At Viget, we work daily on interesting, challenging, and diverse problems for clients. Each project requires us to study new business strategies, industries, and customer segments so that we understand the broader context of our work.
We like this kind of research. It keeps us on our toes and brings assumption-defeating perspective to our design thinking and software engineering.
Every now and then, we want to think through intriguing problems that we haven’t yet worked on with a client. We call these Explorations.
Side projects aren’t new to us. Pointless Corp is our innovation lab, a moniker for the assorted fun and/or useful products that we create independent of client work. Pointless projects are focused, well-defined endeavors. Explorations, on the other hand, are open-ended investigations and concepts that spring from broad curiosity and an enduring passion for design. They’re as diverse as our interests, ranging from medical adherence to fantasy football.
“Explorations help teams identify, understand, and communicate problems.”
Explorations don’t result in something made, but something conceived. They’re a way for us to try out ideas without the practical budget or technical feasibility considerations that appropriately shape our client projects.
By suspending the question “How will this work today?”, we can ask, “What might this look like in the future?” And though Explorations have a slight air of fantasy, our pragmatism prevents us from thinking everything will be solved with magic. After we’re settled on a vision for an Exploration, we identify technologies and materials that could make it happen.
Finding the way
Explorations are, in a sense, abbreviated client projects, with similar phases to the work: definition, research, design, and production. A key difference is the emphasis on research and conceptualization as the primary outputs. We produce an idea, rather than a functioning product.
Keeping to a consistent process helps focus our work. Here’s what we consider and do during each stage.
We keep an internal list of topics and ideas that might be Exploration-worthy. Some items on the list are detailed concepts, while others are broad, complex social problems that we care about. When we choose an item to explore, we try to identify where it is on the continuum from topic (most broad) to execution (most specific). Somewhere between the 2 is a problem: something narrow enough to be meaningfully addressed, yet broad enough to invite research and interpretation.
“Keeping to a consistent process helps focus your work.”
Explorations require well-defined problems both because the concepts are inherently ambiguous and because these projects often have unpredictable schedules. Responsibility moves between experience designers, interface designers, strategists, and developers collaborating during downtime between client projects, so the Exploration scope and aim needs to be easily communicated.
Explorations usually address problems and topics that others have been working on for decades, if not longer. This humbles our design hubris, preventing us from thinking we can show up on the scene with the counterintuitive—but so obvious!—solution that everyone’s overlooked. So we overcome our ignorance the only way ignorance can be overcome: by learning.
We’re both wide-ranging and focused in our research. We read academic journal articles about issues concerning medical adherence, we read dissertations about domestic technology. We conduct surveys and mini ethnographic studies, we leave the office and visit farmer’s markets. We conduct internal design studios and concept mapping sessions. We read about experimental media and technology, the kind of stuff that contains the seeds of what could be. (As an aside, university and corporate R&D sites contain a wealth of interesting, provocative research that hasn’t been commercialized yet.)
“Overcome ignorance the only way ignorance can be overcome: by learning.”
During the course of our research, it sometimes becomes clear that a problem or situation doesn’t call for a technological solution. As digital designers, this can be discouraging. But it keeps us honest. Technology has its limits—to pretend otherwise only distracts from useful solutions and meaningful progress.
We researched voting technology, for example, and discovered that electronic voting systems used today run on closed networks, given the identification and security issues posed by online voting. We originally set out to design an intuitive, responsive voting interface that might increase voter turnout, yet decided the technical assumptions we’d have to make were too great. We also realized that, while technology will play a part in increasing voter turnout and improving the overall voting experience, the greater underlying social, political, and cultural problems are fundamentally non-technological.
Likewise, we researched farmer’s markets, and found that many of the frustrations visitors and vendors experience have more to do with interactions inherent to farmer’s markets than with the use of technology.
Having identified and better understood the human and technological realities of a problem, we play with design concepts. Oftentimes, sketching or making wireframes of an idea will reveal questions we hadn’t considered or constraints we hadn’t foreseen, which sends us back to the books. And as with our typical work, concepts evolve as they’re tested against critique, explanation, and rounds of attention to the problem. Our InVision prototype revision histories are long and storied.
The fidelity with which we convey Exploration ideas varies from project to project based on what we feel is required to successfully demonstrate a concept’s functionality. Our goal is to communicate a compelling, meaningful vision for the problem we’ve identified can be solved using design and technology.
Experience designers, interface designers, and software developers then collaborate to create narrative presentations of each Exploration. These presentations are long-form case studies that frame concepts with the questions we asked and things we learned. When writing copy for Explorations and creating mockups of interactions, we keep in mind that we’re sharing ideas rather than executions, emphasizing future instead of immediate possibilities.
Here are 3 recent projects that show what Explorations are all about.
Being sports fans and data nerds, many of us at Viget are fantasy football veterans. As we prepared for our 2015 company league, we explored the current fantasy football experience—from draft to championship—to see how it could be improved.
We created a concept based on the idea that a player’s personal league and team should garner the same attention, analysis, and data that the NFL provides. We considered the unique roles that various devices could play in the process, thinking about the affordances of mobile, tablet, and TV-sized screens.
The draft experience in particular is ripe with opportunity: we imagined televisions being used for passive spectating of the draft, laptops for research and analysis, and mobile devices for actually selecting players. Most current fantasy football draft processes don’t play to the strengths of each type of device, so we imagined how a broader ecosystem of screens might interact.
For another exercise, we wanted to see how technology could improve health outcomes. We learned that heart disease is the leading killer among the US population. Within this, patient non-adherence to drug and lifestyle regimens is one of the leading causes of hospitalization and mortality. Furthermore, this situation disproportionately affects low income communities.
The reasons for non-adherence are many, personal, and more complicated than simple forgetfulness. Comprehension, complexity of regimen, cost, access, and denial all combine to affect decisionmaking. Furthermore, most of the medical literature and adherence research pointed to one key insight: any solution must anticipate a myriad of risk factors. A simple reminder app wouldn’t cut it.
Florence was borne of this insight. An AI chat bot, she’s trained to learn a patient’s risk factors and deliver personalized content and features to keep them on routine. These “interventions” include helping people manage complex regimens, finding deals on medications, providing insight into side effects, and offering encouragement for continued participation.
We even questioned the delivery mechanism. While a smartphone might provide more capabilities and a sexier interface, it also introduces a cost barrier to participation. Instead, we relied on a more ubiquitous technology—SMS/MMS—to allow for broadest adoption.
Given the growing interest in smart technology—especially home automation—we started thinking about how kitchens might transform over time. To focus the Exploration, we thought about a particular appliance–the refrigerator, the unsung hero of the home.
We were curious about the purpose refrigerators serve in people’s homes, beyond keeping food fresh. A survey and internal design exercise showed the diversity of physical objects people put on their fridge with magnets—notes, recipes, photos, magnets, kids’ drawings—things that combine to represent the life of the home.
“Explorations allow teams to pursue diverse curiosities and share what they learn.”
It seemed to us that the surface of the refrigerator could never be entirely digitized without reducing its meaning. Most smart fridge innovations attempt to replicate a tablet interface on a fridge, without much regard for the context and usage of these appliances. So we asked ourselves: how might the surface of the fridge might evolve if it were able to allow physical and digital things to coexist?
The result was a series of concepts for a plane on which digital posts and physical objects commingle, with implications for connected hardware generally. This Exploration sprung from our interest in technology that improves people’s lives by preserving the meaning that already exists—designing around the activities and interactions that are already taking place, rather than figuring out how to fit a screen somewhere it might not belong.
Into the wild
Explorations serve a few purposes at Viget. They allow us to practice and improve our ad-hoc research and collaborative design. They force us to not just execute solutions, but identify, understand, and communicate problems. We approach problems rigorously, asking questions that develop thorough understandings and guide us to inventive solutions.
Perhaps most importantly, Explorations allow teams to pursue diverse curiosities and share what they learn. They’re a way to contribute to conversations about big problems and interesting topics in a way that helps to shape the future of design. Complex, daunting problems are the wilderness of the design world. That’s where we’re drawn to explore.
by Brandon Dorn
Brandon is a user experience designer at Viget who’s worked on digital products for State Farm, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Privia Medical Group. He spends his free time in books and forests.