Summary: How can technology support the grieving process? We used a series of design prototypes in the form of everyday objects to understand people’s attitudes and probe into their boundaries. We found that in addition to pictures, audio can also be used to help commemoration but designers need to pay special attention to its evocative power.

In this master project, I practiced for the first time a research through design approach, using design as a way to gain knowledge about a complex domain. The process was unfamiliar, but I learned how useful it can be to collect concrete, grounded insights.

Methods: interviews, technology probes, research through design.

My role: User research, design.

When & where: Université Paris-Saclay, 2015-16, with Midas Nouwens, Nam Giang, and Isha van Baar.

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Motivation

After losing a loved one, people have to figure out how to remember them. Grieving and commemoration often become part of daily routine. The bereaved evolve and renegotiate their previous relationship with a lost person. Technology can play a role in the process of commemorating, but how to design artifacts that respect people’s boundaries?

Research approach

In this project, we took a research through design approach to better understand the role of design in supporting commemoration. We built a series of design artifacts as a way to probe people’s perceptions and attitudes. 1You can read more about research through design in this paper by John Zimmerman and colleagues: “Research through design as a method for interaction design research in HCI” (a pdf is available  online.) There is also a longer chapter about it on interaction-design.org.

We started with a set of exploratory interviews (6) and a review of previous works in the area. Then, we identified two driving design concepts: one centered around the idea of ritual objects with random outputs; the other, focused on curated objects for storytelling. The two concepts summarise converging ideas from our interviews and the research literature. For each design concept we developed two prototypes to explore the design space.

Concept 1: ritual objects with random outputs

Photo Hourglass

The first concept focused on everyday objects with two functions: a mere aesthetic presence in the house, and the support of remembering and reflection through a ritual gesture and random outputs. In this concept the user is supposed to curate the content, consisting of pictures.

To explore the concept, we developed Photo Hourglass and Rewind Watch. The Photo Hourglass is an interactive hourglass that shows pictures of the deceased. When the user turns the hourglass, a random picture appears on the top. The picture slowly fades relative to the amount of sand left in the top half of the hourglass. Initially, the user has to curate a collection of pictures that are later used in the hourglass. The prototype explores multiple aspects of the first design concept: ritual interaction to support remembering, randomness to stimulate reflection, and control over the interaction to allow people to put away the object when necessary.

Rewind Watch

The Rewind Watch is an application for a smartwatch where the user can go back in time to see a random picture from the chosen year for a brief interval. The user does this by grabbing, rewinding, and releasing the arms of the watch (in the figure, A – D), showing the analog representation of time. After this, the picture slowly fades away as the arm moves back to the present (E – G).

The Rewind Watch embodies similar ideas to the Photo Hourglass: randomness, everyday interactions. The main difference between the two is that Rewind Watch is meant to be more ubiquitous, portable, and private.

 

Concept 2: curated objects for storytelling

Recording Candle

The second concept focuses on curating content with the goal of capturing and retelling stories. The objects in this second concept are meant to be shared, gifted, or moved around with the owner. To explore the concept, we developed Recording Candle and Moimento, which became the probe we focused on for the rest of the project. Recording Candle, shaped in the form of a candle, records sounds when put on a special candle holder and lit. It aims to capture valuable everyday sounds (for example, laughs) or stories from family members in a social event context (for example, a dinner, a party, etc.) and can be used as a memory trigger for storytelling. The recordings can be curated afterwards on a computer.

Moimento

Moimento is a wooden box containing three wooden beads. Each bead contains one voice recording the length of which is reflected in the size of the bead. When the bead is touched on the designated area in the box, the recording is played. Playback can be stopped by touching the same area again or playing another bead. Each bead has an NFC tag hidden inside which, when detected by the box, triggers the playback of the recording associated with the tag. Similar to the Recording Candle, Moimento is meant to stimulate storytelling and curation over time.

Probing into people’s attitudes

We used the probes during follow-up interviews with participants to understand their reactions to the driving design concepts. People were receptive to the idea of curating stories about the deceased, as it was an activity they already engaged in. “I really enjoy telling stories because it feels like she’s here again,” said one participant referring to a lost loved one.

Participants also wanted control over the curation process and considered the shape of the design artifacts important because it needs to integrate with other daily objects. For example, the idea of keeping the Photo Hourglass displayed in their home made one of the participants uncomfortable. The object would not fit well with the rest of their possessions and the photos only added to the “creepiness.”

In terms of content, voice recordings were more controversial than pictures: their evocative power was perceived as stronger. This meant that participants were anxious about voice recordings, but also anticipated a potential positive impact from listening to them. As one participant said, “I think I will cry a lot if I hear their voice, but I will also be very happy, especially if the recording is something happy.”

Final prototype

In the end, we consolidated the results from our interviews and probes and incorporated the successful elements into a second iteration of our Moimento prototype. The recording capabilities of the Recording Candle were added to the box. The user can now interact with different parts of the box using the same bead: one area triggers playback and the other area starts a recording, which is then automatically added to the bead. We also integrated the portability of the Rewind Watch by moving the audio content (previously only stored locally in the box) to a web server. This means that voice recordings can be accessed online using any device.

We bought the main case of Moimento as is. Then we built the panels that represent the two areas (recording and playing) by using a laser cutter. Hidden behind each panel there is a smartphone that either records or plays recordings using an automation Android app.

Reflections and learnings

This project was different from the typical user-centered design process. I learned the way design prototypes can be used to gain knowledge about a topic. I was used to seeing a design concept or a prototype as the end product of a design cycle, but I realised that does not have to be the case. When dealing with complex and unclear domains it is tricky to get the right design, so design becomes part of the research process to collect honest and grounded reactions from people.

It was refreshing to see honest, gut-reactions to some of our concepts. For example, I had come up with the idea for the Photo Hourglass, so I was a bit taken aback by the negative reactions to it. But I learned that it is extremely useful to know when people feel strongly negative about a concept (you now know where a boundary is and what not to do) and that I should never take a design too personally.

Unfortunately, we did not deploy the final prototype of Moimento to see how people would actually use it over time. But I think the project as a whole shows that it is possible to integrate emotional digital content in the commemorative process by giving it a physical shape. There is more to explore in this domain and I hope to see new ideas about it in the future.