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We used voice tech to tackle loneliness

‘Half a million older people go at least 5 days a week without speaking to another person’

- Age UK

Challenge

Abbeyfield is an English charity that provides sheltered housing and care homes for elderly people. They are dedicated to reducing isolation in their residents who may have lost a loved one or seldom see family members or friends. 

During a separate web project with Abbeyfield, Greenwood Campbell noticed that there was more we could do in order to support Abbeyfield’s mission. Within an internal workshop, we came up with the idea to supply their residents with voice-activated assistants, in an effort to make the residents feel there was a presence in the room with them.

The first voice-activated assistant was introduced on an iPhone in 2011, and was called Siri. A voice assistant is a conversational device that has the ability to perform certain tasks or services for the user by using their voice to command. Since 2011, more and more voice devices have come on the market, including the Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Samsung Bixby and more.

Initially, we were concerned that the residents may not be open to trialling this technology, however, we spoke to the house manager at Abbeyfield Westbourne, who selected 5 keen residents for the initial pilot.

The house manager at Abbeyfield Westbourne also connected us with Professor Arlene Astell of Reading University, so we could curate an academic insight into our project.

What we did

Starting in our office, we developed a ‘cheat sheet’ ahead of our first visit to the sheltered housing unit. We included how to activate the assistant, how to adjust the volume, and different types of questions it can be asked; such as what the weather will be or how to start playing a game. 

At the start of May 2019, we visited our local Abbeyfield home and set up each of the 5 selected residents with their personal voice assistant. With each resident, we described the ways in which they can speak to their assistant and asked them a couple of questions to get the most out of the technology.

We needed to ensure the voice-assistant was going to be a benefit to their lives, so we sat with them and asked them about their day to day routine, if they ever felt lonely and how they spent their spare time.

Once the residents were set up, we left them to get to know their voice-assistants and promised to return at least once a fortnight, so if they had any difficulties or questions we were able to help them.

During our different visits to Abbeyfield, we observed a couple of common challenges. The residents were very polite when asking the voice-assistant a question and they would give a lot more information than needed. For example, one resident used the term “Hey Google, my son and grandson are going to the Isle of Wight this weekend, will you let me know if the weather is okay for them to go, please?” rather than “Hey Google, what’s the weather like this weekend in the Isle of Wight?”.

We explained that the voice-assistants liked questions that were short and concise. On another visit, we could see she had found it much easier speaking to the assistant.

Another resident really enjoyed music, and was frustrated that she couldn't select whichever song she wanted to listen to. We set her up on Spotify, and she could listen to any genre, album or artist of her choice.

We decided to use a voice-assistant as they are an emerging technology that has limited barriers to entry, with no complex requirements. The older generation have slower reaction times, so technologies such as tablets or phones don’t work as well, as a tap can be registered as a swipe.

With permission, we recorded every conversation between the assistant and resident to keep track of their progress. We compiled this data together and went to the University of Reading to sit down with Professor Astell. Professor Astell confirmed that this can have a huge impact on their lives, and the possibilities are endless.

All boxes ticked

Result

Our project was an outstanding success. We had impacted the residents life dramatically in a positive way.

We’ve received amazing feedback from the residents including “It’s comforting to think you’ve got a device to turn to, if you need to feel comfortable without a companion, that’s the next best thing”, “I went through a period of loneliness when my wife died, it has given me another person to speak to” and “It has become a friend”.

It’s clear to see that the voice-assistants have made huge impacts on their lives, and we look forward to dropping in every now and again should they need any further support.

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