Working in a group of two, at our Major Studio in school, we had to design an intervention for a space that enables strangers to interact. We chose Washington Square Park for this purpose, observed it over time and proposed few prototype solutions.

What is a Stranger? What attracts them to communicate?
He/she is one who will communicate but ignoring introduction, the identity of the other person. A stranger would communicate because they are with same thoughts or opposing thoughts of the other, like engage in a debate or discuss similar experiences.
Some factors that we thought would bring them to communicate are some form of attraction, seduction, suddenness, similar experiences, discovering something new, or sharing curiosity.

From our observations, we finally ended up towards the wooden and stone benches that encircle the arch area as you can see above. In the below diagram, the wooden benches are the orange lines, while the stone benches are the dark green ones. We ran a few visits overall, during weekday evenings towards dusk and weekend afternoon time.

We represented the population and the activity of the people at the park at these different times using the size of words in word clouds and also using simple bubble graphs as shown below.

Let’s refer to the people sitting on the stone benches as “stone people” and those sitting on the wooden benches as “wooden people”. The stone people were sharing seating space, sat closer to each other, talked more, seemed to have a positive energy and essentially had active body language as compared to the wooden benches. The wooden people, despite the sunlight, always preferred single involvement. The wooden people were single or at most a couple taking up one whole two-seater wooden bench.

We draw our main principles for this research from Don Norman and Edward T.

Two of the most important characteristics of good design are discoverability and understanding. … Discoverability results from… affordances, signifiers, constraints, mappings, feedback and the conceptual model of the system. – Don Norman

Don Norman’s insight helps us to understand and distinguish between the affordances of the stone benches and the wooden benches. The stone benches make sure you are not seated straight and force an active body language from you, and there are no backrests which give you a 360-degree view and adds to the ‘active seating’.

Edward T’s theory of personal zones and that the literal distance between two persons is equivalent to the closeness between their personalities has helped us understand people moving around and interacting among themselves and with strangers.

There is a direct correlation between social standings and physical distances between people. – Edward T

Design Question
How can we create an interaction between the strangers, specifically between the stone and wooden benches so that they engage in any form of gesture, using the product?

Criteria and Constraints

  • We expect the strangers to look, smile, gesture or talk to each other using our product.
  • Using can be matching the product pieces together,  trying to understand what it’s about while exploring their curiosity, appreciating the product, criticizing it or playing with it.
  • Weather – all our products and installations are suited for calm sunny weather
  • Time to build was limited and we focussed only on simple, easy-to-build solutions without the need to check for security clearances.

Prototype 1: Simple Telephone

Considering the theory of personal zones and focussing on the factors of curiosity and attraction, while keeping it simple, we came up with the idea of the simple telephone. The idea was to place the simple telephone between the two rows of benches or between seats in the wooden bench row.

Feedback from user-reactions:

  • We missed the factor of placement vs kind of person. The old lady did not reach out the cup placed on the tree right behind her. The young person, who was curious enough to find the other end of the phone, probably could have.
  • While the simple telephone can be something that anyone can and know how to use it, it can also be ignored, for the same reason – something that became obvious from these reactions.
  • The people who already sit here, know what we are doing, so it’s hard to attract them to check or touch the product. Again, they already might know what a simple telephone is or maybe they don’t want to interrupt someone’s ‘school project’.
  • There was a live shooting of ‘The Amazing Race’ TV Show, when I collected these user reactions, so that threw off all initial estimates of curiosity levels and population.

What are the next steps to focus on?

  • The mind map had to expand from just curiosity, attraction and simplicity to include, scale, invitation and enhanced factors for curiosity and attraction.
  • By incorporating principles of usability design, I also made it a point to give control to the user and not keep the user in the dark. Also, the curiosity should be met with immediate feedback.

Prototype 2: Face Puzzle

This was more of a trial before venturing out into trying a third iteration. This prototype does include scale, invitation and enhanced factors for curiosity and attraction. However, if we take it back to the core design question, while it does engage ‘a stranger’ we only need to count on luck that it will generate interaction ‘between strangers’. It also strays away from focussing the solution to the specific location in the core design question, which was the stone and wooden benches area.

The purpose of this trial was to just to corroborate the enhanced factors on the mind map, which turned out successful. We had increased number of user interactions, however just 5% turning out to be generating interaction ‘between strangers’.

Prototype 3: Paper Wars.

While the prototypes so far were failures with learnings part by part, it was time to design a system that can incorporate all of this while sticking to the design statement and core purpose.

The play with the factor of ‘size’ can be multiple tiny paper rockets (that can easily be blown away by wind) or a bunch of medium-large rockets. They are to be placed as shown and the middle pit will already have some rockets in them, to serve as a prompt to kick-start the factor of invitation/participation.

I tested using a prototype indoors, on my school floor, at PlayTech (an open forum where all games, installations were being tested), at our Design Studio floor, D12, Parsons School of Design.  [Work in progress: User reactions to be collected now from the park loaction.]

Prototype 4: ‘Hello’ween

This is a parallel in-progress idea that is very high-fidelity as compared to the simplicity-driven goals. I wanted to think beyond the simplicity factor and hence came up with this idea. Here’s how it will work:

  • One button will be placed on either side of the stone bench corner, as shown, and the other on the center of a wooden bench.
  • On pressing any one button only one part of the Halloween jack-o-lantern face glows.
  • On pressing two eyes, the nose glows, and only on pressing all three, the entire face glows.
  • With each glow, a small evil laugh is emitted and when all are pressed simultaneously, a major evil laugh is heard from inside the pumpkin.
  • Keeping Halloween, as the flavor of the season in mind, the wires, the entire apparatus may seem safe for the people and might not scare them away, as far as security is concerned.

The safety of this is indeed an assumption and will need to test this out. However, the core part of this design is the prompt. While everyone can see the pumpkin and can familiarise themselves with it, they will also need to spot the buttons and feel safe to push the buttons. Hence, I am now in process of testing the buttons, with rubber ball-like buttons, or electronic soft buttons made from neoprene fabric.

The idea is to connect all these elements with electroluminescent wire, which will add to the attraction, and will not expose regular wires which may seem threatening to users. Once the button prototyping is done, tested and user reactions are noted down, only then I shall proceed with the final installation. The lights, sound, and synchronization are controlled by an Arduino, placed inside the pumpkin, along with the speaker.

I could not get security clearance for placing this at the Washington Square Park, because unfortunately, there was also a terror attack in NYC on October 31st, 2017. I tested using a prototype indoors, on my school floor, at PlayTech (an open forum where all games, installations were being tested), at our Design Studio floor, D12, Parsons School of Design. Below is a quick summary of the reactions.

I intended to test the Attraction, Curiosity, Invitation and Participation factors, not of the entire system taken together, but just the interface itself – the split buttons. This, in particular, was a success.

Virtual Public Space Online
I created a virtual version of this project for an understanding of the intended experience online, of the entire installation. You might need three people/hands to try this out and play/interact with it. This is also inspired by:

…virtual spaces available through the internet as a new type of public space that develops interaction and social mixing. – UNESCO

[Work in Progress: Two more prototype iterations to follow – one fully functional prototype within a familiar/easy space like my school, and the other in the targeted space at the Park, and this may need tailoring as per season/festival.]

Identifying Design Patterns

  • I believe prototypes 1, 3 and 4 satisfy the core design statement, while prototype 2 served to enhance future trials.
  • They (prototypes 1, 3 and 4) build on the values in the mind-map and more importantly
  • Feed off from the affordances from the benches and also maintain a safe distance between strangers, which was the core of research.
  • I could identify that sub-consciously I was designing interfaces with multiplicity and with a factor of play in them.