Inspired by childhood memories of measuring our height and being separated from our families during COVID-19, we designed Sprout - an interactive IoT product that can be used to measure a child's height and share stories with distant family members through voice messages and a companion mobile application.
The focus of this project is on conceptualizing and developing unique multi-modal interactions that can facilitate connection remotely.
Our team of three designers collaborated together to develop the concept, build physical prototypes, and perform usability testing and co-design sessions in the wild. Individually, I designed the high fidelity version of the mobile application.
Family members who live far away from each other often miss out on key milestones in a child's growth. These moments come and go so quickly at a young age, and they aren't always easy to catch up on.
We set out to bridge the distance and share important moments with loved ones who live far away. Our goal was to create a product that allows you to meaningful remote interactions with the children in your life, even if you can't physically watch them grow up.
Sprout is an interactive IoT bar that is placed in the home to measure and display a child's growth with the use of light and sound. Distant family members who do not live with the child can also display a Sprout bar in their home to view the child's height and feel their presence.
In addition to height, Sprout allows children to record voice messages and share stories from their life with distant family members. A companion mobile application lets you access all recorded data and bring these memories with you wherever you go.
At the child's home, their guardian measures their height on the Sprout bar using their finger.
After their height is measured, the child/ guardian presses a button on the Sprout bar to record voice messages.
Story prompts are available on the mobile app if they need ideas on what to record.
When a new height mark is saved, it automatically appears on the synced Sprout bar in the distant family member's home. New height marks glow and the family member is notified via sound and a mobile notification.
Touching height marks on the Sprout bar will play the associated voice messages directly through an integrated speaker. You can also play the voice message directly from the mobile app.
A look at existing technologies and research revealed many fascinating existing concepts aimed at fostering intimate connections while apart (such as the "Kissenger" pictured here). After reviewing over 20 concepts, we emerged with a clear picture of the main factors to consider in our design.
Does the interaction require active engagement or can it be passive, such as telepresence (feeling the presence of others)?
Do both parties need to provide input/ feedback (bidirectional) or only one party (unidirectional)?
Do users interact at the same time (synchronous) or at different times (asynchronous)?
Is the input transformed into a different mode of output or sensory experience when it is received? e.g. light into sound.
Considering each of the factors, we decided on these design principles:
The interaction is more meaningful if you actively engage and invest in it.
More practical for family members living in different time zones.
Communication is bidirectional and this is better to build connection.
We came up with 40 ideas to build connection with remote interaction and narrowed down to two by dot-voting, external critique, and seeing which ideas best fit our design principles.
A bar that can be used to mark the height of children as they grow taller. The marks will be displayed on another bar in a different household, facilitating a connection between.
A digital photo frame/ mirror that senses pressure and warmth, leaving "imprints" that emit colour, light, and warmth and encouraging the user to interact with it throughout the day.
We created video prototypes depicting the two concepts and had a remote design workshop with children to test the desirability of the ideas, evaluate features, and explore additional features.
We worked with KidsTeam, a program at the University of Washington that leads children through co-design activities in-person. In an ideal situation, we would have designed interactive prototypes of the concepts together to explore the potential of each. However, we were working in the COVID-19 pandemic and had to figure out a way to co-create and test the concepts remotely.
To do this, we created video prototypes that we could show the kids over Zoom. We knew it was important to create a fun and realistic portrayal of children using the products to fully engage our child participants, but had no children in our lives to film with. So we filmed the videos using Snapchat filters - check out the result!
Measuring height is a treasured childhood activity that almost all the kids identified with strongly.
Kids liked the idea of being able to compare your height with other kids their age, such as siblings and friends.
They were excited about also tracking other aspects of growing up, such as weight or shoe size.
Once we knew we were moving ahead with the Sprout concept, we built low fidelity, wizard-of-oz prototypes of the physical bar and mobile app and took to Green Lake park in Seattle for testing and feedback.
Arguably the most important interaction of Sprout, we knew this was crucial to test with real people.
We created two separate Sprout bars with very different interactions:
Measure height by your finger to mark it on the bar, similar to drawing it with a pencil. The bar lights up where it was touched.
Measure height by sliding a board down to the child's head. The board lights up when it touches the top of the participant's head.
People found the touch interaction to be simple and reminiscent of drawing on the wall with a pencil.
The slider was seen as too bulky and difficult to keep in the home. People wanted a streamlined product.
We also tested the desirability of other features to include on the mobile app, including:
While people liked tracking all sorts of information in childhood (e.g. weight) and thought it was interesting to collect, they felt like this would be more appealing to adults rather than children and related it to doctors' visits.
At this point, we needed to remind ourselves of our goal: to help families stay connected. Tracking growth data was interesting, but strayed farther and farther away from what we set out to do.
We decided to realign ourselves to a feature more intimate and meaningful:
Sharing stories through voice messages, AKA sharing the moments that matter.
With a new feature in mind, we went back to KidsTeam to co-design the story-sharing experience. We wanted to know what kids were interested in sharing and what the end-to-end recording experience could look like.
Kids wanted manual controls over their recording experience, so we designed a start-stop button on the Sprout bar itself instead of automatic or voice controls.
Kids said notifications should be fun, and not annoying. We use adjustable light, sound, and push notifications to let family members know of new activity.
Kids wanted to play back old recordings at any time. We allow this through both the Sprout bar and in the mobile app for each point in time.
Given the short amount of time we had, it was difficult to assess if Sprout would be a successful product across time. How often would families use it if growth is something that happens relatively slowly? Would kids continue to use it into their teenage years? For me, measuring my height on the wall of my old family home is a fond memory from my childhood years that I continued until I stopped growing. Testing the product in real life would help us determine if others feel the same.
The kids in our co-design sessions amazed us with their creativity and level of thought, coming up with suggestions for features that were backed by solid rationale. Designing with them taught us to balance their needs and the needs of adult stakeholders, who often wanted different things.
During the Wizard of Oz testing, we were surprised by how much form factor of the prototype influenced evaluation of seemingly unrelated factors such as accuracy of the measurement interaction. This is a good reminder to be careful about form even at lower fidelity when it comes to physical prototypes.