Beppie

▲ One of five iterations of the "digital mailbox" that forms the physical interface for elderly users.

Can we reduce loneliness among elderly people by removing a communication barrier?

We are quickly distracted these days and communication technology is changing faster than ever. Many older adults are having a hard time adapting to the latest ways of staying in touch, which can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. We wanted to connect these people with the social networks of today, using the safe and familiar ways of yesterday.

Developed in-house, adopted by Nedap

▲ To illustrate the concept, I made this animation (with some editing help by Wessel Fletterman). It not only illustrates the function, but also sets the tone for the concept. I wanted to get away from the sterile, medical aesthetic usually reserved for elderly people, and went for a lighthearted, warm, fun and playful identity. Subsequent interaction design, promotional material and other expressions features a combination of colorful illustrations and vernicular (retro) design elements.

Analogue interface

Beppie forms a bridge between the modern world of instant messaging, and the tactile experience of sending a paper letter. At the core of this concept is a "digital mailbox", which prints incoming messages as postcards, and sends out handwritten letters as messages. This interface is made completely intuitive, making full use of things you already know if you have ever sent a postcard. It can send written letters, drawings, stickers, or whatever you like to put on the page. The letter is then addressed using fail-proof "stamps", which can be detected no matter where they are pasted. The device doesn't even have a button!

Digital interface

On the other end of the line, no special apps are required; the beppie-platform can communicate with familiar media like e-mail and Telegram. This makes sending a message to granny as simple as sending a message to anyone else. The message is automatically printed so that she can read it at her own pace. She can answer by writing a reply and pasting on a "reply-stamp".

The first concept was merely intended to give a vision of what the device could look like. It was complemented with a proof-of-concept demonstration using an off the shelf printer, scanner and computer which ran the script.

Design of the demonstration model we built for the Dutch Design week. A large off-the-shelf printer and camera contraption are hidden inside the cabinet, while the front mimics a smaller wall-mounted version.

For a month-long pilot, we decided to build a more robust prototype primarily using laser cut components. I designed the casing to mimic a mail box to give an extra point of recognition.

We considered a pressed steel construction for a brief period, resulting in this in-between concept.

In the end, we went for injection molding for the final production model. In this design, I drew inspiration from jet age designs, to give it a slightly optimist-futuristic yet familiar look.

Device

The design of the device went through 5 versions, each iteration having to answer different use case scenarios and technical requirements like production techniques. In terms of the basic interaction, we went through slight variations of the same concept (see below): avoid buttons, just write a letter and put it in the device. The only extra step that is needed is putting on some sort of adress-identifier, so we can detect where it needs to go.

▲ One of the working prototypes we built, capable of stand-alone operation during a month-long pilot. It uses a raspberry pi, a thermal printing unit, and a camera setup with a servo latch to control the paper flow.

Step 0: Message is recieved automatically.

Step 1: Write a letter.

Step 2: Paste an adress stamp.

Step 3: Put it in the mail slot. That's all, the message is sent!

Platform

We designed an interface-layer behind the scenes which links with dedicated apps and third party applications, so that the platform can offer a range of other services. This means that functionality is not limited to direct messaging, but might at a later point in development also be used to order your groceries, recieve relevant newsletters, plan a trip or even handle your banking. Input can be given through written letters, but the device can also print forms with checkboxes and letter slots for more reliable automation. We have paid special attention so that the system guarantees safety, privacy and user-friendliness, which checks whether the sender is known & verified by the user, anonymises information wherever possible, and only sends out gives out the necessary information to trusted applications.

Background

During visits to an elderly care home, we found out that many elderly people feel lonely. This is backed by the numbers: 56.5% of elderly people in the Netherlands indicates that they are lonely. We also found out that many of them are struggling with modern communication technology. Even if they are able to send messages, they often don't bother because it is too frustrating. Meanwhile, many younger people told us that they don't really know what to do with a postcard either, and feel a barrier towards calling someone. In theory, it's possible to get in touch, but it won't be a fluent exchange. We figured that these issues might be connected; Your loved ones feel further removed if you have a hard time reaching them. This is compounded by the fact that physically visiting others tends to get harder as you get older and less mobile (and that was before the corona-pandemic hit us all). Such a shame! Gramps & granny would love to hear from you, and there is so much to learn from someone who might already have a century of experience in living. To close the gap, we set out to make a contribution in closing the gap towards meaningful connections.

▲ Beppie (then still called App een oma) featured on national television in "het jeugdjournaal" (newsshow for children). You can watch it over here, starting at minute 13:40.

Collaborations

Beppie was initially our own project, in which we collaborated a lot with other organisations. Nedap and the University of Twente helped us out to realise our vision through mentoring, advice and technical support. We also often visited elderly home de Posten to talk with residents and staff to understand their perspectives. Our first (working) interactive demo-model was on display at the Mind the Step-exposition during the Dutch Design Week, which generated a lot of feedback and media-attention, including items on RTL Bright, BNR Nieuwsradio, de Tubantia, Radio 1 and het Jeugdjournaal.