In the fall of 2020, our team of undergraduate interaction designers, gathered together (remotely) to discuss our project prompt in the “Field Studies: Design Research Techniques” class at the University of Washington. We were tasked with identifying a problem space, proposing a research question, recruiting participants, conducting quantitative research, synthesizing and gathering insights, and ultimately proposing a design response framed with a speculative or critical perspective.
Finding Common Ground
As a team of designers from different backgrounds and interests, we began to look for common interests. While brainstorming, various topics came up, and some overlapped. The most overlapped interest was around home and living, which has become quite essential during the Covid-19 p andemic, when people have been spending more and more time at home.
We thought about how these changes affect the relationship between home and people. Just as unique as each individual is in the world, the relationship between people and home is also unique to each person.
We were able to get a little further into the concept of home through secondary research. In the article “Tactics for Homing in Mobile Life”, Winther defines four different concepts of home in a quadrant axial with tactility and mentality as the X-axis, and static and mobility as the Y-axis. The concepts are “Home as an idea”, “Home as a place”, “Feeling at home”, and “ Homing oneself”. Through the study, we were able to better understand the vague notion of home being nostalgic or attached to physical attributes. The definitions helped us in how we approached different notions of home from different people.
Narrowing Our Focus
When we think about home as a living space we currently dwell in, it can be owned or rented. Each person has their own timeline within the space and it is different for everyone. An assumption we made was that homeowners are less restricted in a timeframe while renters are greatly affected by the duration of the contract period. Our team wondered how the limited time and expectation of changes in life can affect the relationship between a person and home, and recruited participants who would give us further insights.
And so, we framed our research question as:
Gathering a total of sixteen participants in the age of 20s to 50s, our intent was to meet people with diverse backgrounds and environments. Participants were distributed in the east and west coast of the United States as well as Tokyo, Japan. They were living in different situations: living alone, living with partners, new parents, those who have just moved in, living in one place for more than 10 years, owning two houses, etc.
Research Plan and Defining Terms
To observe how these people with different shapes of life view their home, we created a research plan with a photo diary, Madlibs activity, and semi-structured interview that would deliberately bring up the notion of “home”, “living space”, and “forever home”. By asking participants about “home”, we were able to observe how the person has perceived home. We used the words “space” or “living space” to refer to the physical space or walls a person lived within. The term “forever home” was used to spark a conversation about people’s idea of an ideal home in the future.
With those participants, we broke up our research sessions into different portions consisting of introductory Q&A, interactive activities (photo diaries and mad libs), and semi-structured interviews. We intentionally broke our session up to gather different kinds of data, and to also induce comfortableness throughout the session for more insightful responses.
For the introductory Q&A, we got to know about each participant’s background, their living arrangements, and details about their lives. This information helped us drive and structure the remainder of the session to be catered and tailored to the participant, and also allowed for a deeper understanding of their situation.
For the first activity — photo diaries — we asked participants to spend some time before the session photographing spaces in their home that invoke feelings, such as joy, discomfort, energy, etc. Then during the session, we asked each participant to walk through how and why these spaces were chosen, which revealed a very apparent pattern about the way they view and connect to their space. These patterns later transformed into an insight about people’s connection to physical space.
For our other activity — mad libs — we asked participants to write a love letter to their home in the form of a mad lib. This fun and imaginative activity led to some exciting insights. Participants commented on how they have never connected to their home in such an intimate manner, and this resulted in more personal responses. This activity also allowed us to more closely view the participants’ space through a different perspective.
We ended each session with a semi-structured interview portion where we could gather qualitative and quantitative data about the participants and their relationship to their space.
One thing we falsely assumed was that everyone would have an image of a “forever home”. We asked participants about their meaning of forever home, yet only five of sixteen participants agreed on the idea of a home that they want to live in forever. The rest refused the idea of “settling down” into a place forever.
After the interview, we mapped them visually to find a correlation between age and the idea of “forever home”. Our oldest participant felt the strongest about it, saying that she never wants to settle down so she can explore forever. This also contradicted our initial assumption that the notion of a forever home was widely held.
After synthesizing the interview further, we extracted six key insights.
1. Home evolves as people’s needs and lifestyles change.
Many participants have different needs and lifestyles, and those change through times and events of life. Some of the participants expressed how the purpose of home shifts throughout the stages of life. For each stage, participants look for different circumstances.
2. Home encompasses the greater environment.
A lot of our participants, when thinking of the idea of home, automatically spoke about something beyond the walls of their physical space. Some participants were grateful to have their family close by and a lot to explore around the area, but there were a lot of ways the space around you could negatively influence you as well, like loud neighbors.
3. Settling into a space is an ambiguous process.
Many participants found that the “settling in” process was not measurable by one distinct moment or variable. They described it as a gradual process influenced by time, familiarity, and the ability to make a space “their own”. Participant 1 described that even in extremely close proximity, their familiarity with their space felt like an ongoing process with many things still undiscovered. Participant 6 expressed how they initially didn’t want to settle in to a temporary space, but over time began to realize that an emotional connection had formed and decided to embrace it.
“After several months it’s still kind of this foreign entity that you’re getting to know.” — Participant 1
“I started to realize that living in a room still feels connected to myself, so I started to decorate my walls.” — Participant 6
4. People have a layered approach to thinking about their space.
We discovered that people have a layered approach to thinking about their space. This means that physical attributes of the space lay a foundation for the connection between person and home, and then emotional attachments are built on top of the connection established. We found that when asking about emotions connected to a space, participants started by describing the physical space and things in it, then expanded to the emotions brought by these things. Participant 6 attributed the feeling of energized from the sunlight and plants in their room. From this pattern, we can extract that emotions arise from physical form of the space.
“I get a lot of energy working in the living room because there is more sunlight during the day and I also see a lot of my plants there.” — Participant 6
5. Ability to control a space affects levels of attachment.
Participants have different controllability in their spaces. For many renter participants, they commonly lack control of the space in general, while homeowner participants are capable of changing their space, but faced with the pressure of accountability.
6. Expectation of change can frame homes as stepping stones towards larger life goals.
Participants often viewed each of their homes as a different step of progress that correlated with their changing stages of life. Participant 14 explained how they bought their first home with the intention of utilizing it as a temporary tool in a longer process. This validates our initial assumption that the expectation of change effects people’s perception of their home.
Next, we took a holistic approach in building upon the insights gathered and our experiences with participants to identify 4 design principles that could guide a solution orientated design response.
This design principle allows us to be mindful about different timelines amongst people and their different ideas for living in their homes. We also want to take into consideration different approaches to long term homes, and how forever homes are not always the ultimate goal.
2. Encompassing Past and Future
Embracing, not fighting against, time and natural processes, such as settling in. An ideal design should act as a ward, or guardian, of people and their space’s dynamic histories. And because participants felt both nostalgia for the past, and excitement for their future, an ideal design should consider the goals people have for their time within their current living space and onward.
3. Beyond the Walls
Our third principle will allow us to accommodate for the variety in spatial definitions for home that our participants had — from their neighborhoods, to surrounding parks and shops, and even entire cities. This principle will also allow us to be mindful of the multiple spaces that a participant may define as home at any point in time.
Peoples’ relationships with their spaces are personal and unique. So, an ideal design solution would build upon the existing relationships within a home, without disrupting them.
Pivoting to a Speculative and Critical Approach
After we identified 4 ideal design principles, our team pivoted to a speculative and critical approach to meet our class’s project brief. We applied the insights we gathered from participants to provoke consideration and debate on machine learning integrations within home living spaces. We pondered what could happen when designers try to force machine learning as a solution to natural human processes, such as settling into a home and building emotional connections with objects. It is not our intention to dismiss machine learning and IoT, but rather to explore the potential gaps, glitches, and misuses that can occur when blending emerging technology with home living.
To frame our concept, it is necessary to establish the purpose of speculative design. Dunne and Raby describe this branch of design as using possible futures “to better understand the present and to discuss the kind of future people want, and, of course, ones people do not want. They usually take the form of scenarios, often starting with a what-if question, and are intended to open up spaces of debate and discussion; therefore, they are by necessity provocative, intentionally simplified, and fictional.” (Speculative Everything, p.2–3)
Our Design Response: Home Seeds
For our final design response, Home Seeds, we aimed to take our research insights and flip them all on their heads. Instead of accounting for ambiguity and change, Home Seeds forces residents to stick to their patterns of living from the first couple weeks of their lease. They can only drink coffee on their living room couch, they can only read on their bed. The home comes with embedded sensors called Home Seeds that will monitor the location of a resident’s chosen belongings. The objects they choose to place their Home Seed sensors onto will vibrate if in their incorrect place, making them useless.
Our team chose to go this direction because we wanted to highlight how inserting machine learning or artificial intelligence can force unpredictable human processes to turn sterile. Research showed us that having a home is an extremely personal and non-linear experience but instead of respecting the unique relationships people have with their belongings, Home Seeds dictates a strict routine. Our final video aims to show a satirical take on machine learning’s idea of a perfect home life. We chose to give our Home Seeds system a human-like voice and peppy personality in order to mimic existing artificial intelligence assistants and comment on their programmed purpose to help. Artificial intelligence can see a problem and attempt to solve it, but still fail to understand the consequences a “solution” may have on people.