Instead of going to the Abisko National Park, I got to join the second year students in their prototyping data driven experiences course. Little did I know my first week would start with such a bang.
The one week course was led by Kaveh Shirdel and Friedrich Förstner from Designit Munich. They introduced us to data driven experiences and presented various examples of their work for Audi and other international companies. They showed us the importance of failing early and how prototyping facilitates communicating ideas, especially to upper management. There are so many incidents where the designer will not be the person selling the product to the upper echelons of a company. So having a physical prototype that somebody can demonstrate on your behalf will help communicate those ideas. They also had a really good tip for when you need to get managers start thinking out of the box: fake an Apple product launch that directly targets their core service and present it as an unofficial leak.
We were then asked to form groups of four and brainstorm design challenges in three fields: Community, Health and Travel. I joined Doris Feurstein, Shelagh McLellan and Linus Persson and we started brainstorming on health data driven experience right away. We came up with a really diverse set of problems to solve and quickly decided that we didn't want to tackle the challenge from a perspective of disease. Much rather we wanted to frame the problem in a way that it paints a positive picture of health. After about an hour we had three directions we could further explore:
- A device that measures your daily water intake and encourages you to drink more. Think: a water bottle that tells you when to refill it and reminds you to drink it.
- A smart toilet (yes, really) that measures and visualises your vitals. The toilet after all, is a legitimate space too.
- A device or installation that measures the collective happiness in its environment (through smiles, hormones or vitamins).
We then devoted the next hours to researching existing solutions as well as scientific papers on all concepts. The idea of somehow measuring happiness really struck a chord.
We presented our short "project happiness" elevator pitch in front of the class. Our idea was to make people more aware of happiness. We postulated that happiness was contagious. After all, when people see somebody smile at them they tend to smile back. We also wanted to explore how sunlight affects our happiness, obviously a subject especially relevant in Umeå. Our concept was to pitch the UID student's smiles against the winter darkness outside. Think of an installation that charges up with each student smiling. Each minute of darkness outside depletes the scale. But how would we capture the smiles? And where? And maybe most importantly – will people understand the concept?
To get answers to these questions we needed to build a prototype. Since we all wanted to build something tangible and something people can really experience it had to be grounded in reality. We did some technology research to figure out if its possible to capture the smiles of people walking through hallways and doors (using face capturing libraries). This proved to be rather tricky and we therefore decided to build something that people would need to walk up to.
Our first prototype consisted of two smile stations, that people could walk up to and smile into. A smile-o-phone of sorts. The idea was that it would allow two people at two different locations to smile at each other, without knowing who they were. Within an hour, we had fixed two tablets running Skype into cardboard boxes and fitted lamps to them. The lights would light up when somebody used the device at the other end.
Using some rad Wizard-of-Oz-ing we quickly put the prototype in the hands (or rather mouthes) of non-designers. After the first few trials it was obvious that our idea wasn't working. We had failed, fast. Our main findings were that people didn't understand what the boxes were supposed to represent, that they were reluctant to try it out and that there weren't going to be many instances where two people would actually be standing at the stations at the same time. So we had to try something different.
After realising the importance of short feedback loops in prototyping, we then tried to use just one box and that provokes people to smile more. It turns out this is a lot harder than it sounds. We did some tests using Bebop – a really funny iPhone Robot Syntheziser – to play weird sounds as people were passing our smile box. But the results weren't encouraging.
We were stuck. At this time Kaveh suggested we ought to move around a little: "Try walking around a little and visit the places that people will experience the final product". But at the same time we were wary of our deadline – we needed to have our concept nailed down by this evening. We started questioning everything and considered going back to exploring the other ideas we came up on monday.
Our concept wasn't very strong. But should we really start over and discard the hard work we done over the last two days? Shelagh noticed that we all had different ideas about how the final experience should manifest itself. All of us quibbled over little details and had lost track of the grand vision of our project. Some of us were worried about capturing the smiles, others were unsure of how to visualise the smiles. Linus recognised that we had a simple idea but were constantly trying to complicate the experience. Was the darkness really an important factor in our design? We decided to refocus on our initial idea. What was our main goal? To make people more aware of the benefits of being happy. And then it hit us.
We decided to strip the idea down to the bare minimum: let people experience smiles and offer them an opportunity to add their own – a mobile smile photo booth if you want to see it that way. A projector would then project the smiles in an obscenely large way. It took us approximately 30 minutes to mock up a first physical prototype.
We mirrored the iPhones display (via AirPlay) to a laptop computer. This allowed people to experience their smile close up. The app «Reflector» provided us with a very easy way of doing this. After taking a short snapshop of their smile, we handed each participant their smile report card. It contained all sorts of goofy "statistics" on their smile (e.g. smile impact, number of teeth shown, tooth colour, etc.).
This time it was a success. People were genuinely curious to use the device and we noticed how weird, but fun the whole interaction felt. Based on the feedback we got, we noticed we needed to find a better way of suggesting how people ought to hold the mouth piece. But overall we decided to pursue this prototype further.
Wednesday & Thursday
Friedrich and Kaveh started off the day with their views on Apple's keynote and tied that into the art of releasing technology at the opportune time. They kept the pressure up, though – as they wanted us to show them how the experience the product by 13:00 o'clock that day. We felt chuffed about the progress we made last night and were happy when we got our hands on sensors, printers and webcams.
We divided our project up into small work packages to see how much we needed to do and how we should prioritise the features.
- Building the box and the mouth piece
- Displaying and recording the webcam feed (using Processing)
- Displaying the recorded videos (using Processing)
- Printing the smile reports using an Adafruit printer (using Arduino)
- Getting Arduino and Processing to talk together
- Finding a big red button and using that as a trigger
- Displaying a count down and adding sound feedback
- Finding a projector and connecting it to a Mac mini
- Designing and Building an enclosure for the Smile Bar
- Preparing the final presentation
Basically, we wanted to make sure every team member learns something new during this course. But after a while we had to reorganise slightly, just to ensure we'll actually be able to finish this thing.
From a programmers perspective the programming was pretty straight forward. What took a lot of time, was finding ways to display the smiles in a meaningful way and not to go overboard on the effect. In the end we stripped down the complexity of the whole product and decided to show the images as a simple slide show. Recording videos in Processing proved more complicated than we had thought and we abandoned that idea pretty early in the process.
Getting the printer to work was also pretty easy. It came with an Arduino Uno built in (and was preassembled), so all we had to do was to modify the example sketch to get it to print what we wanted. Conceptually we agreed on showing "ridiculous stats" on the receipt. It would have been nice to do actual image analysis but the comical aspect worked a lot better, so we just ran with that. Printing images proved to be slightly more difficult, as we had to convert them into their byte representations before being to load them into the Arduino sketch.
We found a cabinet standing around in the corridor and used that as our main container. It offered plenty of space to house our old Mac mini, the receipt printer, our projector, some speakers and a subwoofer. Doris and Sheglah built a rather nifty cardboard wrapper around that box.
As we scrambled to finish our projects, Friedrich and Kaveh introduced us to the business model canvas and asked us to think of the business aspect as well. We talked about the factors that most successful products have in common and the diffusion of innovation (aka most "innovation" dies instantly).
We finished up the final box for the smile bar and glued the printed designs onto our box. Our presentation was up first, at 13:00 o'clock and we were fortunate to have a really large crowd consisting of the first year IxD students and various other UID students. People really enjoyed interacting with our smile bar and found their smile reports just as ridiculous as we had imaged them to be. All in all, great fun.
Doris and Shelagh put this great little concept video together over the weekend to better communicate our final product.
Linus put together a making-of video that shows a little more about the process of building the Smile Bar over the last week.
Looking back, I was really surprised what we were able to come up with in less than one week. We felt like we did really well as a team and the feedback from professors and other students was tremendously inspiring. The installation is still turned on every day and will now be seen by various visitors of the design school. I often find myself looking at the people using the device in unintended ways and feel proud that I could contribute my part to it. During the project we were unsure if we needed to include instructions so that people understood what it was all about. However, we found that we had actually created something blatantly obvious. Another thing that worked really well, were the personified receipts. People really appreciated those.
Obviously, there is still room for improvement. We should make the edges of the mouth piece a little softer to the touch, or we should have prototyped even more during the first few hours of the project. But overall, we all were really pleased with how smoothly everything went.
For me this was a fantastic start to the Masters program. Not only did I get to meet great people, I also got thrown into the hectic life of being a designer. UID seems like a special place.