The Clutter Cube:
Domestic Technology Prototyping for the Year 2020
Methods Used: Ethnography, Brainstorming, Ideation, Paper and Mixed-Media Prototyping, Usability Testing
The Clutter Cube is a context-aware device for your household, which shows where the things in your house are. It is meant to be an ambient display, and a component to the pervasive technology of the future.
The project began with researching the problem space, by finding people and doing an ethnographic observation. We found a few college girls who lived in a house together off campus, and interviewed them on two separate occasions, using the ethnographic observation method. We prepared questions in order to focus the sessions on understanding how they deal with clutter in their home. They led us around their house, where they showed us the different ways they organize their things. We also used a contextual inquiry method on the second session.
The next step was to analyze the results of these observations. The two girls we interviewed dealt with organization very differently; one treated objects with sentimentality and thus she had a harder time taking control of the clutter in her room. The other girl was very organized, but when we looked at the way she put her miscellaneous objects into containers, it was clear that there were many different kinds of objects with no clear pattern. They were simply “clutter boxes”. We came to this realization after bringing our ideas together using an affinity diagram. We posted as many observations as possible on separate post-it notes, put them up on the white board, and then found trends among the observations using high-level conceptual categories.
We created models of the data, in order to help conceptualize and reframe the information. Some of the themes were arrangement of groups of items in order of importance and activity, from more dynamic and used objects to less important and more chaotic arrangements. We also noted public versus private spaces, and the interplay of different people living together and where their belongings intersected and where they began to separate from one another.
Once we parsed the enormous amount of data rendered from the ethnographic observation, we began an ideation and brainstorming session to come up with as many concepts as possible. Here are some of the concepts we came up with very quickly. The purpose of this was to expand on the ideas and insights we gathered from the process. By creating ideas, we not only began the groundwork of future possible ideas, but perhaps more importantly, we used ideation to further explore the problem space. These ideas became litmus tests in the water of this problem space. Each concept got tested in the conceptual space of “domesticity in 2020” as well as the college girls who became our personas, and we further understood our design problem as a result of this rapid ideation.
We also created a "moodboard" that explored the kind of less-than-tangible aspects of our intended design space. We played with geometric shapes, representations of data, color meaning, and cultural references. This gave us an immediate visual tool where we unified our thoughts about the problem space into a limited square board.
The idea we decided to go forward with building a prototype for was this “clutter cube”.
Of the resulting design ideas was to create an object that would subtly communicate the kinds of objects that surround it, and in which direction. The cube has an ambient color display while the user is at a distance, and sensing when the user approaches, the display morphs into color coded word clouds, which tell the user where in the house his or her things are located. The box is not meant to be studied closely, but to serve as an ambient central compass of the house or apartment's contents.
In addition to the central context-aware cube, we designed a locating screen, which is stored on the top of the box, as a charging station. The screen when removed from the box acts as a compass, directing the user toward specific objects if he or she has lost a particular item, like a set of keys. The rationale behind this design was to allow the user to have clutter in their home, but to take the cognitive burden of remembering where everything is off the user and onto the box. Additionally, if the user loses particular items, this system will help them find those items again. Essentially, it performs cognitive offloading while providing an ambient aesthetic of simplicity.
The prototype was created with foam core, post-it notes, cellophane, and color pencils. The interface prototype was created in Illustrator.
After this prototype was made, we tested it very briefly on our classmates. Many students came to our table and participated in a brief test of the design. The insight we gathered from this brief session was that the cube would be put to better use if it communicated its contents rather than its surroundings. The next iteration did just that; we expanded its size and made it a functional cabinet. The screen displayed the contents in a similar fashion to the original design. It performs essentially the same task of cognitive offloading; the user may simply fill the box with anything at all and only look at the screen on the outside to quickly get the impression of what is inside, without having to dig around or remember. We created a proper usability test, complete with script and consent forms. The results were varied in approach by the personality of the testee. We found that this box is ideally suited to young women, probably similar to the subjects we initially studied, as this was designed with them in mind.
After the completion of the project, I can say we felt inspired to take on new challenges with a renewed vigor and with the experience of having practiced these methods before. The most rewarding part is seeing the reaction of people who find a concept truly useful or thoughtful. Having the knowledge that we designed this with their satisfaction in mind, and seeing creativity guided by a very focused process leading to an original design was truly a pleasure.
Team: Ed Rice, Megan Harris, Siyu Chen, Lee Beckwith
copyright: Lee Beckwith 2011