Shaping the Conversation: Designing for Family Discussions Around Aging
Over the last eight weeks, Laura Galos and I have been working on a design solution to help facilitate the difficult conversations seniors and their families have around the major changes that come with aging.
Last quarter, we spent eight weeks conducting qualitative research with a range of individuals in their 30’s to their 80’s. We started with a focus on how people are planning for and financing their post-work years in the context of increasing longevity. The subject of aging and the impact it has on finances led us to explore how age-associated life changes also affect health and family relationships.
We found that communication about aging-related transitions can be difficult, as the older family members faces changes in the way they live, while younger family members find themselves feeling the “role reversal” of caring for the people who had previously cared for them. The communication problem families are faced with crosses a range of topics–from limiting driving, to agreement on living arrangements, to health issues, and others.
For some families, broaching these hard subjects is too difficult to bring up until forced by external events. We wondered about the root cause of the avoidance in families. In synthesizing the stories our participants shared in research, we came to the following insight:
Elderly individuals fear asking for help because taking others’ time and resources will result in being robbed of their own independence.
We considered the need for a gentler “ramp-down” for seniors, rather than the abrupt changes that happen as a result of small problems growing into large ones. On the other hand, we clearly see a need to give the elderly as much control as possible in making choices about their lives. This was an opportunity to design a solution that allows communication between aging parents and grown children to embody more honesty, mutual understanding and a place of emotional safety for both sides.
In our exploration of the topic, we found that the journey of bringing up tough topics between younger and elderly family members follows this general path:
We found that the journey usually begins when the family member that is responsible for caregiving, feels the need to address a tough topic. They look outside themselves for help or outside advice and will often have discussions about these issues with siblings. This usually leads to the building of a “case” against the elderly’s need to change their behavior and is followed by an intervention-like conversation that can leave both sides feeling frustrated, angry, hurt or shut down.
We see our product as an opportunity to change this journey from building a case to building understanding on both sides. Along this desired path, the intent of our product is to breaks up the conversation into smaller units focused on building understanding between family members, rather than a large conversation based on a “case” for the need to change. This likely also means that younger and older family members might having these conversations over time, rather than all at once.
For both the younger and elderly family member, our value promise to them is this:
By using our product, we promise to help you stay on the same team as you make aging-related decisions together.
Our first iteration explored the notion of team by using game mechanics. Games allow the user to take on different roles, explore alternatives in a safe space, and have a lighter, more fun experience. They also have the ability to diffuse the responsibility of bringing up tough topics.
One of the concepts we came up with is called Balloon Bounce. The object of the game is to answer questions related to a difficult topic within a certain amount of time. Not answering the question within a certain amount of time results in a challenge that family members would complete together.
While this idea was fun and more playful, the use of technology was more than either side wanted to take on.
Still exploring game mechanics, we still went with something that was a more familiar form. Conversation Cards. Using a question deck and an answer deck, the object of the game is to learn about each other so the answers are about the person who is asking the question. To play this game, one person would ask the question while the other players provided an answer that they think most closely aligns to the person who asked the question’s preferences. The person who asked the question would then pick the winning answer and award the person who answered with the point.
There is a mix of fun, lighter questions, but also brings up harder questions that get the family members closer to the answers they’re really wanting to know. Users enjoyed engaging with a familiar form and coming up with solutions together. For older family members, the conversation is not centered around things being taken away from them. Because this started to get to answers family members wanted to know, we needed a way for them to follow-up on the conversation.
Veering away slightly from the game mechanics, but into that continuous conversation users were looking for, our team came up with a service called, Enveloop.
Enveloop is a web-based service that allows family members to bring up tough topics by answering prompts in the form of letters and sending them physically through the mail.
Some users that we tested this service with liked that this allowed them to do something they felt was more meaningful for their older family member and saw this as a way to gain empathy for the changes they were experience as they aged. They liked that the technology made using the service convenient for them, but minimized it on the side of their elderly family members. Physical letters are a form they are already familiar with. Where users were less clear on the value of our service came from managing different communication methods. How would bringing up difficult topics through letters in the mail be better than talking over the phone or having a discussion in person?
The intent behind our initial design iterations was to test how tough topics could be more approachable for everyone involved. While our idea is still evolving, testing each of these concepts with users that are having or anticipate having difficult conversations about age-related life transitions in the near future, provided us with a set of criteria that will be used in our next iteration to help us move the idea forward:
- Feels non-threatening for older individuals
- Feels approachable to family members
- Leads to solutions, not just fun bonding moments
- Uses a medium older individuals already enjoy
- Includes a way to follow-up on conversations
- Takes into considerations families who live apart
Shaping the manifestation of this idea has proven to be as challenging as shaping the conversation between family members and the elderly itself. Quarter 3 has been as much about learning how we can make the impact we intend to have in this problem space as much as it has been about embracing where we are in the process with an idea that still exists in multiple manifestations.
Hard to believe we’re moving into our last and final quarter at AC4D. In the last eight weeks, we will pilot our idea and get our product in the hands of potential users. Check back in another week to see where our next iteration takes us!