The course Interface and Interaction Design (IID) teaches how to design an entirely new experience that improves your life. The difficulty of this endeavor cannot be overstated. Most usability practices are based on improving products. The research approach (as taught at the TU/e) is to make fundamental, measurable, and above all generalizable improvements to interactions that are fundamental to human behavior (for instance: how can we make menu-selection in windows-applications faster?). The usability practitioners’ approach is to improve existing work practices (as taught at CMU in Methods) or even existing user interfaces (as taught in Programming Usable Interfaces). The interaction design approach is about something completely different. It is about finding undiscovered needs and desires.
It is incredibly difficult to design products using the interaction design approach. But when it works, you get powerful products, like the iPod. Products that are no obvious fix to an identifiable problem, but nevertheless create a very deep connection with the user, and consequently leave their mark on our society.
My first somewhat successful application of this approach would be the final project I did with Daniel and Sushmita for the IID course. The product is called PicturePal.
Our assignment was to explore the opportunities and design challenges around the idea of an intelligent agent working in a home. The goal was to improve the quality of people’s lives. First thing to do was to select an audience; we chose to help roommates live together.
We started off doing some exploratory research using directed storytelling. We asked people for their horror-stories concerning roommates and living together. Maybe we could help people with chores and cleaning? Answer: “You can’t make people clean!!” Maybe people are in need for house rules? Answer: “It’s not a marriage, so you have to bend a little.” How about bills and money? Isn’t that an issue? Answer: “Someone just buys stuff without being asked.” Well, how about people making noise? Answer: “There are no rules like no noise after midnight.” It seemed that people didn’t actually have any concrete troubles living together. Yes, there were issues sometimes, but people always found a way to deal with that. They were doing fine without any help, and they were actually very proud of that!
We therefore decided to explore the positive side of the design space. Our statement was to design something that makes you feel like you”re a good roommate. We explored about 70 concepts in this space, and picked the best twelve or so for a validation session. From the validation we found that people valued spending time with their roommates, sharing memories together, and being connected to the home at all times. We used these values to iterate on one of the concepts that got the most positive feedback, which resulted in PicturePal.
PicturePal is a digital photo frame with a built-in camera. It can be mounted on a wall, and – when turned on – take pictures around the room (different angles are possible if you use extra cameras) at regular intervals. This relieves you from having to bring your camera to every party and prevents being just to late to capture that crazy moment. The pictures can be shown in the frame itself, on a TV (in which case the frame serves as a remote), or on a cellphone (so you can always check what’s going on at your place).
The concept is tailored to roommates having lots of little ad-hoc parties and funny moments, but the product would also work for new parents, nursing homes, or clubs and bars (all in need for an importantly different marketing strategy).
The project got really good feedback from the class, and I submitted it to TNO’s “Not Invented Yet” contest (see below). In the first round, I ended second place! This means that I’m through to the finals that start early November. Everyone who voted for me in the first round: Thank you! And I hope I can count on you again in the finals!