Project Update (25.11.2013): There have been some recent developments. I am really excited that RockSofa is amongst the three concepts that will actually be built for Guitars – The Museum. What a fantastic opportunity this is! I've got my work cut out for myself until the Museum officially opens in February 2014.
It's hard to believe I've been in Umeå for more than two months. This is by far the longest I've ever been from home. In weeks 8 and 9 we were asked to finish up our concepts and prepare for the final presentation for Fredrik Fagerlund, the head of PR of Guitars – The Museum. We built on our work done in the previous few weeks and especially the video experience prototype I came up with the week before. Inspired by the work the National Orchestra of Wales does for children with hearing impediments I thought that building a large subwoofer into a sofa has the potential to allow people to experience music in exciting new ways.
Week 8 kicked off with a feedback session with Niklas Wolkert, Interaction Design Strategist at Veryday and now UX Manager at Swedbank. He had seen our videos and shared his thoughts on what areas we could explore for the final concept in individual tutoring sessions. I was happy to hear that he really liked the concept and commended me on the video. I particularly remember two distinct things he shared with me: to consider armchairs and be aware of music licensing. The latter was relevant as acquiring the appropriate licence to play popular music in public spaces could turn out to be an issue for the Guitars exhibition.
The rest of the week was pretty crowded. We attended a guest presentation on automative interface design (more on that next week). Our weekly literature circle focussed on the work done by Bill Verplank – pioneering interaction designer famous for his live sketching lectures. Students were also busy building their costumes for the biggest party of the year: Halloween. And then there were more Wednesday Lectures – I particularly enjoyed hearing students share their internship experiences in companies all over the world.
I suppose my point is that it felt hard to concentrate on our concepts during this week. Not to say that I didn't do anything, but it was hard to get to anything that felt like real progress. But then again it feels hard to define what progress really is when creativity is involved. Since we didn't have any specific instructions on what the contents of our final presentation ought to be it was hard to come up with a plan of what I was supposed to be doing. Given that my video prototype just showed an experience of a particular user I decided to deepen my concept.
Reconsidering My Concept
During a break at the local cafeteria, I noticed how people would constantly rearrange their chairs in order to fit the social context. This was interesting to me and I thought about how this information could impact my concept. I thought about how people might rearrange their seating at a museum and how to encourage that to make them feel more comfortable. This matched the direction that Niklas Wolkert had also pointed me towards.
During a short afternoon walk outside I became fascinated with backstage areas at concert venues. What if the Guitars exhibition not only had valuable guitars on display, but the actual back stage furniture of legendary rock venues. Just imagine the stories over the years! And that's when I got the idea that I actually could make this happen. I could find some of these stories and have the armchairs literally tell them. Depending on the arrangement of the furniture the chairs could either converse with the person sitting in them (for individual arrangements) or converse with each other (in social arrangement). I wanted to preserve the original idea of each object having its own personality and remembered the charmingly fuzzy monsters in "Where the Wild Things Are".
Fuelled by the rush of a new idea I quickly came up with an input-output map. I used this to as many possible inputs (people approaching the furniture, sitting on it, dragging it across the floor, etc…) to outputs (vibration, sound, speech, heat, etc…). And with that the weekend arrived.
Week 9: Overcoming Doubt
Early in week 9 we all got to visit the Guitars Museum. Fredrik Fagerlund gave us a tour and elaborated where some of the our concept might be exhibited. I still didn't feel like I had done enough last week and it seemed like there was a mountain of work to get through until the final presentation on Friday. Most of my colleagues were planning to shoot new and more refined videos. Others were busy building working prototypes to be exhibited during the final day. We didn't have any guidelines as to what direction we ought to take and that left me with no clue about what I was going to come up with. Sure, my first video was okay, but it didn't really show much of my refined concept at all. Then again, reshooting the video might not leave me with enough time to work out the details of the concept or build a prototype. But the latter was also a lot of work and I dreaded the risk of not having it working reliably during the presentation.
If that wasn't enough I started to seriously doubt my concept: "It's just a music playing chair", I thought. "It's silly and it doesn't make any sense. And what if nobody even wants to use it?". Kind people kept telling me that they liked the work I was doing. I remember thanking them, but just couldn't see what they were on about. There simply was so much to critique and to improve: I hadn't gotten around the music licensing issue. And then there was the issue of musical pollution: how do you design something in a way that it doesn't become annoying for all other museum visitors and especially the employees working there? And how do you make people aware of moving the chairs? And where would I possibly get all the juicy backstage stories from?
On Finding Trust
Friday came dangerously close. I had to get my act together. Rather than trying to logically reason what I ought to do I decided to put my effort into something that I really liked doing. I hoped that my enthusiasm would shine through in my work. A few hours later, I found myself in the interaction workshop tinkering with Arduino. Luckily, our prototyping teacher just held a lecture on how buttons work and that's when it literally clicked. All I needed to do was to build an oversized, sturdy and comfortable button. As you might know, a button is nothing more than two pieces of wire that are either connected (power flowing through) or disconnected (no power flowing through). I therefore needed to find a way to connect two wires when somebody sat on a chair and then disconnect the wires as soon as that person got up again. I achieved this in three iterations on roughly the same concept: two plates, each connected to one end of the wire, separated by springs. This element would then go beneath the foam and fabric cushioning. I quickly verified the idea by building a quick cardboard prototype. Once I had the basics working, I decided to rebuild it using sturdier acrylic plates and better springs. Finally, I added inset plates to ensure that the wires would touch each other when weight was evenly applied throughout the top plate.
The hardest part of building the prototype was making sure that everything was reliable enough to be exhibited. The individual elements of the prototype – the button, the mp3 shield, the Arduino code – were actually incredibly simple. However, that realisation didn't come quickly. To make the concept come together I still needed to find a chair, come up with some interesting guitar facts and have them recorded, as well as finding and editing music pieces for demonstration purposes. And then there was the final presentation for which we each had 20 minutes to fill. Roughly 80% of that time was dedicated to showing our concept, 10% to explain how we built it and 10% was to show financial viability.
Results and Reflection
My final Rock Sofa prototype consisted of a simple cushion that could reliably greet visitors when they sat down. Whilst somebody was sitting in the chair, the prototype would either play music or recount interesting guitar facts or general statements. Obviously the statements were randomised so that the visitors would get to experience different story lines each time they sat down. And what I'm probably the most proud of: the prototype still works to this day. Fortunately the effort payed off and the presentation also went pretty well. The Guitars Museum's owner – Fredrik – seemed to be happy with the final result and especially liked the idea of using the Rock Sofas as a promotional instrument (e.g. in shopping malls) to get people to visit the museum. He's spending the next week in Tokyo as a representative of the Umeå cultural capital city and will decide in a few weeks time if and which concepts he will consider for his museum. So fingers crossed on that one!
I was lucky to have two representatives of the local Umeå press attending most of my final presentation. They congratulated me on the work and wanted to interview me for an upcoming article on the Guitars museum. Hard to believe: a mere two months in Umeå and here I am in the local newspaper being quoted on 'Sitting on Keith Richards'. I can't really remember saying that, but I'm over the moon about the whole situation.
As this project wrapped up, I came to realise how much I had learned over the last weeks. Here I was, having pulled off my first 'individual' design project. And it all went really well.
All of our ideas were influenced by the work of other students during the ideation phase in the last 5 or more weeks on the project (see the last few blog posts for this). Ideas mashed and collided as we all inspired each other. We worked together directing and acting in our movies. We shared knowledge when it came to building prototypes. And I really liked the way we held together and tried to get each other back on track when one of us had the waves of doubt creeping in. Generally speaking I learnt two big lessons. The first concerns being open to share concepts and ideas. Interestingly, I noticed that I sometimes tended to hold back sharing my progress during the latter stages of the project. Maybe I wanted to keep an element of surprise to myself. Maybe I didn't think other people were going to be too interested in what I was doing. Looking forward I'll try my best to be even more open about my process. The second big lesson for me concerned finding trust. I learned how to stop worrying and find what truly motivates me and believing going down that path.