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Dear Someone
How can seniors share their legacy and wisdom with the greater community?


Student project for PNCA’s Design Systems M.A. 

Project outputs:  

Program concept
Thin prototype


Humaira Tasneem
Jono Melamed
Jake Crahan
Sam Caruthers-Knight
SJ Bowden


My roles:  

Project lead

Content strategist

Graphic designer

If individuals were to choose one unique and important lesson from their own experience to pass on to others, how might that knowledge live on after death? How might others learn this life lesson? As a project in PNCA’s Collaborative Design program, our team had three weeks to examine this problem space and develop a program concept and prototype for facilitating the sharing of life lessons. 

“I have the belief that everybody has an important story to tell with important lessons to learn and I listen to that.”


— Ora, age 69



Because of the project’s short timeline, we needed to quickly get a breadth of data in order to form some initial hypotheses.


We started by conducting 14 phone interviews with participants ages 8 to 76, who varied in gender, race, cultural background, and location. We asked two questions:


  • What is one of the most important things you’ve learned so far in your life and how did you learn it?

  • What are some different ways you have learned important things from other people in your life?

Desk research gave insight into what scientists, doctors, and anthropologists had to say about elders sharing stories, intergenerational wisdom, facilitating end of life reflection, and the power of storytelling. We looked into what services and cultural structures already existed to meet this need for sharing life wisdom.

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“I’ll remember their advice while something is blowing up in my face, but I have to blow the thing up.”

— Laura, age 28

“Listening is good, but people will tell you a lot of stuff. But watching what they do, that’s really telling.”


— Rebecca, age 33



Some themes started to emerge as we sorted through our findings:


How we learn

  • Personal experience and observation of others

  • Outside resources and personal reflection


Who we learn from

  • Family — Moms were mentioned A LOT. Also siblings, aunts and uncles.

  • Friends 

  • Mentors

  • Public figures / writers / artists

  • Anyone who crosses our path!

Defining the problem​

We developed problem statements to further specify our audience and area of focus. In this case, there were two clear audiences — the lesson givers and the lesson receivers.


Lesson Givers
Seniors with extensive and varied life experiences want to leave a legacy of knowledge, but may not have close family or friends to share what they’ve learned. This is made more noticeable if they find it difficult to articulate the lessons they’ve learned and/or don’t have culturally facilitated ways to pass on the knowledge. As a result of personal wisdom being lost, seniors feel less valued and are at higher risk of losing their sense of purpose.


Lesson Receivers
Adults and young adults encountering major life changes or milestones learn more from personal experience than explicit advice, which makes it challenging to receive the lessons of others who have already lived through similar situations. This is made more noticeable when the advice received isn’t immediately applicable to their current life situation. As a result, they don’t have access to the wisdom of others while going through challenging life circumstances.


Design criteria

Based on our research findings, we developed clear criteria to use as guidelines for shaping our concept:


Lessons live on beyond the original teller


Broadly appealing and available to others


Presented in a story format rather than platitudes or adages

Facilitates telling and receiving

Enables both teaching and sharing 

Allows vulnerability

Creates a space that fosters the vulnerability required for reflection, sharing, and receiving

Validates personal experience

Helps participants see the value in their own life experience


Helps receivers internalize lessons to draw on later in life


Focuses on one central, important, and unique lesson



Dear Someone

Dear Someone is an organization that combines the focus of a writing workshop, the excitement of receiving handwritten mail, and the conversation and community of a book club.

The workshop​

At the core of Dear Someone are facilitated workshops hosted at nursing homes and assisted living facilities. In these workshops, participants will:

  • Explore and be inspired by their life experiences

  • Choose one important life-lesson to focus on 

  • Write a letter sharing the story of how they learned that life lesson

  • Create an audio recording of themselves reading their letter

  • Connect with others in the community where they live


The Dear Someone experience should validate and support participants in writing meaningful and authentic letters. Accessibility needs (writing assistance, hearing assistance, translation, etc.) would be addressed in order to allow a diverse set of participants to share their wisdom. 

The workbook​

Our research showed that facilitation is a key to helping folks explore and articulate their life stories. We prototyped a workbook that participants would fill out during the workshop. The workbook is both a guide for participants and a framework for workshop facilitators. It also lives beyond the workshop as a valuable memento for participants to keep and a jumping off point for future writing and sharing of stories.


The letters​

After the workshop, the life-lesson letters live on:

  • Letters are scanned, tagged by theme, and added to a searchable online archive website

  • Select audio recordings are used for a podcast

  • Handwritten letters are sent in the mail to individual and group subscribers (groups operate independently, like a book club or Meetup group)


Herb's story: A user journey​

In order to explore the entire concept through the eyes of a specific participant, we developed a journey map that follows Herb, a 75-year-old male living in an assisted living nursing home, through his experience with a 2-day Dear Someone Letter Writing Workshop. It includes touchpoints, Herb’s thought process, and his emotional experiences.

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Ora's story: A user test​

One final thing we wanted to do was test our workbook prototype. One of our interviewees, Ora (age 69), agreed to fill out the workbook so we could see what kind of answers our questions generated. It’s worth noting that she completed it by herself at home, but our workshop participants would have the facilitator as a guide.

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Potential next steps:

  • Test and validate guidebook prompts

  • Develop facilitation model for workshops

  • Run test workshops, evaluate workshop and resulting letters

  • Explore membership audiences and ways to create value

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