I think it was around half a year ago that I wrote “UX designers should get into everyware”. Back then I did not expect to be part of a ubicomp project anytime soon. But here I am now, writing about work I did in the area of multi-touch interfaces.
The people at InUse (Sweden’s premier interaction design consultancy firm) asked me to assist them with visualising potential uses of multi-touch technology in the context of a gated community. That’s right—an actual real-world physical real-estate development project. How cool is that?
This residential community is aimed at well-to-do seniors. As with most gated communities, it offers them convenience, security and prestige. You might shudder at the thought of living in one of these places (I know I have my reservations) but there’s not much use in judging people wanting to do so. Planned amenities include sports facilities, fine dining, onsite medical care, a cinema and on and on…
One of the known issues with these ‘communities’ is that there’s not much evidence of social capital being higher there than in any regular neighbourhood. In fact some have argued that the global trend of gated communities is detrimental to the build-up of social capital in their surroundings. They throw up physical barriers that prevent free interaction of people. These are some of the things I tried to address: To see if we could support the emergence of community inside the residency using social tools while at the same counteracting physical barriers to the outside world with “virtual inroads” that allow for free interaction between residents and people in the periphery.
Being in the world
Another concern I tried to address is the different ways multi-touch interfaces can play a role in the lives of people. Recently Matt Jones addressed this in a post on the iPhone and Nokia’s upcoming multi-touch phones. In a community like the one I was designing for, the worst thing I could do is make every instance of multi-touch technology an attention-grabbing presence demanding full immersion from its user. In many cases ‘my’ users would be better served with them behaving in an unobtrusive way, allowing almost unconscious use. In other words: I tried to balance being in the world with being in the screen—applying each paradigm based on how appropriate it was given the user’s context. (After all, sometimes people want or even need to be immersed.)
InUse had already prepared several personas representative of the future residents of the community. We went through those together and examined each for scenarios that would make good candidates for storyboarding. We wanted to come up with a range of scenarios that not only showed how these personas could be supported with multi-touch interfaces, but also illustrate the different spaces the interactions could take place in (private, semiprivate and public) and the scales at which the technology can operate (from small key-like tokens to full wall-screens).
I drafted each scenario as a textual outline and sketched the potential storyboards on thumbnail size. We went over those in a second workshop and refined them—making adjustments to better cover the concerns outlined above as well as improving clarity. We wanted to end up with a set of storyboards that could be used in a presentation for the client (the real-estate development firm) so we needed to balance user goals with business objectives. To that end we thought about and included examples of API-like integration of the platform with service providers in the periphery of the community. We also tried to create self-service experiences that would feel like being waited on by a personal butler.
I ended up drawing three scenarios of around 9 panels each, digitising and cleaning them up on my Mac. Each scenario introduces a persona, the physical context of the interaction and the persona’s motivation that drives him to engage with the technology. The interactions visualised are a mix of gestures and engagements with multi-touch screens of different sizes. Usually the persona is supported in some way by a social dimension—fostering serendipity and emergence of real relations.
All in all I have to say I am pretty pleased with the result of this short but sweet engagement. Collaboration with the people of InUse was smooth (as was expected, since we are very much the same kind of animal) and there will be follow-up workshops with the client. It remains to be seen how much of this multi-touch stuff will find its way into the final gated community. That as always will depend on what makes business sense.
In any case it was a great opportunity for me to immerse myself fully in the interrelated topics of multi-touch, gesture, urbanism and sociality. And finally, it gave me the perfect excuse to sit down and do lots and lots of drawings.