You realize that these devices measure a feeling you’ve had your whole life that you don’t know the name of. It’s the feeling of your hands getting sweaty before something. It’s the feeling of something that matters happening.
— Rosalind Picard

Design Research with Biometrics

I knew early on that I wanted to include biometric data in my research method. My reasons were two-fold; to push the boundaries of my physical computing skills and to push the boundaries on typical design research methods. 

My initial idea was to work with EKG data, or the measurement of the brain's response to attention and anxiety. Accordingly, I sought out where designers and developers were using this technology and found myself at an OpenBCI + Yoga event at Babycastles in downtown Manhattan. 

After testing the equipment and talking extensively with one of the researchers, I came to the conclusion that EEG data was not worth overcoming the technical limitations. First off, EEG can indicate levels of attention, which are too nuanced to assign value to within the constraints of my system. Furthermore, all of the devices on the market carry some drawback of either being too susceptible to movement from the user or not being accurate enough. 

After additional research sessions, I decided to go with the BITalino microcontroller.

The BITalino, with 3D printed case, and sensor wires plugged into both the EDA and ECG ports

The BITalino, with 3D printed case, and sensor wires plugged into both the EDA and ECG ports

It offers both sensors for EDA (electrodermal activity) and ECG (electrocardiography). This gave me some flexibility with the methodology. EDA readings are less invasive, but harder to interpret, but I could still tailor the biometric readings to the level of comfort the participant had with being hooked up to a microcontroller.

The microcontroller is mostly plug-and-play, once one digs into the forums and documentation. It took me some time to really get a handle on how to use the board, and so one of my goals for crafting the design research method was to provide easy-to-use documentation. 

DESIGN RESEARCH WITH Video

Prior to starting graduate school, I worked as a research analyst at Harmony Institute. While there, one of my favorite projects entailed capturing the engagement levels of audience members as they experienced an immersive play. During that project, one of the pieces of data I really wish I had was video, so I could directly see when people were interacting with the story. At the time, I wasn't able to figure out how to use video in a satisfying, sustainable, or accurate way. 

So for thesis, one of my personal goals was to incorporate video while truly being able to process the content in meaningful way. After some thought, I hit upon two pivotal ideas:

  1. Have the participant hold a GoPro camera.
  2. Process the audio using a service like Mechanical Turks. 

Having the participant hold the camera frees up the researcher to observe, ask questions, and direct the walkabout. More importantly, the set-up grants the participant agency over the research session. They're in control of what is being recorded. Inherently, this gives the researcher a sense of what is important to the participant without having to consistently ask him or her to articulate it. 

Frank, a public servant, volunteered to walk around Union Square and document his experience. Later he filled us in on his opinion  of certain areas of the park.  

Frank, a public servant, volunteered to walk around Union Square and document his experience. Later he filled us in on his opinion  of certain areas of the park.  

This is the video that Frank took of his time walking around Union Square. He later commented on how people were reacting to his use of the camera, and that it felt fairly natural to simply hold the camera. In the video, you can see he is actually moving the camera in a natural way. 

DESIGN RESEARCH WITH Maps

Lastly, I've always been interested in how people interact with space. So much of my focus on thesis has been about how people interpret public space, so initially I thought it might be useful to have participants describe public space, using an overhead map of the area as a starting point.

I discovered that it wasn't always easy for people to orient themselves to the overhead view. More than that though, people were more interested in using the maps as a starting point for conversation. It was difficult to remind everyone to put their thoughts down on paper, as they started to talk about the space. 

To counter this, it struck me that it might be easier to capture all of that interesting observation by interviewing people as they walked around the space in question. This solved the problem of perspective; people were more likely to be have opinions on the actual space than the translation of space as represented by a map. This also solved the problem of recording stories as they naturally occurred to people.