The concept of putting modern communication tools (be it in the shape of the web, social media, video streaming or e-mail) in the hands of seniors to help them stay in touch with family, current friends (and making new ones) sounds great. The costs, challenges and distances involved in staying in touch with people become irrelevant and helps reduce the chances of growing lonely.
Ditching the platform
A previous attempt had been made by using custom hardware configurations, placed in a communal area as a central gateway. It wasn't very successful -the hardware broke down frequently and between restarts, no alternatives were available. The idea that technology was something to help its users gave way to the impression that it would break whenever they touched it.
Once we engaged the project, the concept of centralized, custom hardware was the first thing we threw out the window. Instead, we proposed a solution in software and use commodity hardware that would be portable, easy to replace and personal.
For the hardware platform we had a natural fit: The iPad. Apple's successful tablet combines a comfortable screen size with intuitive gesture-based controls and a distinctly single-user perspective on ownership.
A pilot team of 16 seniors
After some pre-production research, the decision was made to start from scratch and involve all stakeholders: Vita (the client), Us Media (digital service), and a pilot team of 16 seniors (the users).
Together, all stakeholders came to the conclusion that the challenge lay in understanding the core concepts behind digital communication before learning to use a specific application. The target audience had no use for dumbed-down interfaces attempting to help them access regular functionality. Instead, they wanted to be able to familiarize themselves with the concepts in a peer group.
What was needed was a safe zone, where users can experiment and fiddle with the built-in communication features of the iPad. By bouncing experiences back and forth with peers, learning becomes a team effort. Once comfortable with the features and principles introduced in the app, switching to "regular" apps is no longer the insurmountable hurdle it is always made out to be.
The ZilverOnline app ended up containing easy-to-use functionality for private and public messaging, sharing photos and video using default iOS functionality. But before we got there, we had some prototyping to do…
From concept to prototype
We discarded our usual digital process and went back to paper and scissors: workflows and features were visualized with prints, images, notes, scraps and scribbles. The users participated directly and gave continuous feedback on the proceedings, helping us improve the workflow and determine what worked and what didn't. It helped us better understand the needs of our audience and in return we made them familiar with technical concepts in an informal, casual manner.
With the end-users actively involved we had an extremely short feedback loop. With comments and suggestions finding their way into the design before delivery of the project, we converged towards the best design for the app. At that point we were two months into the project and not a *single* line of code was written. It simply wasn't necessary yet; we were fleshing out the concept and user experience just fine without code.
When the time was right, we started developing. With the hardware platform clearly defined, we dismissed cross-platform frameworks and developed a native iOS application.
Because of the closed nature of the application and its audience, ZilverOnline was deployed in a closed environment instead of making it available through the App Store -a nice twist on our usual release plan for iOS applications.
The pilot project was officially launched in october 2012 in The Rabobank offices at Amstelveen, where the pilot team members were issued brand new iPads with the Vita ZilverOnline app pre-installed.The pilot was a markedly more successful project than its previous iteration and came to a successful conclusion in February 2013. An expansion of the project is forthcoming.