How design thinking can tackle loneliness

By Tamsin Greulich-Smith

Practical tips and lessons on how to use design thinking techniques and test your ideas with users.

Image: Prudential Singapore

The impact of social isolation on health is gaining increased attention in Singapore, particularly under the spotlight of an ageing population. However, a senior healthcare executive commented to me recently that whilst this is an issue everyone is grappling with, across the healthcare and social care landscape, there remain gaps in understanding how best to achieve impact.

My own team at the Smart Health Leadership Centre has been looking into this for the past year, working with key stakeholders to explore integrated solutions. Based on our experience one thing is clear, that impact cannot be created in isolation.

Last month, insurance company Prudential set its sights on making a tangible contribution to tackling social isolation. I was delighted to be asked to join the multi-disciplinary team they brought together to devise impactful solutions using a design-thinking approach.

When design thinking is useful

Design thinking is particularly useful for highly complex, entrenched challenges and hence the initiative undertaken by Prudential was perfect for both seeking to make a difference to people’s lives as well as building capabilities and fostering a stronger design and innovation culture within the organisation.

Some interesting ideas that arose from the design sprint included behaviour nudging gamification to empathy-building experiential ageing. All of the concepts proposed have some potential to be realised on the ground and to create positive impact for lonely seniors.

Prudential is certainly keen to ensure that practical, sustainable solutions can be developed and piloted in the near future with their partners at South East Community Development Council (CDC) and Changi General Hospital. It’s encouraging to see they have plenty of ideas to choose from!

How to understand your users

Prudential invited a broad selection of their Singapore-based team to participate in the design sprint facilitated by their in-house design thinking team and agency LUMA to tackle the complex and all too real issue of loneliness for seniors.

Ethnographic research can feel difficult for people who are new to it. We are challenged to observe the unexpected in everyday behaviours, to look for emotional clues, to take note of workarounds and coping tactics being used on the ground to overcome, often unspoken or invisible, barriers.

These are often things we are ‘blind’ to in our daily busy-ness. The participants captured insights by people-watching and chatting with elderly in their usual hang-outs, like hawker centres and senior activity centres.

Equipped with rich personal experiences gained from their field observations, and reams of feedback and narratives, the teams returned for the second phase of their intense design sprint, the ideation phase.

The rose, thorn and bud

At this stage, the teams had to analyse and draw insights from their field observations. We used a structured approach to help those new to ideation bring together insights, convert them into idea components, and eventually to build up impactful concepts for sustainable impact.

Even the process of low fidelity prototyping was clearly structured, directing participants in the development of concept posters that would articulate the operating model and impacts of their concept quickly, visually, and engagingly.

The design process ended with a form of user testing, which incorporated the ‘Rose, Thorn, and Bud’ evaluation technique. Each team pitched their proposal to an audience of ‘users’, comprising the other design teams as well as invited domain experts.

These users were then invited to share short, written feedback with the pitching team on their ‘roses’ (aspects of the idea that users liked); ‘thorns’ (aspects of the idea that users had concerns about); and ‘buds’ (ideas and suggestions for improving the idea). As such, the pitching process became a collaborative, co-creation exercise, allowing tangible inputs for the design iteration cycle to be collected.

The participants in this design sprint appear to have been positively impacted by this experience. The smiling faces, the spring in the step, and the clear pride in their achievements offered ethnographic clues that their appetite for impact design has been whetted.

The greatest opportunities for tackling social isolation among the elderly lie in collaborating across the diverse care ecosystem, and it’s heartening to see bold efforts underway in this direction.

Tamsin Greulich-Smith is Chief of the Smart Health Leadership Centre at the National University of Singapore’s Institute of Systems Science.