation. I did not interject my own feelings or thoughts and let each session reach its natural conclusion. And record everything!

Nevertheless, the results reinforced how important it is to include users in the design process from start to finish.

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