research for design: final week

See my post from week 3 for context!

this week’s progress

I made a copy of my slide presentation so I could work on the feedback given while maintaining the original version for posterity. In the new presentation, I modified and expanded my secondary research summary, to go a little bit more in depth into the most significant highlights I learned. I synthesized my five interviewees into three personas — giving them new names and more detail around their background, but keeping the same pictures since those were fictional to begin with. I also synthesized my survey results, moving my habit outlook gallery onto a post of its own but keeping a preview of it in the presentation. Lastly, I outlined the goals of my intervention and started prototyping it.

For the prototype, I did some competitor research — looking back, I should have taken notes to add to the slides. The last time I’d looked into habit tracking apps (years ago), I was underwhelmed with the options. Today, there are a lot more options, though as usual, features are very limited unless you pay. Without a budget and a lot of time to truly explore these apps, I had to stick to general impressions. My biggest takeaway is that the best habit tracking apps out there lean a lot on statistics, but not much else. There is a focus to keeping it minimal, but to me it can become a little cold and detached. I already knew I wanted my intervention to focus on learning and inspiring, but this highlighted that for me. I was inspired by Headspace, a mindfulness app with guided meditations and wellness courses (just to name a few features). So I thought my app could blend a habit tracker with the Headspace ethos — a gentle tool, nurturing knowledge while nudging you into your desired habits.

I divided the app into three main areas (learn, plan, and track) which a user can navigate in a seamless loop. Using Adobe XD, I made two screens for each area — the main landing page plus a detail page. It is a rough prototype with a lot of detail missing, but I’m satisfied with the overall look of it — my design goal was to be both soothing and focused, and I’m happy with the results. If I had more time, I would continue researching, prototyping, and start user testing (and then iterating from there). But given the time crunch for this project, I’m very pleased with the rough concept and how much I’ve learned in these few weeks — the topic is near and dear to my heart, and this is a product I would genuinely love to use.

habit outlook gallery

As part of my research on habits, I asked survey participants:

  • This section takes a more abstract and experimental approach to how people feel about their habits. There is no right or wrong answer. Please open https://unsplash.com/s/photos/abstract on a separate tab or window for this.
  • Think of the habits you have overall — every “autopilot” behavior you repeat consistently. Browse the abstract images linked above. What image best captures how you feel about your current habits? What about that image aligns with how you feel about your current habits?

Below are the images and responses received:

research for design: week 3

See my post from week 2 for context!

this week’s progress

My 27 pages of notes turned into a condensed 4-page summary, further boiled down to two slides in my presentation (see below). I also conducted five 20-30min interviews this week and shared my survey, which got 20 responses so far (here’s the link if you’d like to take it!). The interviews gave a lot of anecdotal but powerful backup to the research I did the week before — everyone articulated, without knowing, at least some of the principles of habit-forming strategies that I read about. They also highlighted to me the difference in systems from person to person — while some of my interviewees had extremely ingrained habits that require no reminder, others felt the need for a more robust structure to keep them on track. This creates a challenge in building any “one stop shop” solution, because there is no universal product that will work for every person and every habit. It led me to think that the best way to go is to focus on education, whatever shape this project takes. Having the prettiest reminder app in the world isn’t as important as instilling in people the importance of using reminders.

My slides start with my elevator pitch, then detail my research findings before going into three main intervention ideas (the first two being a little more robust than the last one).

research for design: week 2

See my post from week 1 for context!

this week’s progress

I did more reading this week than I had in months. I read three full books — Atomic Habits by James Clear, Mindful Design by Scott Riley, and Hooked by Nir Eyal — as well as a selection of chapters from Design for Behaviour Change. This all generated some 27 pages of notes (which I’m still synthesizing) on the cognitive science behind creating and maintaining habits, and the many design practices that can facilitate that process. I’m stewing on a lot of ideas on how to remind users about the habits they want to practice more often in a kind and affirming way.

stakeholder map

This was a little difficult to make, since I think this map should basically include everyone. Every human being has habits, whether they are thoughtful about them or not — and I think everyone would benefit from an intervention that helps them be more thoughtful about their habits. Still, I thought of who would most benefit, or who has more pressing reasons to seek help in their habit formation and maintenance (or suggest that help to others).

I thought of three main buckets that may strain someone’s ability to create and keep healthy habits — memory, motivation, and schedule struggles. With memory, someone might have every intention to do something, but will simply forget about it; with motivation, they may always think about it, but can’t bring themselves to do it; and with schedules, external factors like time (but maybe environment, too) are creating the strain. I then jotted down the specific issues that relate to each category — of course, some blend into multiple categories, and something from one category can deeply affect another. Lastly, I jotted down facilitators as stakeholders — people who may refer a design intervention to those around them who might benefit from it.

user research

My first method of primary research will be user interviews. I should be conducting 5 this week, starting tomorrow morning. I’ve drafted about 8 questions, some with potential follow-ups, to get a more in-depth sense of people’s habit-forming processes, and tools used for maintenance. My second method will be a narrower survey specifically on tools and techniques, ideally reaching a much wider audience.

research for design: week 1

At one point in my pre-pandemic life, I went to the gym four days a week, for months on end. This felt like an absolutely incredible achievement, given that I’d spent my teenage years denouncing any sort of physical activity. I became a gym person through sheer power of will. I would stretch at the start of every workout, then run a mile on a treadmill despite hating almost every second of it, and then go through an ever-changing weightlifting routine. I lost weight despite bulking a bit in muscle, and for the first time in my life had a hint of a six-pack.

Then COVID happened!

circa 9 months pre-covid

Writing this all out now makes me miss it more than I could tell you. I miss feeling confident that I could move a heavy box all by myself. I miss being able to touch my toes while stretching my hamstrings. I miss running up the subway stairs and not getting winded.

I was at my gym the last day it was open in March. I didn’t feel very safe in it that day, but I knew the closure was coming and wanted to get one last workout in. I already knew I wouldn’t be as motivated to work out at home — I’ve always felt that the physical gym space was the biggest psychological factor for me to find motivation. Eventually I did try — I played some Ring Fit Adventure at home, then got some adjustable weights, then eventually a foldable bench. But I’m still not working out four days a week.

So the question for this project is — how can I make that happen, for myself and others? Can I create something that helps overcome these psychological or material barriers?

For my mess map, I wrote up as many of these barriers as I could. I quickly saw three large buckets forming — (lack of) motivation, space, and equipment — and spread the sticky notes around the bucket(s) they related to. Further down, I wrote up the tools I knew that could address these issues — separating by general tools, and specific or branded ones. The last area deals with my questions or considerations for the next phases of the project.

I focused my secondary research this week on Becoming Your Desired Self. It’s a twelve-part workshop piloted earlier this year by my office, though I wasn’t directly involved in it since I was out on vacation while it happened. It provides actionable and affirming tools to help create habits (and stick with them). Some of the key takeaways are the idea of breaking down habits into small, achievable segments; observing cues that trigger different habits; being intentional about one’s routine and environments in order to trigger desired habits; and maybe above all, approaching the entire process with an open, non-judgmental, compassionate mindset.

I think focusing on the psychological barriers might be the best route for the project — it seems the most universal issue, whereas space and equipment problems are deeply particular to each person’s life and body. I’m leaning towards designing some tool — whether it involves journaling, planning, habit tracking, etc — in a few different formats to increase accessibility and usability.

time capsule, part 3

I’ll be honest, it was very hard to get work done this week. Whether in the days I was tense or in the days I felt relieved over the election, it seemed impossible to focus, let alone be creative. I wanted to work and distract myself, but it was a constant fight against my brain (“Psst, just refresh that tab one more time to see if Nevada got called“). It didn’t help that my sleep patterns were all over the place — on Wednesday I woke up some four times at night after dreaming about reds and blues switching around on the electoral map. All of this for an election I can’t vote on! Very fun.

Coming up with my narrative was the most straight-forward part. Jotting down words. In this part, I sort of cheated and allowed myself one more object — a USB drive, to explain the other objects. In my mind, I’d create a folder with my video from part 1 and a “read me” explaining the constellations in my box. So for the story to make sense, the future people interacting with my box would need a USB drive reader. I decided they should be some type of explorer and lovers of old media — people collecting artifacts from yore who may just have enough adaptors going back several decades to decode a USB drive.

Since this is such a strong passion of these characters, it made sense to me that they would find meaning in recreating my drinks, and would go out of their way to find the ingredients needed. I’m imagining a future that’s not a complete dystopia (it’s also definitely not utopic, though the U.S. does switch to metric in it), but maybe it’s a lot harder to come across coffee and tea if you don’t live in places that plant them. My explorers are within driving distance of Massachusetts, so coming across a South American tea leaf would be tough (and expensive). After searching for it, though, they bring everything to the closest location to Cape Cod — using some sea level projection maps, I found that may be deep into Massachusetts in the next century. For the last beats of the story, the explorers connect with my box by adding an object of their own, and examining the stars like I did.

Here are the spreads, followed by my written outline —

[some time passes]

I’ll be honest again, I’m not thrilled with the spread itself. I wanted to make it more comic book-y, show the characters themselves, have dialog in the panels, use creative panel shapes, and so on. But I’ve never been great at drawing entire scenes, so I need a lot of time and references (which also take time to find) to do them decently. (On a semi-related note, I feel like my 2017 laptop is starting to feel bogged down by its planned obsolescence, because working on it is slowly getting more and more cumbersome.) Without a lot of time, I limited myself to simple panels that are more of a storyboard than a comic spread. They’re setting the mood. Because my characters are collectors and their home/office/random space is full of clutter, I wanted the style to be a little messy too. The lines aren’t very straight, the painting is not very neat, etc. Without speech balloons, I gave each character a different color and font to help differentiate them, and give them a little bit of personality too. I think just by giving E2 a cool color and neater handwriting, they feel a little more poised, for example. I intentionally didn’t give them genders or names — I think the anonymity of that parallels how I would be anonymous to them too.

I’m not sure what I’d do differently. I had some cinematic shots in mind, but had a lot of trouble depicting them properly in drawing (see my wonky car, for example). If I were making this out of class, I’d either need something like a month to fully do this spread justice, or I’d commission an artist with more experience than me (maybe giving them detailed notes of how I envisioned the panels, which was fun).

To finish it off, here’s the timelapse of the drawing/painting process. I drew each layer on top of each other since they were going to be the same size, so that’s why they mysteriously disappear. The timelapse also cut before the end (Adobe Fresco still hasn’t fixed that glitch, I take it) but it still shows you enough of the process overall.

time capsule, part 2

See part 1 of this project.

In thinking about the shape and form of my capsule, I felt like my contents would be more at home inside a simple and somewhat rustic box. Even though my specific cuia and Moka are only a few years old, the design of the objects themselves date back several decades. A seashell is much, much older. So instead of putting those objects in a cold, shiny metal box, I felt drawn to the idea of a wooden chest with a latch or lock of some kind. From then, I started thinking about how to decorate the material.

My first thought was some kind of symbol for each of the locations referenced by my objects, one in each side of the box. For the Moka, my immediate thought was the red fleur-de-lis that stands as a symbol for the city. The cuia could have my home state’s coat of arms, and the coffee mug could be represented by the New York City seal. I had two problems with the idea in the end: first, that I couldn’t find a good parallel representation of Cape Cod or Hyannis, and second, that taking a closer look at the NYC seal reminded me of basically every criticism one can make about flags and their inherently colonial nature.

My next thought was still inspired in flags. The blue sphere at the center of Brazil’s flag supposedly represents the sky in Rio de Janeiro (then capital of the monarchy) on the night of November 15th, 1889 — the day Brazil became a Republic. However I feel about flags these days, I love that element of the flag. I appreciate that the stars are arranged in a specific, meaningful pattern. This seemed very poignant for my capsule — wherever I have gone and found these objects, the sky has always been the same. So I decided to represent the sky in those meaningful locations, also on meaningful dates in my narrative.

To create these astronomical representations, I found the website In-The-Sky, which lets you download SVGs. I listed out the dates that would be most meaningful to the narrative (sometimes leaning on my Instagram archive for help):

  • Cuia: December 16th, 199X*, in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The day I was born, at 12PM. Since I’m a younger child, it wasn’t as big of a deal to record the exact time I was born (my parents always said “around lunch”), so I rounded down.
  • Mug: August 25th, 2013, in New York, United States, at 12AM. The night I flew to the City to start my freshman year in college.
  • Moka: January 26th, 2015, in Florence, Italy, at 12AM. The night I flew to Florence to start my study abroad. In an insane coincidence that I didn’t realize until this week — this was my husband’s birthday. I wouldn’t meet him until August 25th of that year (you’ll notice that was also an important date for me already, and became doubly meaningful).
  • Seashell: August 26th, 2017, in Barnstable, United States, at 12PM. The day after our wedding and first day of our honeymoon, about the time we got out of the Greyhound bus that took us to Hyannis.

After I had the SVGs, I imported them on Illustrator to clean up some details and help render the box more faithfully. This is how the seals came out:

The next step was creating a cardboard prototype to measure the dimensions of the box. I wanted to leave a little bit of room, so it came to about 14x7x8 inches. I drew out the shapes with a sharpie and cut each rectangle with a knife, then taped them together on the inside.

With these dimensions, I used one of the model renders in Adobe Dimension to create my box. I found a stock image of light wood to texturize the box, and then edited the seals to look like they were burned on. The effect is not as visible in the render as it was on Photoshop, so here they are as I intended:

Last but not least, here is the render using Adobe Dimension’s shareable link. I had never used the program before, so I was pretty excited at how well this turned out. If I had more familiarity with it, I would try to sketch the latch or lock I was envisioning, but for the time being this seemed really neat to me:

* Year redacted because for some reason people’s birthdates are sometimes part of security checks.

time capsule, part 1

video

Note: I had intended to add captions to the video itself, but ran out of time. Here is a transcript, which may help understand some of the non-English words used in the narration.

my process

Yet again I find myself talking about immigration — almost like it’s a big deal or something. I didn’t set out to do it, but it turned out the objects I felt strongly about all connected to it in some way. I did have other objects in mind (like a different mug with pictures of my late dog, or the instant photo film rolls from my wedding party) but once I found the common thread in the other objects, it felt more elegant to trim it down. I’m a little too into the rule of three, so it felt extremely neat to have three objects that revolved around beverages, time, and space. I considered cutting the seashell because it wasn’t beverage-themed, but kept it as a cherry on top, or epilogue of sorts. I went back and forth while writing the narrative of each object, trying to find ways to parallel or connect them further, and was pretty pleased with the end result. It is obviously a very personal narrative overall, but I think each section on its own touches on something bigger than myself.

After writing it, I decided the best platform for the story would be video. I didn’t realize it until I was editing, but I took a lot of the format from Vlogbrothers’ Thoughts From Places, and/or John Green’s Anthropocene Reviewed (I noticed while narrating that I was basically ripping off John’s cadence, but couldn’t stop). Editing took way longer than I expected, which is why I ran out of time for captions. Since captions are a great YouTube affordance, I thought it’d be a wonderful idea to add them in English, Portuguese, and Italian. I still think it’d be an awesome way to tie the content with the platform, and would love to do it once I have the time, but my Italian is also way rustier than I’d like. If I had more time, I would also love to add some gentle soundscapes as another dimension to the narration — the sound of boiling water being poured into a cuia, the soft gurgling of coffee filling up the Moka, the buzzing of people at the NBC store, or waves crashing at a Cape Cod beach.

photo essay

story

“Nothing like working on a Saturday.” 

He’s called in early in the morning to check on the facilities after last night’s storm. Like most buildings in the area, Eastwood High sits on nearly 100,000 square feet of wet, marshy land, prone to flooding at times like these. 

“Once I got the flash flood warning, I knew I had a doozy of a weekend ahead of me. I fucking knew.”

Frank has to check every hallway, classroom, lounge, and storage closet for damage. His keys jostle in their massive chain as he unlocks each door, muttering in anger. 

“Why build something in marshland? It’s always like this. Couple inches of rain and the place is underwater. What’s the goddamn point?”

Not every room is equally insulated. Some have massive puddles of water and mud while others look almost untouched. Frank works the first floor over four hours before taking a lunch break. 

“The second floor should be a little better, but you never know,” he says between bites. “They’ve been saying they’ll renovate the roof for years now. They never get around to it.” 

The second floor has less mud, but almost as much water damage. At his age, it takes him a few hours. 

When he’s finally done, he cracks his back and lets out a deep sigh. “Time to go home, then.” The anger has dissipated, but there’s still no relief in his voice.

As we get to his home, it becomes clear why. His basement is also flooded.

“Landlord’s also said he’ll fix it, every time the lease is up. It just never happens. But this cleanup is gonna have to wait for tomorrow morning.” He sighs again. “Like I said, a doozy of a weekend.”

process

Given that my object was a key, I felt like my narrative had to include a person who could actually use it. I wasn’t sure whether to pick the excited child or angry person — to be honest, I didn’t feel very creative this whole week — until I talked about the assignment with my husband to see what he thought. We bounced ideas off of each other over dinner, and eventually came with the concept of a school janitor who is angry because he has to clean up a flooded building, only to come home and reveal that his house is flooded even worse. I’d credit Parasite and i’m thinking of ending things as inspirations here.

I wanted to follow the photojournalistic theme here, so the narrative is in third person and the character is talking out loud, as if explaining things to this nameless journalist. Because of that, I felt the need to get fairly realistic with details. For example, I have never set foot inside an American high school, so to figure out how big it should be, I used Google Maps Area Calculator and compared some schools and other large buildings I knew in New York City. I also used name generators to help me decide on a name for the school and for the character.

In the narrative, I tried to keep the reveal a surprise while also sprinkling the vaguest of hints that you could maybe catch on a reread — Frank knew he had a doozy of a weekend, not just a Saturday, because he knows he’ll have to spend Sunday fixing his basement. Like most buildings in the area was meant to give the hint that Frank lives nearby, and that’s why he was the one called in to clean the school (I tried fitting that reasoning somewhere in the narrative, but it didn’t feel natural, so I just omitted it). Frank’s anger about constructing buildings on the area extends to his landlord as well as the school. These details were added while finalizing the narrative itself.

To create the storyboard, I first thought of which “scenes” had the most evocative details. I wanted to show the keys in as many frames as I could, too, but in some cases focusing on the keys would throw off the timing of the storyboard. I ended up writing the list of frames like this:

  1. Outside shot of school, janitor looking small
  2. Janitor on a hallway (keys visible)
  3. Close up of mop
  4. Janitor eating sandwich
  5. Puddles
  6. Cracking back
  7. Key chain opening house door — can see basement window, water flowing in
  8. Janitor sitting on a chair, looking tired. Keys on the table.

I then looked for reference pictures to help me trace the storyboard. I wasn’t able to get all the exact angles I wanted, so some shots ended up a little different. Here’s how it looked before I traced it on Photoshop:

I wanted a realistic but imperfect style, so I picked a pencil brush with a sort of “grain” to it. I kept the backgrounds flat and decided only to paint certain details of Frank’s figure — just enough for him to pop in those frames. Since Frank is seeing things pretty bleakly and not focusing on details right now, I think the style also helps convey his mood and perspective to contribute towards the narrative.

Fall Guys as a metaphor

My first step in this assignment was to generate a list of things I felt strongly about. I wanted to use a random number generator to help me pick a card from Dan Lockton’s deck, so having multiple options would give me leeway in picking my favorite out of the random assortment. Here were my five combinations (take a guess whether I love or hate these products):

  • How can the Mint app be a metaphor for democracy
  • How can the MTA be a metaphor for unwritten rules
  • How can NYU Albert be a metaphor for adaptability
  • How can Wegmans be a metaphor for protection and safety
  • How can Fall Guys be a metaphor for being an immigrant

I liked all of them, but as the post title suggests, the last one was my favorite. I’ve been playing Fall Guys since its release week, and have felt every type of frustration and exhilaration that the game can bring. For those unfamiliar, Fall Guys is a battle royale game, where players join lobbies of 60 and compete in multiple rounds of races, survival games, team games, etc, in order to be the last jellybean standing and win a golden crown. The colors are bright, the style is bubbly, the music is exciting, the physics are wonky. It’s great fun even as — and especially if — you’re getting tossed into the air by a giant windmill.

My mind immediately connected some elements of the game to my own journey from an F-1 visa holder to adjusting my status as a permanent resident. As you start out, you’re not sure what to do, and anything can throw you off course. With time and practice, you may learn how to navigate the path, but still at any time you may experience some random glitch that completely changes your journey (for better or worse).

A lot of times, you succeed after a long struggle trying to make it work. Sometimes, you’re doing everything right but still fail through no fault of your own. Other times you struggle the whole time, to no avail. And sometimes, or to some people, everything goes according to plan.

Of course, not everything is a neat metaphor. The immigration process is not meant to be fun and exciting — even when it’s going smoothly, it’s a long and boring experience, as all bureaucratic ones are. There’s no thrilling soundtrack or costume shop. You do not want to be cute or memorable at your visa interviews, and at least as far as I’ve experienced, there is no fanfare or confetti when your case gets approved: you get a letter and a card, and carry on with your life. Your success in this journey looks mundane to an outside observer.

So to emphasize the metaphor, we would have to change those dissonant elements. To turn Fall Guys into an exercise of empathy towards immigrants, I would:

  • Remove animations, celebrations, and customization.
  • Remove the soundtrack. Replace with either full silence or innocuous elevator music.
  • Limit the color palette. For the sake of my sketches, I replaced all colors with the USCIS website’s color palette: a mix of grays, two muted blue tones, and one red.
  • Change the failure/success text (ELIMINATED! or QUALIFIED!) with USCIS notices.

Here are my sketches to visualize the revamped game:

beginning the race
There’s a randomness to the starting positions. Some people spawn further back even though there’s space in the front. Maybe your case file gets lost somewhere, maybe you’re assigned a case worker that’s overworked.
being eliminated:
Failure means your life is upended — if your case goes to removal proceedings, it means you are likely getting deported.
taking shortcuts
Maybe you manage to get a good lawyer, or you know someone who’s been through the process before and can give you tips. That allows you to save some time and energy, getting to the finish line faster.
crossing the finish line
Victory still looks bureaucratic, coming with disclosures and caveats that can dampen your excitement.

You might tolerate the game to get your crown — here this could symbolize keeping your family together, or having job opportunities you wouldn’t have elsewhere, or any other reason why people immigrate. But would the game itself still be fun to play? Probably not.