Participatory design

Exploring participatory design in workshops with older adults

For a 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 doing 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 stakeholders are actively involved in the design process to increase the chances that a solution meets their needs. 

For a deeper dive into this project, read the paper published in the 2018 conference proceedings of HCI International.


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, so there’s a benefit to tackling this issue. One way to meet their needs is to involve them in all stages of design (i.e., not only in usability testing). This allows designers to take into consideration the older adult’s social influences, experiences, preferences and how they use technology.

0 %
Year: 2017
0 %
Year: 2050
0 %
Year: 2100

Percentage of global population made up of adults aged 60+ (Source: United Nations, 2017)


To generate ideas, I watched older adults out in the community in varying settings interacting with other people, with each other and with technological devices. Based on my observations, I chose to design a product that:

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

I conceived of a tablet-based digital messaging system for older adults living in retirement communities that would feature a calendar listing upcoming activities within the community with prompts for residents to invite friends with similar interests.



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

My Role

I completed all the research and facilitated the design workshop sessions.

Methods & Tools

Competitive analysis, observations, immersion, card sort, brainstorming


3 months (fall of 2017)

Participatory Design Sessions

But, was I on the right path? Would older adults actually use this? Before jumping into the ideation phase, I took a step back to evaluate my assumptions with three older adults using participatory design sessions guided by IDEO’s Human-Centered Design Toolkit.
Design research participants
Design research participants
Session 1: Immersion

chose immersion to gain 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 within this environment did not appear to be important to her. 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.

Session 2: Card sort

used a personal values card sort to explore if the values chosen aligned with the perceived benefits of using the product. Two participants 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
Participant #2 completing his card sort
Participant #2 completing his card sort
Participant #3 completing his card sort
Participant #3 completing his card sort

Both equated faithfulness with friendship, so I asked how they kept in touch with their friends. When possible, they would take the time to travel and meet their friends in person.

Preferred methods of communication with friends
Session 3: Brainstorm

The focus of the brainstorm session was to generate as many ideas as possible related to the design problem. The discussion ranged from the goal of the free-cell game to their friends’ experiences with technology.

But the highlight came near the end of the session when one of the participants brought up an issue that arises 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 of a digital pill dispenser with feedback loops. Ultimately, the session ended with a creative solution that capitalized on existing behavior.

This experience highlighted the importance of recording everything during these types of sessions because you never know what you might capture.

One participant built a physical prototype out of everyday items.
One participant built a physical prototype out of everyday items.

Lessons Learned

  • Ultimately, the concept may not be valuable to this small group of older adults. They all valued face-to-face communication more than communicating digitally.
  • Health appeared to be a more prominent theme, which could be further explored.
  • Older adults have great ideas! Their life experience is not to be taken for granted.
  • One of the biggest takeaways was the importance of being patient while facilitating. During the sessions, I did not interject my own feelings or thoughts and let each session reach its natural conclusion.
  • Remember to record everything!

Next project

Re-imagining the car buying experience at the dawn of COVID-19

Previous project

Using a design sprint to create a mobile app that uses AR technology to
foster citizen participation in urban planning