Be: / Comlink

Connecting elders through co-designed tech


Digital Wellbeing


Mental Health

The problem

Thousands of elder Australians lack the ability to connect with others due to the social distancing requirements of the pandemic.

The solution

spur: co-designed a video chat app designed with elder Australians for their unique needs and wants.

Project updates

"This could be one of those ideas that deconstructs the complex and ill considered interfaces that we accept in the workplace, bringing it to the homes and hands of many of our elders who are not digital natives. Importantly, it does not dumb-down technology, instead opening a door and creating an easier access point. The respect and centrality of the elders in this approach will no doubt massively increase its uptake and impact.” --- Good Design Awards 2021 Judges

Barry is a storyteller.

Take the time to sit with him and Barry will reward you with tale after tale from what can only be categorised as a life larger than most.

Barry will tell you about the time he was served a cuppa on a cattle station by R.M. Williams himself. He'll tell you about scouting and coaching some of Australia's most recognised footy stars. Or, cheekily, the time he almost made a fortune in crocodile skins.

That one is best heard from Barry himself.

Yet, despite how much he loves spinning stories, Barry suffers from the same plight as many his age: he has few people to talk to. In his words, it's just 'me, four walls, and the night.'

In fact, Australians over 75 report loneliness more than any other age group, and, not counting natural causes of death, have the highest suicide rate of any age group in Australia (AIHW, 2019).

This is a social problem close to spur:'s heart, and one greatly worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic as older Australians withdrew from social connections for pandemic safety.

So when Be, a Sunshine Coast based aged service provider, reached out with a unique opportunity to tackle this, we were all ears. Like many aged service providers, Be had been running community volunteering programs to bring in locals to spend time with elders and reduce loneliness. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, this was impossible.

How could we use technology to bring connection to elders who have to remain at a safe distance?

The generational divide in digital

By the end of 2020, many of us were well accustomed to video chat apps and conferencing apps. They proved crucial in helping teams work remotely and keeping friends and families in touch.

Yet, as spur: took stock of the available tools, we quickly realised an uncomfortable truth about these apps - they are at best, finnicky to use, and at worst an absolute nightmare.

Most popular tools on the market require existing knowledge of technology and how apps work - what we deemed a Subconcious Digital, one who has an innate understanding of technology language and interface, versus a Conscious Digital, an individual that requires more conscious thought on how to use technology.

Just getting to a Zoom meeting, for instance, requires a new user to go through a 28 step signup process across three applications - not to mention a reliance on URL links to join meetings. Other apps like Skype and Google Hangouts can be simpler, but rely on established knowledge of how technology works, right down to the choice of icons and UI colours.

Many of the available tools required strong hand eye coordination and vision. In short, they were made for young people and professionals.

On the other hand, while some apps exist to assist elders in keeping connected with family, these trended towards tools that monitor elders, with some concerning abdication of privacy consent.

This assessment reinforced a profound truth: while elders are not adverse to using technology (71% of Australian elders use devices) technology is rarely designed with elders in mind.

The solution to this was obvious: put elders in the design seat.

What would Zoom or FaceTime look like if it was designed with and for elders?

How could elders co-design a technology solution that would help bring people together and reduce social isolation?

Co-designing better communication tools

We put the call out for input and received a few dozen willing co-designers in both elder clients of Be, and their aged service volunteers - who, incidentally, were all retired and not that much younger than the elders themselves.

Coffee and tea were put on, scones and cakes were laid out, and spur: facilitated a series of interviews and co-design sessions aimed at uncovering the experiences and needs of elders, including Barry himself.

These elder co-designers detailed their day to day routines, and the need for connection.

They talked to us about how rare conversation and connection had become for them. Many were widowed or divorced, and often lived far from friends and family. Some described insisting on helping the gardeners and cleaners provided by Be, just to have someone to interact with.

Each of them talked about how much it meant to receive a call from a Be staff member, during the COVID-19 lockdown. It made them feel like they mattered. That they hadn't been forgotten, as was so often the case.

Together, we undertook a co-design process of identifying the key features and UX components that would make a tool like this work - from the setup process, to managing contacts, making calls, and checking-in on individual wellbeing.

Every decision in the design of the platform was driven by what the elders in the process needed and what they liked.

As spur: closed in on the final phase of the project, the shape and detail of the platform came into view. The next task was to flesh out a range of UI designs, detailed technical specifications, and contextual considerations including data management, privacy, and how the platform interfaced with existing Be systems.

The technology design was becoming pretty clear. And, clearly pretty.

Yet, the biggest design surprise came in one of spur:'s final co-design sessions. Many of the elders described not just a lack of tools to connect with loved ones, friends, and community volunteers at a distance - but a lack of place and purpose.

In one of the final co-design sessions, after the storyteller Barry had finished another tale, spur: asked a question.

"Barry - do you think you'd be interested in using this app to volunteer? Maybe you could read story books to a local school?"

Barry dismissed the idea immediately. Nobody would be interested in hearing from him, he thought. Then, after a moment, Barry sat up, and a smile rolled across his face.

"Treasure Island!" He said, "I could read them Treasure Island! Everyone loves pirates."

Every elder spur: spoke to after this, and posed the idea of using the app for these elders to volunteer themselves, was met with a similar reaction.

Technology is one thing - it enables the previously impossible. It breaks down logistical barriers, but it cannot remove the base human needs we all carry: to have a sense of purpose, to matter, and to be listened to.

Dovetail is now in development review. The Dovetail elder co-designers themselves are expected to be the first users of the new platform.


project team

Lee Crockford
Lee Crockford
William Smith-Stubbs
William Smith-Stubbs

William Smith-Stubbs

Olivia Roney
Olivia Roney

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