Participatory Design

The piece focuses solely on user experience research.  

If you would rather watch than read, I’ve included a video.

And if you have more of an academic bend, read the paper published in the conference proceedings of HCI International 2018.


In my design theory class, I 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 using participatory design sessions, a strategy where all stakeholders are actively involved in the design process to ensure the solution meets their needs. 


Design a product, system or service to foster the inclusion of older adults in our digital society.


4 months

My Role

I completed all the research.

Methods & Tools

Competitive analysis, observations, immersion, card sort, brainstorming

Initial Research & Concept


Older adults may not be as engaged with technology because of challenges using products or a lack of confidence in their abilities. But those who embrace technology:

  • have a greater quality of life and feel less lonely and depressed
  • socialize more with their family and friends – notably across generations

Older adults are making up an increasingly larger percentage of the global population:

Percentage of global population made up of adults aged 60+

Source: United Nations, 2017

1 %
Year: 2017
1 %
Year: 2050
1 %
Year: 2100

So there’s a benefit to tackling this problem. One way to meet their needs is to involve them in all stages of design (i.e., not only in usability testing). This way, designers can find the best ways to consider the older adult’s social influences, experiences, preferences and most importantly, how they use technology.

Observations & Concept


To generate ideas for my concept, I went out into the community to observe older adults. I watched them in different settings (a shopping mall, a casino, and a community center) interacting with other people, with each other and with technological devices. Based on my observations, I wanted to design a product that would be: 

  • Non-intimidating to use
  • Had obvious success messaging, and
  • Prompted engagement with others within a social network


I came up with a tablet-based digital messaging system for older adults living in retirement communities and called it RAPP Connections (Responsive Application for Peer to Peer Connections). 

It would feature calendars listing upcoming activities within the community and include prompts for residents to invite friends with similar interests. 

Participatory Design Sessions

I had my concept, but was I on the right path? Would older adults actually use this? Rather than jump ahead into the ideation phase, I took a step back to validate my assumptions with three older adults using participatory design sessions guided by IDEO’s Human-Centered Design Toolkit.


I chose immersion because it would give me a better understanding of who I was designing for in context. 

I spent two hours with one older adult in her home within a retirement community. She is highly independent and easily navigated the technology in her home (smartphone, laptop, Smart TV). 

But communicating digitally in this environment did not appear to be important to her. For example, she connected with her neighbors in person in their apartments or in the common areas, and learned about weekly events from the community bulletin board. Accordingly, she preferred face-to-face interactions with her friends in the city.

Card sort

I used a personal values card sort to see if the values chosen aligned with the perceived benefits of using the conceptualized product.

Two older adults sorted 50 cards into three categories: Very important to me, Important to me and Not important to me.

Both of them categorized 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

Both equated faithfulness with friendship, so I asked how they kept in touch with their friends. Here are their preferred ways to communicate with their networks. So, if they were close enough to their network, they would take the time to travel and meet in person


The focus of the brainstorm session was to generate as many ideas as possible related to the design problem. 

The rich discussion ranged from how free-cell and solitaire were used to teach mouse-fluency to stories about their friends’ creativity. But the highlight occurred near the end when one of the older adults starting talking about issues that arise as 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 used nearby objects to build a rudimentary prototype.

One participant built a physical prototype out of everyday items.

His idea was a digital pill dispenser with sensors and feedback loops.

Ultimately, the session ended with him creatively solving the problem by capitalizing on existing behavior to create the digitized version of a familiar product.

The brainstorm session took on a life of its own, and it was great! I especially loved the organic discussions and activities – they let out a stream of consciousness and I was there to record it. 

This highlighted the importance of video recording everything because you never know what you might capture. 

Lessons Learned

  • Ultimately, the concept wouldn’t be valuable to this small group of older adults. They all valued face-to-face communication more than communicating digitally. In addition, they were comfortable and satisfied with existing technological tools. 
  • Older adults have great ideas! Their life experience is not to be taken for granted. 
  • A new theme came out of the sessions: health. It featured prominently in both the card sort and brainstorm sessions and would be the next direction I would take to tackle the problem.
  • I would have loved to spend more time with older adults living in the target environment, but privacy issues (among others) played a role. 
  • One of the biggest takeaways was the importance of being patient while facilitating. We can sometimes jump in, thinking we know what someone else is going to say. During all the sessions, I did not interject my own feelings or thoughts and let each session reach its natural conclusion.
  • Remember to record everything

Other projects

Ergonomics app

training app for utility technicians

role: researcher & designer

AR app for urban planning


role: facilitator