Co-developing tech solutions to alleviate loneliness

Demands on social care services are increasing. And new technology offers multiple potential solutions to the challenge this brings.

But outlay on tech is expensive – and if the target audience is unreceptive to the digital solution, resources can easily be wasted.

So how do you ensure that an idea that sounds promising on paper works in the real world?

Bracknell Forest Council’s public health team worked in partnership with Qa to implement a multi staged programme which has shown some early signs of success.

The challenge

Bracknell’s public health team created an online Welcome Map of community groups, clubs, events and activities.

Building on evidence that ‘social prescribing’ is an effective way to improve wellbeing, the map lists all sorts of opportunities that can help alleviate residents’ loneliness and improve their mental and physical health.

It is an approach championed by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, and embodied in the NHS long term plan.

The challenge, however, was to guide audiences of older people, and people with learning disabilities, to these opportunities.

The idea

To make the Welcome Map accessible, Bracknell envisaged creating kiosks with touchscreens placed in key locations.

But would this work with the key audiences – older people, people with learning disabilities and their carers?

To find out, Qa Research was asked to facilitate a co-development study with the target users including:

  1. Exploratory research, testing the audience’s relationship with tech and their view towards the kiosk
  2. Creating a blueprint to advise on how the software could be accessible and engaging
  3. Usability testing of a prototype to establish how the final tool could be refined
  4. Evaluating the product after launch.

Research and prototype

Initially Qa researchers conducted in-depth qualitative research with target audiences in Bracknell.

Qa interviewed older residents in the town centre and applied ethnographic and immersive techniques in order to gain a deeper understanding of the culture and context of the community that the kiosks may eventually be placed.

We also undertook interviews, workshops and mini focus groups with people with learning disabilities and carers. Researchers talked to residents at pre-arranged coffee mornings and exercise groups, arranged via the local health service and voluntary sector agencies.

Researchers presented residents with the touchscreen kiosk idea to gauge both their levels of interest – and identify any barriers that might dissuade them from using the technology.

Our immersive community-focused approach harvested valuable feedback on the possible challenges – which enabled Qa to create an ‘instruction manual’ for the software experts developing the prototype.

Usability testing

Qa then took the prototype to the key audiences to try.

We are all aware that people react to technology in different ways – some are avid users, others fearful. But thanks to our immersive research strategy we were able to identify four distinct typologies:

  1. Reasoned rejecters – feel technology has passed them by so default reaction is to ignore
  2. Curious carefuls – can see the benefit of tech but lack confidence in having a go
  3. Prohibited possibles – residents with LD requiring tech to be highly tailored to their needs
  4. Enthused enablers – highly engaged with tech devices, keen to educate others.

This enabled the developers to refine the software to overcome many of the barriers faced by the different groups when engaging with the touchscreen.

The result

With the help of our insights, Bracknell secured further funding to implement the touchscreens – embedded in four lecterns, rather than kiosks.

These were placed in various locations, including day centres and GP surgeries.

We then undertook an evaluation to assess the initial impact which revealed that:

  • the device was easy to use
  • it raised awareness of the available activities
  • and some users did go on to take part in an activity.

Bracknell Forest Council secured funding from the Social Care Digital Innovation Programme led by the Local Government Association and NHS Digital.

Our iterative research approach was commended by the funders. Because we involved the community from the earliest stages, they were able to shape and refine the design of the technology.

As a consequence, the touchscreens proved to be accessible to the key audiences from day one.

The investment in the tech solution has shown some early indications that it could improve the quality of life for some Bracknell residents. And it will continue to do so as awareness and usage grow over time.

Qa presented an overview of this study at the Social Research Association’s (SRA) annual conference and at an SRA North seminar.

The slides can be accessed here.

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For more information contact Richard Bryan, Qa Research Managing Director, at richard.bryan@qaresearch.co.uk and 01904 632039