Sunday, February 27, 2011

Evolution of the Bobi Digital Shelf

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What inspired me to create an artifact based on the "trapped" nature of MP3s? Coming from a generation that experienced the radio, mixtape, CD, and digital music file, I was heavily invested in taking inspirations from the past to explore my cultural origins and the place of modern day music in our collective history. I asked: "What makes vinyl more of a collectible than MP3s?" "How do people view collections in their homes?" "How can I design an artifact that fits into the context of today's modern day information architecture of multimedia?"
Not only did I wanted to connect with those who get kicks out of showcasing their connoisseurship, I wanted to generate culturally relevant justification for taking an already highly efficient digital medium (the MP3) and externalizing it into a physical material "thing" that could potentially have more meaning associated with it than bits and bytes.
From my interviews, I learned people - despite this whole green movement - showed appreciation towards items by allowing them physical space. Collections that had meaning almost always required an area in a person's home. The less space a collection took up, the less value the item had. When asked about their MP3 collections, many expressed great enthusiasm towards them, but often said, "But it's often hard to mix and share if you don't have the right tools. Even though digital is suppose to make it easier, I often feel like my music is trapped on the computer and the Internet." Others stated they wanted to feel more social again, as if technology mediates a lesser level of social interaction with their music. This, I found this interesting.
Working for a media company has its perks, even if their focus is more on pure aesthetics than functional technology. Attacking our archives of millions of photos, I sifted through and did a 2-month artifact analysis of our readers' homes and their collections. I found while almost everyone had their own way of showcasing their collections, there was a common trend of placing items in personally invested areas that have a curated collection on display. "This curation process," I thought, "has to have an effect on how they view their collections."
I also inquired on the different methods of organizing music itself. I checked out modern day music organizers (iTunes, Winamp, FooBar) and many forums associated on its shortcomings. I read into physical theory (tangible vs. digital), digital deterioration, and digital hoarding. I learned about tangible luxury, the sustainability argument, and referenced Weiser's writings on UBICOMP. Also in the mix are Dennis Dutton's Darwinian Theory of Beauty, interviews with DJs, and human gesture research. After 3 months of that, I was beat. But there was no doubt a linger set of ideas and ideals I now had in my pocket to pursue a design.
The core. The most important part of any design problem. I had originally defined it as trying to "fix" the MP3 - to give it CPR. But the problem wasn't the medium, but the lack of power people had over it. By giving people the ability to curate their collections in a more personal, meaningful way, there could potentially be a new method of interacting with our digital collections that we never could have before. But what to build, exactly?
The jump from research to design isn't an easy one, and to be perfectly honest, it almost never occurs as I expect it. Though I had originally started with the basic idea of creating an easier way to generate mixtapes) for small social gatherings, I wanted it to be more than a jukebox for parties. I wanted something that didn't draw attention to itself; something seamless and integrated. Perhaps a remediation from the past into today's version of digital life.
To answer the question: "Why does this solution cater to creating a better experience interacting with our 'trapped' MP3s on our computers and iPods?" required a step back and for me to realize that shelves and special dedicated areas in our homes played a huge role in collections. Would then a digital version of the shelf be the answer to leverage both digital (and its nearly infinite music in the cloud) and physical (we organize tangible music differently than "folder structures" on computers) space? I had to try it. It was on.
Starting with a few scribbles in my doodling pad, I attempted to sketch the user experience. I compared the walkthrough of organization habits from the individuals I interviewed and overlayed them on fleshed out personas. I utilized affinity diagrams to draw connections between the past and present, highlighting attributes and insights from what makes a collection truly memorable and valued.

Inspired by DJs' milk crates that used to house pounds of vinyl when the MP3 didn't exist, I liked the idea of naming the method of organizing music using the system I would create "mixcrates" rather than "folders." The idea was to allow them to create custom playlists and organization structures that felt open-ended enough to generate a form of stickiness that would be unlike anything your normal iTunes user had ever seen.
But should it be like OLED wallpaper that you can stick on any surface? A glossy piano black box with a screen? A projected interface from the ceiling? Mirrored glass?

Since it's still in the early works and interface elements are still being worked out, what remains are those design decisions and the usability test(s). To be honest, this should probably have its place as its own post, but for now I'll cover the gist of my process for those interested:
First, you need a purpose (a testing discourse) or a problem statement (can people figure out ___ works?). Second, you need a profile, task scenarios, environment, and evaluation measures (performance vs. preferences). Finally, it's about triangulation. This is best done in teams as to avoid subjectivity, so I'll likely resort to my colleagues for feedback and to help me flesh out the insights from user testing.
Woot! Had enough user experience talk? No? Well then, check back in a few weeks for the final design. I might even have an online prototype for you to try out!


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