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Teen girl in hospital bed looking at her phone

An App to Help Hospitalized Kids Overcome Isolation

Sean Kerrigan

Graduate student hackathon tackles isolation that plagues patients at Boston Children’s Hospital

In this age of social distancing, a group of Bentley University graduate students has come up with a new app that could help hospitalized kids stay closer together.

An app designed by Bentley University graduate students
    The app helps teenagers connect with other patients.

The Bentley User Experience Graduate Association’s annual hackathon was sponsored by Boston’s Children Hospital and took on health care this year. That seems obvious when there’s a pandemic going on, but organizers say the idea was developed last fall before most knew what coronavirus was. 

“We try to brainstorm ideas throughout the year,” says association President Susan Yates, MSHFID ’20. “Several board members were interested in health care, a topic that became extremely timely given where we are right now.”

A fellow student in the Human Factors in Information Design (HFID) program, Liz Hurley, works at Boston Children’s Hospital. With her help and the help of Boston Children Hospital’s Clinical Director of Innovation Kate Donovan, the User Experience Graduate Association started fine-tuning the hackathon challenge: Increasing engagement among young patients at the world-renowned pediatric hospital. 

That isolation quickly became a twofold problem to be solved, as social distancing complicated the graduate students’ traditional in-person, brainstorming-heavy hackathon event.

Related: Student Hackathon Yields Fresh Ideas

“We tried to directly translate an in-person experience online,” says association Vice President of Outreach Christine Brydges, MSHFID ’20. “Mentors met with teams via Zoom, and judges deliberated in breakout rooms. We had to be creative and stay on top of working together as a team to make sure things happened on schedule but, in the end, I think we delivered an equivalent experience.” 

Twenty-five graduate students participated on six teams. Besides Human Factors in Information Design — a field that improves the design of products by better understanding how people use them — this year’s event also included students from Digital Innovation, Business Administration and Marketing Analytics. The participation of students from multiple programs at Bentley’s McCallum Graduate School of Business gives participants practical experience working across disciplines. 

“It’s always a great opportunity to work across the university and to bring ideas from other disciplines,” says Yates. “Diversity in a hackathon is always great, but by inviting other programs, we mimic what we’ll all experience in a real business environment.”

This year’s remote participation meant teams were distributed around the country, with students from Massachusetts, California, Utah and Mexico taking part. Bentley has long offered remote options for its HFID students, including a satellite campus in San Francisco, so adapting to this “new normal” wasn’t as tough as it could’ve been at other schools.

“In our program, we have a fair number of distance students, so we’re actually pretty used to this online world,” says Yates. “Collaborating with different states, time zones, sometimes different countries — it’s all part of our world.”

The winning team had an amazing prototype — it looked like it could go to market tomorrow.
Susan Yates, MSHFID ’20

The teams came up with a variety of creative proposals, including a virtual reality and Haptics solution to reduce the fear and pain of injections for adolescent patients, as well as a color-coded wayfinding and signage system to help patients and their families — particularly non-English speakers — easily find their way in the hospital.

The teams received mentorship and feedback on their ideas from Boston Children’s Hospital Teen Advisory Member Carson Domey, Boston Children’s Hospital parent Michelle DiCarlo-Domey and Bentley professor and patient experience expert Danielle Hartigan.

The winner was an app called FRND that gave teenage patients a social outlet to interact with other patients. It was designed by HFID graduate students Jeff Smith ’20, Terez Lowry ’23, Brian Yen ’21 and Kimberly Ezeama ’21, as well as Lily Sunil Karmaker, MSBA ’21. 

“Particularly during the time of COVID, hospitals are forced to minimize health-care staff check-ins and restrict family socialization,” the team’s proposal says. “This can be a sad and lonely time when you have to be alone.”

The app would give young users options to socialize with others or privately journal and serve as a way to keep track of visits from hospital staff.

“The winning team had an amazing prototype — it looked like it could go to market tomorrow,” Yates says. “All the teams had some great ideas, but to have something as polished as they had in two weeks was pretty incredible.”

Human Factors in Information Design at Bentley