Enter the maze

I see where you run

by Pollie Barden, Queen Mary University of London

Feet running on cobbles: copyright www.istockphoto.com 27047314

Lots of Smartphone apps help you track the exercise you do: running, walking, cycling, rowing and even swimming. How many help prevent older people getting lonely, though? I've helped design one that does!

The app was for GoodGym, a London running club with a difference. It pairs runners who need motivation with isolated older people (called the 'coaches') who would like someone to visit them. Rather than my acting the prima donna designer though, I worked with the runners and coaches to create it. We all helped come up with the idea and we designed and tested it together.

Design for us

This way of designing is called Participatory Design: a way to design that involves working really closely with the people you are designing for. They are in on it from the start and together you develop the design step-by-step. Your participants use it as it is improved, giving you feedback on each improvement. This 'rapid prototyping' is far better than waiting until you are finished to find out if it's useful. It increases the chances that you will come up with a design that really does work for those it is for. That's why more and more start up companies are designing this way.

We created two apps: one for the runners' phones and one for the coaches' tablets. The runner's app shows things like their speed, distance run, and time taken and also maps their progress. It also sends a signal to the coach's tablet, allowing the coach to watch their runner's progress on a map along with a countdown to their arrival. To keep things really simple for the coach, their tablet shows the map automatically as soon as the runner starts the run in their app.

What shall we talk about?

The runners and coaches trialled the system for six months, and it turned out that it did more than just allow the coaches to track their runners. It gave them things to chat about too.

It gave them new things to talk about when the runner arrived

Most of the coaches grew up in London and wanted to know more about the places the runners passed on their run. The app let them see the roads, parks and landmarks giving them new things to talk about when the runner arrived. They could share their history and knowledge of the places the runner had passed and it led to them chatting about their experiences living and working in London. Sometimes, the coaches even suggested places along the way for the runner to look out for, changing their route. At other times, the runners went a different way to share new areas of London with their coach.

Stop and chat

Sometimes the runners stopped for chats with people they knew. When this happened the estimate of when the runner would arrive began to increase instead of decrease and the coaches learned that this meant their runner had stopped. That led to conversations around the runner's friends.

The GoodGym apps ultimately did more than just help coaches keep track of their runners. They opened up new ways for the runners and coaches to share both their experiences and knowledge of London. Exactly what you need if you are living alone. Over time, some coaches became like a grandparent to their runner.