In a time when the online world is removing boundaries for human connectivity, socializing seems easier than ever. But for older adults who may be experiencing significant changes in their lives with retirement, relocation or the death of a spouse, feeling socially isolated is not uncommon. Canada has a steadily growing aging population and many people over the age of 50 are at risk of experiencing the negative effects that accompany changing social landscapes. It’s a concern that is familiar to the team at Sheridan’s Centre for Elder Research and one that a group of students and staff at the college have been addressing through an industry partnership.
“Real-time discussions allow users to observe social cues, which make interactions more meaningful” – Neel Desai
What started as an idea of businessman Neel Desai flourished quickly into the launch of Chumbuggy.com in July 2015 at Sheridan’s Trafalgar Campus in Oakville. School of Applied Computing coordinator Pejman Salehi helped secure funding for the project through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada earlier in the year and recruited three students to help bring the idea to fruition. The result is an online platform for older adults to have secure, video-based discussions about topics that are interesting to them.
How does Chumbuggy.com differ from existing social technologies? “When you have face-to-face interactions, you get to see important facial expressions and reactions,” explains Desai. “Real-time discussions allow users to observe social cues, which make interactions more meaningful.” As well, Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), which focuses on the interfaces between users and computers, was utilized as the basis for the technology. “How people connect with a computing system is important to understand, especially when designing a tool for an aging population,” explains Salehi. “Even if you’re tech savvy, there needs to be consideration such as how one’s vision might affect the user experience.”
“How people connect with a computing system is important to understand, especially when designing a tool for an aging population” – Pejman Salehi
Like all of Sheridan’s research partnerships with industry, the experience allowed students Ben Hofstede (Bachelor of Applied Information Sciences – Information Systems Security), Kevin Lee (Computer Systems Technology – Systems Analyst) and Krysta Salera (Computer Systems Technology – Software Development and Networking Engineering) beneficial hands-on experience in their fields of study. What differed with this partnership is how closely the students worked with Desai on many facets of the design including the customer-facing strategy, research and marketing.
“It’s a unique opportunity to work on a design where your role is flexible,” says Lee, who dedicated his co-op term to work on Chumbuggy.com. “I’m not just labeled a coder or analyst. If I want to share a suggestion or idea, I have a direct line of communication with the founder.” Many of his responsibilities have entailed finding a balance between simplicity and power in design and working with real-time solutions to create a seamless user experience for direct messaging and reporting applications. Working on this project has affirmed for him that creating technology that works for an aging demographic should be a priority. “Industry is so often focused on the latest, fastest products, but not always on making people’s lives easier,” he says.
“I’m not just labeled a coder or analyst. If I want to share a suggestion or idea, I have a direct line communication with the founder” – Kevin Lee
Currently underway on Chumbuggy.com are discussions on topics such as improving relationships with adult children, taking care of aging parents and ways to stay mentally alert. Future plans include coordinating with Ryerson University’s Cognitive Aging Lab to study the cognitive benefits of using the platform in addition to the social perks. Lee continues to work to develop new tools and features such as analytics functions that will help inform improvements to the site.
Reflecting on the experience of partnering with Sheridan, Desai says: “Whether it was a technical or business decision, we were in sync. I have to give credit to Pejman and his students who have the skills to see the connection between business and research and approach things holistically.” This interdisciplinary venture has proved to be a successful learning opportunity for students, development opportunity for industry, and in turn, has the potential to improve wellness for aging adults in Canada and beyond.
Pictured at top of page: A user testing out the Chumbuggy.com software
Written by: Keiko Kataoka, Digital Communications Officer at Sheridan.