Synthesizing family perspectives on health: Using fun activities to stimulate health conversations

Authors: Jomara Sandbulte , Jordan Beck, Janice Whitaker, John Carroll
Posted: Mon, October 07, 2019 - 2:02:05

Many families have difficulty carrying out healthy behavior practices in their household.  Since conversations about health and well-being are infrequent within families, it becomes more challenging to cultivate those practices [1]. The Center for Human-Computer Interaction at Penn State University (PSU) sees this as an opportunity for experience design and is looking into how and what family members come to know about each other’s health [1], including ways they can coordinate, incentivize, and follow through in health management [2]. These ongoing efforts have created opportunities for collaboration on community-wide interventions, such as the Intergenerational Friends Fair, a day-long, family-friendly event promoted by the Intergenerational Leadership Institute at PSU. This event aimed to bring together participants of all ages for activities and interactive exhibits, to expand opportunities for intergenerational communication and learning. Together with the Center of Geriatric Nursing Excellence at PSU, we prepared an exhibit for this event. In this blog post, we reflect on our experience at this event and outline two lessons learned for researchers and designers working on family-centered projects.

Since families may struggle to find time to sit together and talk about certain topics, we decided to ask family members to sit down and talk about their current healthy living practices. However, we wanted these conversations to be organic rather than forced, so we created a space that might connote the closeness and intimacy of home. Additionally, we provided materials (e.g., Health Bingo) as chat triggers to encourage free talking and the sharing of thoughts on healthy living practices. First, we asked participants to craft ideas in response to this question: What does healthy living mean to you? in terms of what matters to them and their family, ways to promote positive health, and ways to be active. We provided colored markers and pens and A1-size white cardboard paper. Participants were encouraged to express their ideas creatively using these materials. Second, we encouraged family members to play Health Bingo—adapted from Bridges Together to include options such as drinking water, flossing, and meditation. We briefly explained the rules of the game: Each participant should circle health activities and behaviors that they engage in, compare their answers with their family members, and finally mark the ones that they have in common. As they compared answers, we talked about which activities they might like to start and which they might like to do more often.

Many intergenerational families came by our exhibit and engaged in our activities. Kids loved drawing posters. They grabbed markers and got right to work drawing their ideas about healthy living. Parents were satisfied seeing kids’ ideas about health and seemed motivated to reinforce healthy behaviors. We were intrigued that children frequently drew or talked about healthy eating when prompted to reflect on healthy living. For example, one child said he loved eating lemons. His mother then reinforced the importance of healthy eating and mentioned other food options, including fruits and vegetables, that could be considered healthy, as shown below. They made creative suggestions of images and words that the child could incorporate into the poster. In the end, the poster had drawings of superheroes fighting bad eating habits (e.g., too much sugar) and giving healthy gifts (lemons) to kids if they were good. As a team, we felt that this family’s and others’ participation reinforced how a simple and direct activity could promote valuable conversation about healthy living between family members. Throughout the day, several families were able to identify healthy living practices and promote healthy behaviors by creating posters.

Mother and child working together on their poster, using materials offered
during our event.

Health Bingo also encouraged family members to talk about their healthy living habits. For example, while an eight-year-old boy and his grandmother were playing, the grandmother watched with a big smile while the boy circled his answers (below). She asked several questions to get him to share more details. “What kind of healthy food do you like to eat?” she asked. The boy responded, “Broccoli! They’re like little trees!” We were surprised to see that he circled almost all the activities on the bingo card. When he was almost done, he noticed the only healthy habit left was flossing and said, “I need to improve my flossing!” We all smiled, and his grandmother took the opportunity to reaffirm the importance of flossing every day. We all felt pleased that he arrived at this insight on his own, with minimal guidance from us.

Grandmother and grandson playing Health Bingo and engaging in fun
conversations about healthy living.

We want to emphasize two key takeaways from our experience:

Use fun, creative activities as conversation stimuli. From previous work, and this event experience, we learned that families have a latent interest in discussing health-related topics and, once stimulated to do so, their discussions can be interesting and beneficial. How can we encourage more conversations like these? Our experience suggests that giving individuals time and space along with fun, creative ways to frame conversations produced dialogues about healthy behavior that were engaging and helpful to everyone involved. We watched a mom and child illustrate a story about superheroes fighting bad eating habits and witnessed a young boy realize that he needs to improve his flossing habit. This realization was pleasing to his grandmother, who took the opportunity to reaffirm the importance of flossing. Given the increased interest in health informatics and family-centered design, there is a terrific opportunity for researchers and designers to innovate fun, creative artifacts and systems to promote conversations like the ones we observed. The activities we chose, poster creation and health bingo, allowed for fluid movement between individual and collaborative activities. Drawing could be an individual activity periodically paused so that the drawers could discuss their drawings with one another. Alternatively, family members could draw together if they chose to do so—like the mother and child who ended up illustrating a superhero fighting bad eating habits.

Synthesize different family members’ perspectives when designing. During the event, we talked with people in different stages of life about healthy living. We learned that from a child’s perspective, eating habits are an important aspect of health. Eating vegetables and fruits were often mentioned as a healthy living practice. When considering an older individual’s view, such as parents and grandparents, we observed that they have interest in reinforcing healthy behaviors on younger generations. But it seemed they also wanted to expand healthy living practices within their families. During the conversations, parents and grandparents would often mention physical and mental activities as part of health, which may involve different activities such as participating in a family community event. How can we incorporate all these different perspectives when designing for families? Our experience suggests that having positive conversations around each individual’s view on healthy living is useful for identifying differences and similarities in family members’ perspectives. We see here an interesting opportunity to innovate in how a family member may present one’s point of view on healthy living to his/her family and as each member shares, it is important to synthesize all information to effectively promote collaboration on healthy living within families. Making use of artifacts (e.g., a bingo game) to encourage conversations was one valuable approach toward fostering family collaboration in health.

Posted in: on Mon, October 07, 2019 - 2:02:05

Jomara Sandbulte

Jomara Sandbulte is a Ph.D. student at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Information Sciences and Technology. Her research interests include health informatics and design research. jmb89@psu.ed
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Jordan Beck

Jordan Beck is an assistant professor of user experience design at The Milwaukee School of Engineering. His research interests include scholarly communication and the tools that shape and facilitate it.
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Janice Whitaker

Janice Whitaker is the Administrator and Community Liaison for the Center of Geriatric Nursing Excellence, at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Nursing.
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John Carroll

John M. Carroll is a distinguished professor at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Information Sciences and Technology. His research interests include methods and theory for human-centered design.
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