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Design Across Cultures

As with the study of design anywhere, it is important to get an idea of what society was like at the time to get a somewhat limited understanding of the psyche of the people and the social movements that were occurring around it. This way, we will understand the full ramifications of what we are designing.


Team: AXA Life Japan, UltraSuperNew

Role: Researcher

Type: Case Study


Design Systems and Localization

The End Of Design?

I came across an article by Dan Saffer describing his vision on how design could end and would be caused by design systems. Dan calls this idea 'Dreamcatcher', where an algorithm would process inputed information and spit out many possible designs.

However, good design isn't created from a template. Every person, object, feeling and context where it takes place is different, making it near impossible to replicate or scale. Having interned in Japan taught me a lot of valuable things about the storytelling piece in design. Being there taught me that an exceptional experience boils down to a series of well-timed small gestures that make you feel appreciated. These types of experiences permeate every level of Japanese culture.


Below is a case study by UltraSuperNew and AXA Life Japan. This case study highlights the required respect and understanding of the human condition and being able to turn that empathy into a real world solution.

Interface screenshots of AXA Are you OK?

Interface screenshots of AXA Are you OK?

Case Study

Overview: AXA Are You Ok?

AXA is a French multinational insurance firm headquartered in the 8th arrondissement of Paris that engages in global insurance, investment management, and other financial services. AXA Life Japan is a branch of AXA located in Tokyo, Japan.

In anticipation to the growing need for senior care in Japan—where the over 65s are expected to account for 40% of the population by 2060—AXA Life Japan wanted to provide a service to help families keep in touch and look after their seniors.

AXA’s Are You OK? is a mobile app that allows relatives to easily communicate with their seniors, monitor their activity, keep track of their location, as well as notifying them in case the senior is lost or in trouble. 


The Story

Innovating for the elderly

AXA Life Japan employee Bunya Usui was having trouble reaching his elderly mother one weekday while at work. She had left her house without alerting anyone and was not answering her phone. As she lived on her own in another city and had just started developing Alzheimer’s, he was understandably worried. After some frantic moments, and several panicked phone calls, she was found without incident (she had gotten lost after doing a bit of impromptu shopping).

His mother is not alone, Japan is at the forefront of a dementia crisis that experts warn will affect other societies with burgeoning elderly populations in decades to come.

4.6 million people are suffering from some form of dementia, with the total expected to soar to about 7.3 million people by 2025.
— Health Ministry of Japan
15,436 people with dementia went missing in 2016. That’s up 25% from the previous year.
— National Police Agency

The incident got Mr. Usui thinking there had to be a simple, effective and non-intrusive way of keeping tabs on his mother from a distance, 24/7, without having to constantly check in. And if there wasn’t, well, he’d create one.

This is how the original idea for “Are You Ok?” was born. An innovative app for seniors and their families, developed by Usui, colleague Yoshinori Kasahara, and a cross-continental team of AXA managers, designers and developers. Launched in Japan, it’s already helping Japan’s senior citizens stay connected with their families and live better, more fruitful lives.


Above: An AXA Commercial by Beacon Communications promoting “Are you Ok”. This movie puts a question to you about parent-child ties that people tend to forget in your busy everyday life.


Large Niche Market

An overview of elderly's proportion in Japan

10 million households include at least one family member over the age of 65.
— AXA Life Japan
Seniors over the age of 65 are expected to account for 40% of the population by 2060.
— AXA Life Japan
5 million of the country’s senior citizens live on their own.
— AXA Life Japan

Armed with this information, and having just experienced the incident with his mother, Mr. Usui developed an idea for an app that would feature a geo-fence around an elderly person’s home (including commonly visited places such as a local bakery or supermarket) that would alert the rest of the family should they wander off.

But he couldn’t build it alone.


AXA Innovation Program

Business: Starting with “Start-In”

At around the same time, AXA had launched Start-In, a participative innovation program featuring ideas from employees around the world, with hundreds of submissions each year. With Start-In, selected ideas are fast-tracked from concept to development to product launch, first in one AXA market, and then, if successful, around the world.

Credits: https://www.axa.com/en/newsroom/news/start-in-2016

Credits: https://www.axa.com/en/newsroom/news/start-in-2016


Mr. Usui and the AXA Life team knew this app would be highly beneficial to the AXA ecosystem, as it would help retain active policy holders, generate revenue and reduce medical claim payment ratios for seniors. So they submitted the idea for the app called Are You Ok? to Start-In, and were immediately invited to participate.



Family-sized social engagement

UltraSuperNew was invited to assist AXA Life Japan in reviewing of the app’s initial prototype, research into senior interface design, the UX/UI design of the app. What the team found after initial research with seniors and families from all over was that in order to improve the lives of the elderly, we had to engage every single member of the family. Working with teams at AXA, UltraSuperNew identified three main issues the app needed to address:

Emergency Support: There are situations where seniors wander off; these need to be properly identified, and then the right people alerted, including AXA Assistance.

Communication: The elderly often complain they aren’t contacted enough by family, while family members often don’t know what to talk about, or don’t have the amount of time seniors expect on the phone.

Inactivity: There are emergency situations that are accompanied by inactivity, rather than activity, and it’s important to distinguish between the two.




At this point, the project was already stretched across three continents, with a 7 to 8-hour time difference between Tokyo, Paris and Barcelona.

Project Timeline:
8 Months
In 10 Time Zones

This meant work had to be approached in an innovative way, from the start. A lean start up framework was chosen to develop a Minimum Viable Product, that would make its way to market quickly. The team was gathered together physically for weeks on end, during both the design and test phases, to bridge these gaps.

All this work was highly decentralized between Paris, Tokyo and Barcelona.




From Tokyo to Paris, it was agreed the app would feature a communication stream in the form of shared family messaging; a sort of private social network, but with a focus on the elderly members. This would enhance not only the safety of the seniors and peace of mind of the other members, it would also lead to closer ties and better relationships: a win-win-win situation. 

(Screens 1 and 2) Seniors View: These products come with interfaces that feature increased font and icon sizes, while keeping visual clutter to a minimum. They have been designed this way with the needs of elderly people in mind.

(Screens 3) Family View: Home screen updates family members on the activity of the elderly members.

Top Nav labels (left to right):

  1. Number of posts

  2. Distance traveled

  3. The last time they opened the application.



Emergency Support

The app would feature geo-fencing and other sensor technologies to determine if elderly users were in “trouble”, and contact family members in case they needed help. It would be provided free to AXA customers (after all, it’s in everybody’s interest, including AXA Life, that seniors live happier and longer lives), and would be integrated, where possible, with AXA Assistance phone services.

(Screen 1) Map View: The map would highlight commonly visited places such as the local bakery or supermarket and would alert the rest of the family should they wander off.

(Screen 2) Contacts: Here is a list of family members that act as contacts in case of an emergency. In this group there is an admin that acts as a main point of contact.



Connecting By Giving Back

Contributing to the care of our aging population can be fulfilling in ways most of us might never imagine. Even if your city doesn’t have this type of system, we can all use it as inspiration to offer more of our time and energy to those in need. Being an active part of our aging community is a rewarding experience — a worthwhile opportunity that undoubtedly shapes our personal character, and fuels our spirit.

I believe that we all aim to design to make people's lives better, but when we are looking at people of different cultures, it is imperative that we physically go and experience it ourselves to the best of our abilities. That is exactly what teams at UltraSuperNew and AXA knew had to be done in order to implement a successful solution in less than 8 months, across 10,000km and 10 time zones.

A first version of the app was launched in Japan in April 2016. Based on customer feedback, a new version is under development and will focus on displaying and monitoring health data.
— AXA Life Japan Team

Bunya Usui

But what of Mr. Usui, who, in the meantime, continued his daily work at AXA Life Japan?

Well, when faced with the live app on his mobile for the first time, knowing many people like him could feel a bit better about their elderly parents’ safety in the future, a wave of emotion swept over him as he looked up to his teammates and smiled.



Supportive Technology and Community Care

This case study is only one of the tangible ways in which Japan is thoughtfully serving its aging population. Faced with spiralling health and welfare costs and a shortage of professional caregivers, towns and cities across Japan are attempting to move away from a medicine-based, institutional approach towards care to one that involves the entire community.

In 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his administration revealed its “Orange plan” – a comprehensive package of measures to tackle dementia ranging from more specialized medical staff and the development of new drugs, to regular home visits and support for family caregivers.

Several times a month, small groups of volunteers put on bright orange bibs and walk around neighbourhoods to distribute leaflets carrying information on dementia services and, occasionally, to help people in distress.

Orange Plan welfare volunteers. Photo by Justin McCurry for The Guardian

Orange Plan welfare volunteers. Photo by Justin McCurry for The Guardian

Thank you to AXA Life Japan and UltraSuperNew for condensing and sharing this long process with me. Of course there are still too many questions to answer, but I hope we are on the right path in understanding our users worldwide to figure out their needs.


Thanks for reading!