HiLois is a private social network designed for seniors and their families.
It’s not everyday that an app promotes itself as the antithesis of Facebook. But HiLois, a private social network designed for seniors and their families, is exactly just that.
Brett Harnett, the company’s Ohio-based founder, came up with the idea shortly after his mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2014 as a way to remotely share photos and messages with her while living hundreds of miles away.
The startup has operated on a shoestring budget over the last three years – it launched a beta in 2017 shortly after receiving its first funds from the University of Cincinnati, where Harnett is an associate professor, and it’s also been awarded a $100,000 grant from Ohio Third Frontier, a tech-based economic development initiative.
But the coronavirus pandemic, which has shuttered elder care facilities to visitors all across the U.S. in the name of social distancing, has put a sudden spotlight on its services – as families seek alternative ways to communicate.
HiLois founder Brett Harnett.
“Several facilities have called and said, ‘Hey, we have to close our doors to visitors and people are not happy about this.’ These facilities, they’re playing tic-tac-toe with masking tape on the windows, holding up signs, chalkboards, whiteboards. This is their level of communication,” Harnett said. “They’re also bombarded by calls from families saying, ‘Does someone in there have an iPhone? I want to FaceTime with my mom.’ These organizations don’t have the resources to do that. This is what we’ve been hearing for years: that their resources are really thin.”
HiLois allows a small circle of family and friends to share pictures and messages, much like on Facebook, but without all the extra noise. It’s private and easy to use. The initial idea behind HiLois centered around the traditional photo frame, but one Harnett made smart. He could send a picture or a message to his mother’s tablet – the Lois behind HiLois – and she’d be notified with a simple ping.
The app now allows for additional features, especially for seniors with more cognitive function. Response mode allows a senior to reply when a photo or message comes in, with the tap of a button. They can choose from five or six canned responses, like “great picture,” “call me tonight,” or “I love you, or type their own. Another function is called brain teaser. When a photo comes in, a trivia question pops up, covering categories like cooking, sports or TV. It doesn’t matter whether they get the answer right or wrong, Harnett said, “but the goal is to engage them in another kind of way.”
The app is available both on Apple iTunes or Android Google Play, meaning it’s cross-platform agnostic. And it’s all controlled by the family remotely, so there’s nothing for the senior to do. Within seconds of hitting send, the message appears.
“Some people say, ‘Well, can’t you just use Facebook?’ Facebook is egregious in a lot of ways. In fact, we like to say we’re the opposite of Facebook.”
“There are no ads. It’s private. And we designed this to be simple. Facebook is ‘many to many,’ while HiLois is ‘few to one,’” he added. “It’s like patient-centered medicine, where the health care community is trying to put the patient at the center and get all the organizational junk out of the way. It’s the same concept. You put that person in the middle. They get the attention.”
HiLois is a private social network designed for seniors and their families. Family members can send … [+]
The app was originally designed for those with Alzheimer’s or dementia, but it’s a good fit for anyone experiencing isolation, Harnett said. The COVID-19 outbreak has allowed Harnett an opportunity to get a closer look at his potential customer base. About 60 percent of seniors in nursing homes receive no visitors, he said, and he had previously been targeting that demographic. But it’s really the other 40 percent – the family members who really love to go – who could benefit the most, especially now.
HiLois is still operating under a grant mechanism, so Harnett can’t share current metrics. He’s still looking at ways to best monetize the product (the app is free for up to 30 posts a month) and has many steps to go before seeking venture capital, for example. But if there’s space for HiLois in the elder market, who knows where it goes from here.
“In the United States about 10,000 people a day turn 65. These aging baby boomers – and I am one of them – represent a huge market,” Harnett said. “People are becoming less technically savvy, the ability to see things, click things, to see the granular details on a phone, things we take for granted being younger, is a challenge, and if you add into it cognitive issues, it makes it even worse.
“We want to be a part of that solution.”