PhD candidate Gubing Wang.
(Photo: Jiang Wang)

How can we design better for people with dementia? Inspired by her grandmother, PhD candidate Gubing Wang has developed a toolkit that can help.

“I’m doing my PhD in the Human Centred Design Department at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering. I’m looking at how to integrate technology into healthcare, not all types of technology, but the kind that can help the healthcare system. Specifically, I’m looking at how to integrate the Internet of Things (IoT) in personalised dementia care in nursing homes in my PhD.

My background was in biomedical engineering so this is slightly different. The reason I would like to work in design research is that there are so many technologies that fail to be integrated into the healthcare system and I wonder why. I think that anthropologists have done very thorough research and have come up with good insights. The difference between a designer and an anthropologist may be that designers can transform these insights into design actions and design visions.

For example, in my PhD, I learned that the workload of caregivers has increased significantly since the IoT technology was introduced and one of their major tasks is to examine the data visualisations. I have looked at different types of data visualisations to see how to help reduce their cognitive workload when analysing the visualisations. In the field of design there is data sonification, which is presenting data through sound, and there is data physicalisation, which is presenting data through tangible objects. So, these are different ways for people to perceive the data quickly.

‘It is challenging to design together with people who have dementia’

The reason I chose this topic is because my grandma was diagnosed with dementia when I was doing my bachelor’s degree. I want to do something that can help her and many other elderly people who have the same issue. One out of two elderly people over the age of 85 develop symptoms of dementia. Dementia is not a disease, it is a general term for cognitive impairments due to diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or vascular dementia. It is challenging to design together with people who have dementia, but I believe there are ways to do so. I closely observe their behaviours and do not treat them as problematic. For example, when they shout or hit objects it means that their needs are not fulfilled rather than they want to cause trouble.

In my research I explore three design approaches. The first is ergonomics in ageing, looking at capability levels and how we could help designers to consider the capability differences between them and the people with dementia. The second aspect is co-design, so how can designers involve people with dementia in the design process. And the third aspect, data enabled design, is to see how designers can leverage data to gather more insights about people with dementia and the context that they are living in.

The final outcome of my PhD is a toolkit developed for designers. Hopefully they can use it when they want to design for people with dementia. We believe that design is about changing current scenarios into desirable ones, so anyone can design. With this toolkit, a caregiver or a family member can be empowered to design for people with dementia in the future.

I’m at the final stage of the PhD. I submitted my first draft so now I’m waiting for feedback from the committee members, and I’m currently looking for a postdoc position to continue my research interests, at the intersection of design, technology and healthcare.”

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