Experience design considerations for Connected NYCHA: Older Adults

By Mayo Nissen, Director of Design Lab & Katherine Benjamin, Deputy CTO for Digital Services

TL;DR — If you are a jurisdiction interested in distributing thousands of free internet-enabled devices to people who may not have tech expertise, here are the components, considerations and logistics of the end-to-end onboarding experience, as developed and launched by the City of New York in the context of COVID-19.

In May 2020, Mayor de Blasio announced that 10,000 internet-enabled tablets had been delivered to older adults living in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments. Since then, the Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer has received a range of questions from other cities interested in learning more about our approach. While every context is different, we wanted to share a number of aspects we considered in our work, which may be helpful as jumping-off points for organizations or municipalities looking to address the digital divide using a similar approach

A T-Mobile staff person places a box containing a tablet into a plastic shipping sleeve.
A T-Mobile staff person places a box containing a tablet into a plastic shipping sleeve.
T-Mobile staff place a kitted tablet into a package for shipping


Telephone was the first touchpoint in the experience, and how people opted-in to receiving a tablet; for many, especially those early on our call list, it will also have been the first they will have heard of the program. We worked with agency partners to identify the cohorts and messaging, and to schedule robocalls in batches of several hundred calls at a time to ensure that we always had an approximate match between the number of devices kitted and ready to go, and recipient details to receive them. This also ensured that the time lag between a NYCHA resident receiving a call and a tablet showing up in the mail was kept as brief as possible, reducing the likelihood of people becoming worried that the service was “too good to be true” or a scam. These calls were also used to gather the consent needed to use those individuals’ personal information (name and mailing address) as part of the program — specifically, where to ship the devices.

Kitting & configuring

Working closely with our partner T-Mobile, we customized the device set-up to minimize the onboarding process for recipients, and to simplify the use of the device itself.

Before devices were shipped, they were charged, SIM cards were inserted, and the operating system configured in a variety of ways. To reduce the time-to-value as much as possible, the devices were shipped with initial setup complete, with settings chosen with privacy and accessibility as key priorities: EULA accepted, location tracking off, font size to a maximum. We pre-set the home screen background to an image that matched the colors of our other collateral and was visually less busy, moved most apps away from the home screen, and carefully selected the apps and utilities to be included in the dock. The end result is that when a tablet recipient received a tablet, they could begin using it immediately; when they turned on their tablet, they could rapidly orient themselves and get going.

Two screenshots: the out-of-the-box default look and feel, and the look-and-feel designed and kitted for the 10K tablets
Two screenshots: the out-of-the-box default look and feel, and the look-and-feel designed and kitted for the 10K tablets
Left, default homescreen appearance, and right, our designed homescreen experience

Print inserts and the unboxing experience

Once T-Mobile had finished configuring the devices, the devices were put back into their original box, with a custom print insert added directly on top of the device. These simple instructions are the first thing a person would see upon opening the box, and provided context (“this tablet is from the City of New York…”) as well as simple and clear instructions, with a primary goal of helping the user turn the device on, and failing that, the number for a hotline with specially trained support. These instructions were provided in English and Spanish.

A desk with kitting materials is shown, including a printed mailing address with a barcode scanner and LG tablet box.
A desk with kitting materials is shown, including a printed mailing address with a barcode scanner and LG tablet box.
A T-Mobile employee prepared a device for shipping

Stickers on device

Despite very tight character limits, there was some space on the back of the devices to provide tablet recipients with the individual device’s details, and the hotline to call in case of technical difficulties, in a format that would not be mislaid. This smoothed the experience of engaging with technical support with agents by using the code on the back of the device to streamline support call routing.

Getting Started “App”

We used a web APK to make a simple website look and act like an app, accessible from the tablet home screen. This was particularly important because our primary call-to-action in all the onboarding material once the device was powered on was for people to press on the “Getting Started” button (the “app” icon). This solution removes the friction of walking a user through the process of opening a browser and typing in a URL, and provides more control over presentation than simply providing a link. This “app” provided basic onboarding to the environment: from explaining the gestures used to navigate an Android device and how to charge the tablet, to describing the use of common apps (browser, email, etc). We also provided a number of links to City and partner resources in order to get users started with exploring the possibilities of a device of this type. Finally, we have a phone number to contact for further support, putting users in touch with agents from our partners with the Senior Planet Hotline.

Multilingual support

Because we were limited in how much print material could be provided, our primary print materials were available in English and Spanish. Our secondary print material was available in 11 languages, and signposted to a phone number with 200+ languages available via simultaneous interpreter. Our “Getting Started” web content was available in 13 languages: English, Spanish, Chinese (Traditional and Simplified), Russian, Arabic, French, Bengali, Haitian Creole, Korean, Urdu, Yiddish, Polish. These languages cover not only those outlined by New York City local law 30 but additional languages identified by NYCHA as being commonly spoken by the communities resident in New York City public housing. All translations were performed by humans (rather than using something like Google translate), and we are incredibly grateful for the expertise, patience, and speed of our friends at the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs (MOIA) in their contributions to this project.

Telephone support

Some people need a bit of extra help to get started, or have a question about what they can do with their new internet-connected tablet. We worked with our partners at OATS (the Older Adults Technology Service) and T-Mobile to ensure that multilingual telephone support was available to anyone who needed it; our partners used tele-interpreters to ensure that all languages, include those outside the 13 highlighted in our print material, would be able to access technical support. We also ensured that agents knew how the device was set up, for example, that Chrome was the third icon from the left on the home screen, but that to access other apps (for instance, Maps or the Play Store) would require using the App drawer, which was in the dock.

Evaluative User Research

We planned our sprints that allowed for research, design, and development to move in parallel wherever possible, even where that meant we couldn’t work quite as iteratively as we would have ideally done if we had had a more leisurely timeline. We spoke with individuals who had received a tablet by phone for 20–30 minutes to learn how they had been using the device — and what they may have run into difficulties trying to do — in order to inform any tweaks or adjustments to the kitting process for tablets that had not yet been shipped, and to identify any changes needed for the digital components of our service experience, as well as to understand how an expansion or evolution of the program could be improved. The output of this research has also ensured that the impact of the program on real people’s lives could really be brought to life; indeed, even the Mayor has reviewed the outputs of our research, and he recently shared several real user quotes at a press conference for the benefit of all New Yorkers.

Distribution monitoring

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Image for post

Throughout the project, there was an intense interest on the part of our team and our stakeholders to track progress and make sure everything was on track. In addition to data received from our partners, we kept a close eye on the analytics for the digital components of the experience — were people connecting to the internet using the devices in numbers that matched our expectations given how many we knew had been delivered? We created a dashboard to present data from a variety of partners and sources, in a single interface — following the journey from number of robocalls made, to devices being kitted, to the number of tablets shipped and delivered. This dashboard was an anchor point for our wider team during daily standups and retros, and was referred to in conversations with operational partners and executive stakeholders alike. Creating a single source of truth allowed us to focus on what matters — New Yorkers receiving tablets — rather than spending any more time than absolutely necessary juggling emails, spreadsheets, and notes from phone calls.


We hope this detailed summary provides an orienting overview to those interested in our approach, and perhaps prompts you to adapt it to your own context. We believe that making things open makes them better, so we default to open. Have questions, comments, or feedback? Email us at info@cto.nyc.gov.

About the authors

Mayo Nissen is the Director of the Design Lab, and Katherine Benjamin is the Deputy CTO for Digital Services. Together with the diverse team in the New York City Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer, they work to ensure that technology is inclusive, accessible, human-centered, and works for all New Yorkers.

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