There’s nothing harder to bear than a child who is sick. They’re confused, scared, and in pain. And a trip to the hospital only makes things scarier. What if there was a better way?
That’s the promise of Alder Play. Developed by digital studio UsTwo–makers of everything from the hit game Monument Valley to the psychological therapy tool Pause–it’s an iOS and Android app built for kids who visit the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, England. Before arriving at the hospital, the young patients choose a name and avatar. “The avatars become the children’s companion–their buddy to help show them around, collect rewards, and be with them throughout their stay,” says design director Helen Fuchs. Then, as they make their way to different areas inside the hospital, kids can go on augmented reality scavenger hunts, unlock dancing characters, and receive stickers for achievements like having a dressing changed or being scanned. There’s even an AI chatbot, powered by IBM’s Watson, which can answer questions, too.
The idea? Distract the child, while also demystifying the hospital experience. Because as Alder Hey’s own clinical studies had discovered, a distracted child has smoother appointments–and they need less pain medication, too.
“Sometimes in healthcare . . . there are things that just have to be done, and unfortunately sometimes they can be a bit painful or uncomfortable, and there’s no way of avoiding that,” says Fuchs. “The positive use of distraction here is about making those moments slightly less uncomfortable for the patients, and rewarding them for being brave. So, it’s not about behavior change or binging on TV shows, but about distraction from something that’s unpleasant but necessary.”
UsTwo’s designers began the project–which was supported by NHS England–like they might any other: by talking to experts who had a problem to solve. In this case, that meant upset children who needed a bit of distraction. “At the start of the project we visited Alder Hey and could see a number of ‘homemade’ workarounds already in place–projectors above scanners or clinicians’ own mobile phones loaded with games–all being used to help gain the trust of children and help relax them at critical times,” says Fuchs. “The opportunity for an app to help children throughout their hospital experience was clear.”
The visual look and feel of the app is inspired largely by Alder Hey’s own design and architecture–the hospital itself is built to celebrate the countryside, and the app brings the sky and hills into its own background–though UsTwo made sure to give all of the art a made-by-children aesthetic. Even the avatars that kids can choose were built from animals UsTwo spotted across the hospital on walls, and in mobiles. “They felt like creatures that had always lived at the hospital and knew the ropes about hospital life,” says Fuchs.
Notably, the app doesn’t just attempt to distract the child. It also tries to educate them. The app contains videos that prep them for certain medical procedures like blood tests. Even the act of receiving a virtual sticker from a doctor is meant to build a rapport between the patient and their medical staff. This is one reason that UsTwo didn’t consider building the app in VR, which is an increasingly popular tool used at hospitals to distract patients from pain. A sick child often needs distraction, but they also need to connect with the people around them. “Children often would want to see a parent or carer nearby, or may have special needs and therefore VR would not have been appropriate,” says Fuchs. “AR felt more inclusive, and a perfect way to connect children with their surroundings. It brought the hospital to life.”
For now, UsTwo’s team isn’t measuring the app’s success by downloads, but for specific outcomes. They want to see that the interventions actually help children make it through some of the toughest moments of their appointments. And if so, who knows? Maybe one day, these smartphones and tablets will actually work to make our kids happier and healthier, rather than simply more distracted.