Way back in September I began the year with an open mind; I didn’t know what I wanted my project to be or what I really wanted to focus on. I was, unreasonably in hindsight, greeted with a shock when we were expected to have three potential briefs just hours into day one. I was a bit lost about where I wanted to go, but I had a few goals in mind. I’m glad I set myself these goals, and I’m happy to say I feel I’ve achieved them across the year.
So what were my goals and how did I achieve them?
1. Conduct in depth user research, involving them early in the design process
I stumbled along through the first few weeks not really sure where I was going, however I knew I was aiming to let my research dictate the project direction. After flying through some ideas, I soon made the decision to design for a specific user group; elderly adults. In making this choice I felt I would learn more about design constraints and considerations which would in turn improve the quality of my outcome. On reflection this was a wise decision; by letting the research lead the project I had a real focus for the first semester, while still allowing room to explore the boundaries of my chosen area.
Spending a lot of time looking into literary sources on designing for elderly as well as beginning my weekly volunteering with the user centre (a computer club for people over fifty) are the tasks that dominated my work around this time. My aim at this point was to understand social connections and their uses of technology to keep in touch. Keeping this connection going throughout the course of the year has really inspired the project, often affecting a lot of the decisions made.
During the first semester I also attended the Age Collective conference in London, got feedback from the Gurus, continued desk research and also took part in a workshop set to tackle the RSA everyday well being brief. Each of these activities made me consider different aspects of my project, thinking about the social effects and diverse needs of designing for elderly users and their families. In a time where I was still struggling with deciding on a concept, each really helped to re-enforce that I was on the right path and that it was ok to still be deciding, as I was learning new things with each week that passed. Despite panicking about this undecidedness at the time, I can see now that it was the right path for me.
This level of research continued throughout the whole project and I’m still attending the user centre to this day. My continued time there has allowed me to build up a level of trust and meant just recently I could take back my project concept and get some honest feedback about my prototype. Showing off a prototype is an invaluable experience, and despite doing it a little too late to amend issues and test out all of their suggestions, I still found it to be an extremely enjoyable and informative task. In hindsight I wish I’d had the confidence to take them an unfinished prototype a bit earlier in the process so that I could have acted further upon their feedback.
2. Solve a problem real people are having, whether big or small
The people who attend the user centre and their reasons for doing so are what inspired me to begin my focused research into how elderly people communicate. I conducted a workshop to gain some insights, though I quickly realised the data gathered wasn’t actually what would help me make the most progress. I actually gained a lot of inspiration from seeing the way they interacted with technology first hand; from writing down phone numbers and sticking them to their mobile, to struggling with interfaces of platforms such as Skype and email clients, while being very aware of the benefits and having a strong desire to use these platforms. My ‘problem’ directly stemmed from this research; how could I create something with an appealing interface that assisted with inter-generational communication? This in turn provided me with a few bridges to cross; What platform would suit both parties? What is a suitable interface for an elderly user? Will it be one or two way communication? Do I create my own platform or build on an existing one?
The answers to these questions came with time and iteration. I’m not going to go into each issue in depth here as I have already done so previously, but I ensured each decision was informed through research insights, and without working with my users I would probably still be sitting here clueless!
I’m sure as with everyone else, I had my doubts along the way with my project and went through many highs and lows. However, after conducting my final evaluation my worries were eased. I’m confident that while my prototype may not be the best execution, the concept is there and there are people genuinely interested in owning a Flux device for themselves or their family members. People even began asking me about pricing!
Looking back, this research and concept generating phase is one that I loved, despite feeling stressed at the time. Throughout the whole project my main interest has been the end user experience, and creating a well-thought out experience was probably one of my most important goals. As the project developed I was looking from all angles at the ways in which this device could affect or change the way families currently communicate.
After working through this project, I know one thing for sure; I want to work with people. Working alone is not for me and often it just took bouncing ideas of a classmate for me to realise I was heading in the right direction.
3. Learn a new or improve an existing programming skill
Setting off on mark one with my video chat goal in mind, I quickly got down to prototyping some ideas. A lot of them were still half baked at this point, I was thinking about ambient alerts and paired devices to name just a few I’ve now discarded. I knew that no matter how the finer details turned out, that technology was going to be the hardest thing I would do in this project. For that reason this is where I began, and after a short discussion with Ali about the tech to use I got to work in creating my project as an android application.
This allowed me to actually achieve both of these goals I set out; I’ve now greatly improved my previously existing arduino skills and I’ve learnt new skills in the basics of android programming, which is a combination of .xml and java.
The technical complexity of my project is one I completely underestimated. I knew it was going to be a challenge but I had no idea just quite how big that challenge would be. As my concept revolves around a live video chat there was no real way for me to ‘fake’ my technology. It was all or nothing. I started out by following the most basic of tutorials, programming the application to multiply numbers and open a url and unfortunately found even these challenging. However, I persevered!
By the time mark one came around, I had also got to work with arduino, having it read in user input and send it across bluetooth to the android application. By mark two, the android application could perform actions based on this input. Since then, it’s been a case of getting every input working, completely moving all my code into a service class to ensure the buttons would be functional while in a call, as well as writing further methods to make my image desaturate over time and perform the rest of the functions I chose to prototype.
Looking at it now, I can’t believe how much I achieved. When I first sat down to code in android I panicked and believed nothing would ever work. Now I can proudly say I have an arduino wirelessly communicating with a Nexus 7 tablet, not only controlling my own application but having the ability to open and close an external application (google hangouts) and control the volume of the device no matter what application you are in on the tablet. I only programmed enough to prototype my concept and I probably used a few bad programming practices, but my job isn’t to be a professional developer and I’m happy to say I have learnt and shown that I have the skills to develop working proof of concept prototypes.
All my work across the past nine months have cumulated to a project I’m overall fairly happy with. The strongest aspects are the technology and people, which I have both weighted at 40%, with design taking 20%. I used design as a tool to communicate my research; I wasn’t aiming for a slick finished product as that isn’t where my strengths lie, but I’ve developed a prototype that conveys the concept, making it clear how it could be developed were the project to be taken further. Taking a project from beginning to end solo has taught me a lot, as it’s the most in depth work I’ve ever done. It has made me aware of where my true passion in design lies, and that’s the research and concept development phase, where I get to really consider and build the perfect user experience in answer to the brief.