Note: This ended up being a rather long and extensive post. If you're just interested to see what the result of this challenge was feel free to scroll down to our final video.
This time last week I was still recovering from the exhaustion left behind by joining this years ozCHI Student Design Challenge. It all began two weeks ago when Jenni approached me with the idea of participating. She pointed out that a team from Umeå were last years winners. To this day I don't know why they decided on this particular design challenge – especially since the conference is on the other side of the globe – but it sounded like fun.
The idea of the ozCHI student design challenge is to come up with a design solution for their brief within 24 hours and document both the process and the result. The deliverables were a short paper (yes, seriously), a progress blog that documents the process, participating in "mini-challenges" and finally a video showing the proposed solution. The brief was announced at two o'clock on Saturday morning and finished 24 hours later on Sunday. Jenni and I spread the idea and sure enough, come Friday, three teams from our IxD class signed up for the challenge.
After less than 2 hours of sleep the four team members of our team "five itchy penguins" – there were supposed to be 5 initially – met up at the University to receive our brief. Jenni Toriseva, Migle Padegimaite and Regimantas Vegele and myself were asked to «Design the Future of Email» or more specifically «to design an email ‘replacement’».
Our first step was to dig through the referenced articles and papers to try and get a good overview of related work. Some of the research pointed us into the direction of task management. Supposedly, a lot of people seem to use emails to schedule their appointments and some papers therefore suggested adding task management right into email clients. While we did not necessarily disagreeing with this hypothesis, we decided pretty early on that we didn't want to go down that path. This was not a decision based on any scientific data. It just wasn't something we were passionate about, and I felt that was going to be important going into the next twenty-two hours.
Instead we asked us what email actually is, what it replaced, what it's strengths and weaknesses are and what we use it for. We held a short brainstorming session and made sure that everybody was able to voice their opinion without being criticised. The glass walls in our little Holken were soon plastered with post-its. It took us a while to group them into themes and subjects and discuss our findings.
One part of the project brief was to keep a short blog on which we ought to document our process. You can find our team blog at http://fiveitchypenguins.tumblr.com. The last years winners recommended to use Tumblr for this, which really worked well. Another important lesson that I learned was that we had to have a camera to be available at any time. We made sure to have our equipment lying around everywhere and encouraged everybody to use it to document our process. I really liked the photo and video material we got out of this 24 hour challenge and will try to adhere to this philosophy of documented everything for future projects as well. The contest organisers also held a series of mini-challenges, that weren't really important to the main brief but were supposed to make sure we were heading in the right direction. We actually ended up winning one of them for the work we did on our blog.
After getting our ideas sorted we then decided to do some user interviews. Luckily some of us had friends in other timezones who were happy to be bothered for a Skype call. The course on interviewing techniques we had earlier this week came in really handy for this. Shockingly, it seemed that people in their teens rarely interact with physical mail anymore. One user even described the experience of receiving a letter as "weird" and unusual. Most of our interviewees thought of email as being very formal and time consuming. Instead of emailing people, they used Facebook or other popular social networking platforms (predominately in China) to communicate. We did a total of 4 Skype interviews and asked people around the University as they started arriving to see what we were up to.
We then decided to formulate some of the interesting main themes into design questions. Some of the questions we came up with were "What happens with your email communications after you die?", "How can communication be less intrusive?" and "How can communication be more meaningful?". As midday was slowly approaching, the feeling of burn out started propagating throughout the building. Each team member had different ideas of the direction we should take which led to problems processing to the next stage.
This is where things slowly started to get icky. The whole situation started to remind me of the Smile Bar project in my first week at UID. I remember that there was this weird moment where everybody felt really unsure about the concept and how we ought to proceed. Just this time people weren't just unsure, but increasingly tired and frustrated. Even though we had agreed on doing this just for the fun of it, we found ourself unwillingly in a situation where we were starting to forget that. We tried taking a break to buy food and take a walk. That didn't work. Maybe it was that we just couldn't see a feasible problem that actually needed solving. Or maybe we were just pressuring ourselves too much.
Around two o'clock in the afternoon I started to pushing for us to continue. Rather rudely – but with our common interest at heart – I interrupted the others and wanted to focus on getting to a solid problem statement. That means identifying a user group, their need and the problem they have fulfilling that need.
Around that time two of the IxD2 students visited us and brought us Fika. Predictably, we peltered them with questions about their experiences with emails, too. During this I noticed that my phone was constantly buzzing and trying to tell me something important was going on – even though there clearly wasn't. I remembered having a discussion about the onslaught of unnecessary notifications we were getting every day a few months back in Switzerland. From there it was a small step to get to our main goal: give people a break from the stress of the always-on always-connected mentality by quieting down their email stream. Our user research showed that were living in a world where smartphones are constantly vying for our attention. They bleep and blog, tweet and twot. This needs to stop.
Finally we had a problem and a user group – some people get more email than they could possible handle. That meant that we could refocus and start generating wild ideas on how to solve this problem. We didn't specify how technically feasible these ideas needed to be. This led us to go into unchartered territory and coming up with some really wild stuff. We also tried to find metaphors for things that would "stop" things from happening. Like plugs, switches, knobs, filters. But we also explored sounds and described the feeling of using these elements. Again everything went unfiltered on post its and directly up on the wall.
The idea that somehow stuck in our minds was the idea of adding resistance to the sending mechanism. Initially, we described it as needing to push down a lever harder the more stressed the receiver was. Maybe there's just something completely ridiculous about the whole concept, but instantly everybody was smiling. We were on to something. Just in time for Jenni's boyfriend to serve up his delicious risotto.
During dinner Jenni remembered a TED talk by Jinha Lee. In it he describes a new concepts on how physical and digital interfaces can overlap. We were particularily impressed by the "3D Pixel" demonstration (the floating metallic ball).
While some of us scuttled to the work shop and went material scouting, the other mocked up a possible user journey for our concept. It consisted of four six tasks: composing messages, choosing recipients, sending messages, receiving messages, blocking and unblocking all messages. This took us approximately an hour. We wanted to explore this further but there was just no time if we wanted to get the deliverables (paper and video) done.
After scouting the entire school for a suitable location to film we ended up back in our interaction design studio. We shot using two different cameras with different angles. It took us about 30 minutes to come up with a really simple script. Luckily we also were able to use the acting skills of Jenni's boyfriend. After a little more than one hour we we called it a wrap. It was already past half past ten and we still had a lot to do.
I got started on the video editing with Migle. Reggie and Jenni discussed how to approach writing the paper. We used iMovie to edit the film, as it provided the simplest and quickest way of getting a rough cut together. We were roughly on schedule at this point but there was still so much to do. Both writing and editing seemed to take a very long time. After an hour I had the first rough cut finished, but it was confusing and unclear. We needed a voice over. But we didn't have a script of what the voice ought to say. I took my laptop and hid away on some couches and started speaking over the video as I was going along – trying to remember the important concepts and trying not to cough every other second. After that I returned to the team and we bounced some ideas around how to improve it. We also made a point of showing the movie to a few people still mingling around school to see if they understood what we wanted to communicate. We finally submitted everything a whole 2 minutes before the deadline was up.
I'm actually quite pleased how the video turned out. Obviously, there are many things that I'd like to improve but considering the time we had to do this I think we did pretty well. Our concept may not be based in reality and it fails in many different areas as an useful product, but what I really like about it is the feedback loop it creates. The concept that people could be aware of the receivers work load and reconsider the importance of their message or choose a more appropriate communication medium is an important one. Emails tend to pile up and the time spent to go through them all is hard to justify sometimes. Now whether you do this with floating white balls or just another digital indication is up for further discussion.
Update (11. October 2013): Unfortunately, it wasn't to be. The results were announced yesterday and our team isn't among the four finalists. We did get shortlisted, though. That means that our paper will be included in the conference catalogue. Obviously that's a good result, but nevertheless I'm kind of disappointed that we didn't have more time to spend on the paper. It also seems like the judges put a lot of weight on the paper as the final delivery, while we put most of our work into the video. Maybe going with floating magnetic balls was a little too futuristic, though. The full list of winners and shortlisted teams has now been published.
Here is some of the feedback we got:
«The presented concept of limiting the 'bandwidth' of the communication channel to a small, limited number of messages is innovative and daring in its approach. While limited in practicality, it poses interesting questions for further research and could have some value as an alternative, additional channel to e-mail. The design of a tangible interface emphasizes the playfulness of the concept appropriately. The video presents the final concept with great clarity.»