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How Might You … Design an Exhibit for TEDxPhiladelphia?

When TEDxPhiladelphia asked us to put together an exhibit for its Maker Fair, the venue and occasion seemed to call for something interactive. TEDx ticketholders are movers, shakers, and doers, so we thought they’d enjoy the opportunity to take action — to brainstorm and design solutions for some weighty challenges — during breaks from listening to speakers.

Turpault TEDxPhiladelphia

Mathieu TED-talking about the reinvention of industrial design. (photo credit: Kevin Monko)

We also wanted to tie the exhibit in with the talk being given that day by our Director of Design, Mathieu Turpault. The kernel of Mathieu’s talk, The Disappearance of Everyday Objects, is the constant reinvention of industrial design. In the early to mid 1900s, Raymond Loewy’s era, industrial designers styled physical objects. Between then and now industrial design shifted toward human-centered design and solving real problems. Today the profession is being reinvented again. Thanks to the effects of technology, industrial designers are moving away from the physical object and toward shaping digital experiences.

Designing the Exhibit

Both Mathieu’s talk and the theme of TEDxPhiladelphia 2014, The New Workshop of the World, got us thinking about how technology impacts design and new manufacturing — and how Bresslergroup integrates technology into nearly everything we design. We decided to bring a Smartboard, a tool we like to use for brainstorming, to Temple’s Performing Arts Center as a drawing board for solving design challenges with tech-embedded products.

Hence, “The Ideation Station: How Might You …?” was born. (“How might you” is a second-person variation of “How might we?,” a not-so-secret “secret top phrase” used by designers.) Matt Thomas, interaction designer and developer — and experienced leader of brainstorms — was the emcee. Rizki Tarisa, a junior industrial designer and lightning-fast sketcher, realized participants’ ideas in real time on a Cintiq hooked up to the Smartboard.

Exhibit Team

Rizki sketches (left) while Matt facilitates (right).

Philadelphia Salvage, another Maker Fair exhibitor, generously lent us a few pieces of the kind of Old Workshop of the World furniture you can only find in Philly, including a 19th-century drafting table (provenance: an umbrella factory in North Philadelphia), to balance out our New Workshop of the World ideation station. And there you have it: Our traveling design circus was ready for its first act!

We prepared three challenges — about energy consumption, smartphone addiction, and commuting —  to present throughout the day, and participants ranged from a Navy Yard mechanical engineer to a surgeon, to that surgeon’s school-aged daughter. Some people came right up and grabbed a pew. Others lingered on the edges and watched. Here’s what the ideators came up with:

1. ENERGY CHALLENGE: How might you … make people more aware of their energy consumption?

Energy Challenge

Target User: A 40-something dad motivated by a mix of frugality and sustainability to be concerned about his household’s use of energy.

Product: An app called Housebit (like a Fitbit for your house).

Energy Sketches

Ideating Housebit.

Description: This is an app that reads energy sensors placed on appliances around the house and reports a breakdown of energy usage by room and appliance. The group gravitated toward a solution smart enough to compare energy usage for a specific appliance or room to that same unit’s energy usage a year or a month ago. (If you can pinpoint which appliance in your kitchen is responsible for the increase, you can more easily mitigate the difference.)

Housebit sends push notifications to the user (that 40-something dad) related to performance, money, and energy expenditure (kilowatts per hour); and provides recommendations for where users might be able to save energy (switching bulbs, etc.).

User Interface Layout: A floorplan of the house — the user touches an appliance to get specific information.

Gamify It: If the app learns current rates for cost of energy, it can tell you exactly how much money you’re spending. It might be fun for a user to set goals and funnel bonus funds into specially named accounts (Las Vegas trip?).

2. WELL-BEING CHALLENGE: How might you … reduce smartphone addiction and encourage spontaneous human-to-human interaction?

Well-Being Challenge

Use Case: For the 2nd session, the group talked about where this product might be used as opposed to sketching a specific user. The scenario is a group of friends (ages 18-25) in a public space. How to encourage them to look up from their phones and talk to each other?

Product: Two major ideas came out of this session: the first was using wearable technology to detect body language or gestures that reveal you’re looking at your phone. One idea was a necklace with a sensor that detects when your chin is tilted into a “phone posture.” Once it senses the posture, it makes your phone buzz or vibrate with a message that can be confrontational, motivational, or downright shaming: ex. “Why are you looking at me so much?”

Social Interaction Challenge

Ideating the well-being challenge.

Someone brought up the Amazon drones and the potential of appropriating them to sense when you’re in the vicinity of others who are also using their phones. Everyone’s phones would buzz at the same time, breaking the ice and creating awareness — and hopefully leading to social interaction. Or maybe the system can connect with the Google balloon to send signals to co-located groups of people in the same area who’re on the phone simultaneously.

Social Interaction Bloopers

No idea is a bad idea?

Blooper Reel:

This one generated a couple of hilarious ideas (see above):

* The Spiked Collar (left): Tilt your head to check your phone, and … ouch.

* Antisocial and Social Paths in Public Parks (right): Choose your path before you start. One is booby-trapped to trip you up if you attempt to use your smartphone while walking.

3. COMMUTING CHALLENGE: How might you… improve the commute?

Commuting Challenge

The third session’s group began by identifying the pain points people experience while commuting. The crowd was split between those who drive and those who use public transportation to get to school or work. There were a few really interesting ideas for unmet needs to solve — one concern was that subways and spaces don’t leverage enough space to display art, but that solution seemed too complex to ideate on the fly. The group wound up ideating around the problem of people needing better real-time information about bus arrivals. (Current apps don’t work very well.)

Product: Beacon

Description: A system of embedded sensors or beacons embedded in bus stops or train stations to transmit signals to waiting passengers’ wristbands or tech-embedded monthly bus passes — or to transmit to a display at the stop itself — that their bus or train is four stops away, three stops away, two stops away, etc. This info is more helpful and accessible if it’s communicated in these modes as opposed to via smartphone app.

Commuting Challenge

Ideating the commuting challenge.

Another participant suggested a different unmet need — he had a problem with buses not stopping for him. The group talked about adding another level to this system of sensors by letting passengers let drivers know which bus they’re waiting for via wristbands or tech-embedded monthly bus passes. The driver would check the display embedded in his windshield to know whether or not to stop.

Thanks for Playing!

We want to thank everyone who participated for participating, and TEDxPhiladelphia for inviting us. We were inspired by all the talks, specifically those about technology and design: Genevieve Dion is doing great work at Drexel’s Shima Seiki Haute Technology Lab, including developing an RFID sensor-embedded Belly Band to monitor a baby’s movements and allow women mobility during labor.

Matt & Rizki

X marks the spot at TEDxPhiladelphia! Rizki Tarisa (left) and Matt Thomas (right) in front of our Ideation Station at the Maker Fair.

Even those who didn’t speak specifically on design talked about the redesign and reinvention of systems, processes, and places — of medical education and healthcare (Stephen Klasko), public education (Helen Gym), of how we go about protecting the souls of our neighborhoods (Chris Bartlett), of designing a public skate park just as rad as Love Park (Josh Nims), and of re-framing business to be as improvisational as jazz (Natalie Nixon).

Along with the epiphanies the TEDx audience surely experienced while listening to the inspiring roster of speakers, people participating in our challenges seemed to have some a-ha moments around the notion of human-centered design — starting with the problem and with the person for whom you’re trying to solve. Even in the New Workshop of the World it’s not possible to solve for all users, but with the help of technology and design thinking, you can solve for one group at a time — and collaboratively design a city that works for everyone.