2020 has been a weird year for everyone. At MHCI+D, cohort 8 started our year remotely, so it was fitting that our Immersion Studio brief was centered around designing for the home. But rather than researching ways to make our homes more hospitable to ourselves, we were challenged to look at the home from a posthuman perspective.
My team, the aptly named Homebodies, chose to investigate how we can create a more hospitable environment for the microbes living in our homes. Inspired by the cleaning frenzy that the pandemic had kicked off, we wanted to investigate how the microbes in our home co-exist and impact our lives.
Literature Review and Competitive Analysis
We began by researching articles and research papers to build a better foundational understanding of our home ecosystem. This included researching what microbes live in our home, how they impact our daily lives, and how our activities impact them. We also conducted a competitive analysis to understand how other people are working in this problem space.
To better understand how people really feel about the microbes in their homes, we interviewed five participants about their cleaning habits and how their relationship with cleaning has changed since the pandemic. The participants we chose were between the ages of 20–60 and were the primary cleaners of their home.
Through our formative research, we found out that…
Every home biome is unique
The microbes living in our home are largely dependent on our lifestyles, geographic location, and pets. That means it’s hard to create a one size fits all solution.
Cleaning is highly personal
For most people, cleaning is a reflection of what they believe is “right”. Some may even feel angry when others attempt to interfere.
Cleaning habits are focused on the short term
Cleaning means getting rid of a mess and making things clean at the end of the night.
“Antibacterial” products may harm more than help
Antibacterial cleaning products are only able to kill bacteria, but has become a catch-all marketing buzzword, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, antibacterials tend to create superbugs when it leaves the 0.01% of bacteria with no competition.
Leading us to ask ourselves…
How might we track and maintain a healthy pro bacteria household?
To kick things off, we sketched 30 ideas as quickly as possible to get things down on paper. Though we aimed for quantity not quality, each idea still contained a germ (har har) of truth.
During that process, we grouped the ideas as closely as possible into 5 categories to generate an affinity map.
Next, we created a solution for our top 4 categories that best fit the theme we generated.
We presented our idea to our classmates and, with the help of their feedback, decided to move forward with an idea that combines the automation of a smart tracking system and agency that an informed cleaning tool would give the user.
Our proposed product, Ecolibrium, would be a set of tiny sensors that users can stick around their home and track their home microbiome health. When it senses an imbalance in the microbiome, it would gently alert the user and provide suggestions to bring their home ecosystem back into balance.
User Journey and Prototype
To guide our prototype design, we first mapped our desired user journey. Our challenge was to create a product with both physical and digital components that passively supports the user’s day to day life.
We also created a feedback flow to demonstrate how the user is meant to use Ecolibrium to monitor and adjust their home environment in the long run.
We also created the following prototype video to demonstrate our concept.
We conducted two phases of testing with our three participants:
- Setting up their Ecolibrium sensor
- Getting an alert from the app about an imbalance
In the first phase, we gave each participant a box with a “Getting Started” guide and 8 sensors. We asked them to use the Getting Started guide to set up their sensors around the home. After they were finished placing their sensors, we asked them to use our paper prototype app to complete their setup.
In the second phase, we asked the user to respond to a notification on the paper prototype that alerted them to a microbial imbalance in their home. We used that opportunity to see what emotional response an alert would elicit from the user and whether or not they would use the suggestion we provided to clean the mess.
- Instructions in the Getting Started guide too vague about where the user should (or might want to) place sensors.
- “Simple” view made users feel simple. They did not like selecting that option, even if it suited their needs better.
- On the other hand, users who chose the scientific view wanted finer tuned data from their sensor.
- Alerts about microbiome imbalances made users feel uneasy. Bacteria is not a neutral word and knowing that there might be an issue with bacteria in your home is alarming, even if it’s a minor issue.
If we had more time to work on Ecolibrium, this is what we would focus on improving:
Improve copy for comprehension and joy
The copy in the app could use a writer’s touch to bring more whimsy and fun into the experience. We are dealing with a serious and sensitive topic that grosses many people out and humor could go a long way to changing their minds.
We also need to improve the copy on the getting started guide to give the user some guide rails in the beginning.
Clarify physical aspect
Although our sensors are meant to be low profile and low touch, we needed to be more clear about how they’re meant to be placed and how they functioned from the get go. Are they a mesh? Do they need to stay dry? Can I eat it? No, no, and no.
Better biome bonding
Again, we can bring more whimsy and fun into an otherwise serious and dry topic to make people want to engage with their microbiomes. After all, it is a living, breathing, member of the family.
Not everyone loves data, but those who do really loves data. We could lean more into the scientific aspect of our data to give people a more intimate look at their ever changing microbiome.
Testing from home is a thing and it works.
Don’t be afraid of low tech. Be afraid of low comprehensibility.