MFA Thesis

Researcher, Designer

Aug 2016 - Mar 2017

David Weightman (ID)
Deana McDonagh (ID)
Karrie G. Karahalios (CS)
Eric Benson (GD)


The thesis topic was triggered because of the inconvenient communication between me and my grandma who is living in China. I found that it becomes difficult for us to get connected after me coming to America. I sometimes need to connect my cousin who lives with her and then have the video call with her. The main reason is because that the technology and design for communication are not easy and understandable for her to use.

We are living in an era of highly developed communication technology. Designs and tools nowadays are making communication easier for people to connect each other. However, few of them meet the needs of older adults. Most designs are too complicated for older adults to use because of their aging problems.

I'm curious about whether other older adults have similar problem. What's their communication needs? Do they have other barriers? And how other young people feel about the communication with them?

literature review


communication technologies are helping people to communicate

With the boom of information and communication technology, although face-to-face contact is less frequent for those whose children live some distance away, communications such as telephones, mobile phones, email and webcam tools such as Skype and social networking sites such as Facebook, make communication easier when children live far apart.

HOWEVER, THE MAJORITY OF OLDER ADUlTS ARE not benefited from them DUE TO THE problems of using

The majority of older adults do not ever use Skype to communicate with their children. This non use is because 42 per cent do not know how to use online technology such as Skype or email.

"Loneliness amongst older people and the impact of family connections, WRVS, 2012"



Older Adults and Technology Use


The movement of America seniors into digital life continues to deepen (Pew Research Center, 2014).


User Research

Contextual Interview
Field Observation

tell me your stories

To deeply understand older adults, I contacted and visited two senior living apartments ( Inman Place, Parkview Senior Apartments) and one senior learning community ( Osher lifelong learning institute). With the total number of 33 questionnaire gathered and 15 face to face interview, I got some interesting and useful findings. I was also trying to build a long-term relationship with my participants for the further design feedbacks.

Several key points to understand about the participants are:

- Thoughts and attitudes
  Understand participants’ attitude towards communication.
  Explore how they experienced the communication.

- Methods and tools
  Understand how participants keep in touch with different important others.
  What types of communication tools and designs to they currently use.

- Problems
  Observe how participants using different communication tools.
  Pay more attention to the process and barriers.

- Needs and expectations
  Discover real needs of the communication. Ask possible expectations. 

Main questions being asked are:

- Are you satisfied with your current communication situation?
  If yes, what moments made you happy?
  If no, what’s the problems and needs?

- Who do you contact most? Do you use different methods connecting different people?

- What tools do you use to communicate with others under remote situation?
  Do you have any difficulties using them?
  Devices: Regular phone, smart phone, computer, tablet
  Method: Text, Email, Facebook, Skype, Facetime, Others



With all the questionnaire outcomes, writing notes, and voice recording gathered, I transcribed all the important sayings of each individual participant into an excel file. After that, using different colors to classify and group the sayings into several different points, which provided me important findings for their problems and expectations.





device use


research on the young side


During my initial chat with the students, I found that most of the, don’t always contact their grandparents or even parents on their own initiative. So I then conducted a user research asking two main questions to the young people about the reasons and the expectations. Overall I got 16 answers. Key points can be described as follows.


findings and design direction


content structure

0-content structure-2-01.jpg

rounds of user testing

user testing findings



Users have problems about
Recognizing icons (i.e. photo album) in the conversation page.
Understanding of the replay button.

Users have different views about
Scheduling a time to have a video chat with family members.

Users show positive attitudes about
Instruction button always on the screen - make them feel
confident of using the application.
"Embedded knowledge" function.
Sharing pictures during the video call.


Users have problems about
Some wording(terminology) of the button or function description: 'Sharing', 'Play', 'Switch camera', 'Message board'.
'Message' section interface makes users a little confused:
should try to be more simple.

Users show positive attitudes about
Instruction button always on the screen
'Moment' section: photo and video sharing function
make users excited and tell their own stories


final design



"Nexa" is the latin word of "connection". "Promoting positive communication for older adults and their family members" is the theme of this product. I hope Nexa can help connect different generation in a family at a distance together.