During a two-week university workshop we were asked to design tools to connect strangers, but instead of thinking about age groups and stereotypes, we were asked to try to connect people based on their values and skills.
In a bodystorming session, our group started playing around with magnets, and the force of attraction. Realizing that this attraction was interesting in the concept of connecting people, we thought it would be interesting if strangers could use their bodies to connect with each other – less intimate and intimidating than a hug, but more intimate and informal than a handshake.
We realized early on, that if we put a wall between the two strangers, we would create a much safer zone for them to interact in, but also discovered that the wall allowed people to suppress their other senses in favor of their sense of touch, and feeling the other person through the wall.
The problem at this point was that our prototype, a glove with loose magnets inside, was way too fragile as the magnets would fall out when they took off the gloves. Also the glove covered up the hand, which prevented people from immersing themselves fully, because it was the Glove rather than their hand that was doing the work, so we knew we really had to refine the prototype.
From then on, it was a matter of countless iterations, testing out different materials. We knew the feeling we wanted, but while it only took a day or two to come up with the concept, it took almost a week to refine the prototype to get exactly the right feel.
We went everywhere, from trying out different types of gloves, to sewing pockets into the fingers of the gloves, molding plastic thimbles by hand – but either they didn’t achieve the right feel, or they didn’t meet our usability requirements.
We wanted the magnets to be able to move slightly along the finger, as this gives you a very clear sense of the direction that the other person is coming from or moving towards. It’s this kind of expressive sensitivity that you can only refine if you experience it and continuously work with it. You have to be intimate with your material and interaction, because if it doesn’t excite you, then why would it excite anyone else?
The point of this workshop wasn’t so much to create a great product, but to embrace a process and attitude to design. Rather than designing for typical groups such as elderly, disabled, or some kind of stereotypical persona, the idea was to design for socially healthy networks based on our own skills and values as designers. The first week was spent exploring and communicating our own skills, and designing prototypes based on mixing those skills. First I made a video explaining a skill of mine:
Then a fellow student and I designed a prototype where we mixed our skills.