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Building an App with a Heart

Oct 1, 2015

By Bobbie Stewart Photos by Scott Smith, ‘04 When Flagler alumna Kim E. Todd, ‘09, began her job as a child life specialist at the University of Florida Health Proton Therapy Institute in Jacksonville, there were no tools to soothe the anxiety and fear of children embarking on weeks of cancer treatment.

Flagler students collaborate to create educational app that helps kids undergoing proton cancer treatment

She would use PowerPoint presentations as an orientation to oncology, but it wasn’t the most age-appropriate approach for a journey that could last months for children caught up in the unknowns of cancer.

“I thought, ‘Why not a storybook app?’” Todd said, as it became more evident to her that tablets and smartphones were the preferred learning platform. “Something engaging and educational, and that families could use weeks before they get here so it’s not information overload.”

Costs to produce an app grounded her plans until she opened up an issue of Flagler College Magazine in the summer of 2014 to discover a small feature on an autism app that students in the college’s Graphic Design program created.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is perfect,’” she said. “It’s just what I need.”

Todd connected with Graphic Design instructor Natalie Stephenson, and the two talked for hours on the work of the institute and how design and technology could benefit the most vulnerable victims of cancer. Todd shared her most compelling news — that a Microsoft developer had agreed to develop the app.

“When I heard that, I thought, ‘That’s a big piece,’” Stephenson said. “We’ve got her (Todd’s) content knowledge, and with the tech help, we were the missing piece. She asked me if we’d like to do this and I knew right away and said, ‘Yes, oh yes, this is something we want to do.’”

Proton App screen


Design with a ‘human-centered’ approach

Eighteen students in Stephenson’s Fall 2014 Interactive Design course got a taste of building an actual app for the real world. Most of the time, students work on individual projects for hypothetical purposes and audiences.

But the mission of this project was to create something to help children gain a sense of what to expect — via an interactive, tech-driven tool — during their visits and treatments at the institute.

Todd also wanted activities that would teach patients to be still during treatment, as that negates the need for anesthesia.

“We focused on the front end — what people see,” Stephenson said. “If you think about a car metaphor, we’re working on the body style, paint job and what kind of sound system and power windows may work.” It would then be up to the developer to make it all work.

To manage the complex and large project, Stephenson started by first dividing up the class into six groups of three students each. One person in each group focused on the digital illustrations, a second on the content and a third on the interface design and branding. Each of the six groups worked on a different section of the app.

The college’s Interactive Design course practices what Stephenson calls a “human-centered” approach that focuses on the people who use the work. To that end, the students and Stephenson took a field trip to the institute, toured the institute’s facilities, talked with Todd and engaged with young patients who were the target audience for the app.

“Part of the field trip was asking parents, ‘What sort of questions did you have coming here?’” Stephenson said. “Then, as designers, we go away and think of a framework for the app and what needs to be in it. ... It was a really good experience for students. With complicated projects such as this, it’s not just a five-step process to create an app.” The trip to the Proton Therapy Institute satisfied the students’ need for more information, but it also had another effect: the students connected with the children.

“When you meet those kids, you’re emotionally invested,” said Michelle Linteris, a senior during the project who is now an alumna. “This was a real life project and you want to help these people.”

Linteris ended up being one of five students who continued to work on the project in the spring of this year in a special topics class.

“After you do so much research, you can’t put it down, so why not continue working on it?” Linteris said. “Hearing people get cured by this place gives you the incentive to do it.”

For student Leah Frye, who also worked on the app for two semesters, it was the kids she met that made her want to continue on with the project.

“When we met the kids the first semester, I already had such a respect for them,” she said. “They are so brave for traveling from all around the world to somewhere unfamiliar, to receive a procedure that seems like something from science fiction. I was scared to just move from home to college. But they do something much bigger. It was the least I could do.”

Proton U app testing.


Tech project becomes campus-wide

The interactive and educational app, which came to be called “Proton U,” quickly became a Flagler-wide initiative. For one, it had a cast of characters — all of which needed voices. Stephenson put out a casting call to theatre majors and five were selected to do the voiceovers for six characters.

Collaboration didn’t stop there. A Communication student did the sound recording at WFCF, Flagler College Radio, and the Spanish department translated parts of the app into Spanish. Rosie Redmond, a Bistro staff member in the Ringhaver Student Center, created “Jefferson” stuffed animals, which will be used to comfort young patients — before and after treatment — at the institute.

“What the students and Flagler have done is far more than I was envisioning,” Todd said. “They have really gone above and beyond.”

Frye hopes the app will also do more than it was planned for.

“My hope for this app is for it to educate and comfort the patients coming to receive proton therapy,” she said. “But I also hope it grabs the attention of a larger audience. Proton therapy is such a beneficial procedure for younger patients, but there are only about 10 centers up and running and a few in development around the world. Time is so crucial when it comes to treatment, and if we can be a catalyst in that process, it would only do good.”

Student designers included: Catalina Arboleda, Joseph Bushe, Yasmin Cattle, Sara Cleaveland, Kelsey Coon, Elise Crigar, Leah Frye, Emily Holland, Bernadette Januska, Michelle Linteris, Alana Littman, Cameron McCall, Melissa Mision, Tanis Montgomery, Caitlin Ogburn, Catherine Provenza, Kathryn Rosenburg and Timothy Webster. Student voice talent included: Joseph Bushe, Jennifer London, Kelsee Russler, Madeline Schmidt, James Taylor and Rebecca Woods. Student translators included: Maximilian Charles, Samantha Duncan, Pedro Faria, Ashley Meers, Matheus Menezes, Alexander Mitchell and Fredrik Thorsen. Michael Stark, of Stark Network, was the mobile developer.

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