Designing for Strangers, pt 1

Taking a dérive around Union Square, Somerville, in order to design an intervention that allows strangers to interact.

Yvonne Blanco
4 min readMar 3, 2022

How do you get strangers to interact in an area with no clear affordances or verbal instructions for interaction?

Our route through Union Square. We were initially looking at where people were gathering and thinking about how to funnel them down to Union Square Proper.

The initial phase of this assignment was to take a leisurely stroll and notice patterns in the environment. Starting at Bow Market, we walked the perimeter of the Union Square commercial district. My teammates and I discussed the area and came up with three interventions for three distinct areas of Union Square. My intervention was centered around the ongoing construction in Union Square, initiated in 2009, focusing on the orange traffic cones that have become so ubiquitous that they almost form the identity of the place.

My design was simple, in theory: build an instrument that uses traffic cones as amplifiers, link each cone to a pedal, and stagger the cones so that it would be incredibly uncomfortable for one person to play the instrument by themselves, so they’d have to collaborate with others. New Englanders despise small talk; an instrument can facilitate interaction without the need for conversation.

A rudimentary design of my cone instrument. I broke out my 25-year-old Prismacolor markers for this.

My group wasn’t keen on pursuing this direction as this would take at least a month to build. They did want to focus on the traffic cones as vehicles for interaction, so we did a quick brainstorm.

Brainstorming sketch drawn by me during class; initially it started as checkers between cones and buildings.

After ruminating on whether it’s legal to beautify cones, or build a large cone to deface, we decided on setting up a game of tic-tac-toe in Union Square Proper using cones of different colors to replace X’s and O’s. Tic-tac-toe is a quick game and less involved than checkers or chess; pedestrians on their way to one of the bars could be enticed to take a minute to play. We had originally planned on testing this intervention on a Sunday, but it had snowed and the ground was not amenable. So we chose Wednesday, March 1st at 2pm and 6pm.

March 2, 2pm

I was unable to join my teammates for the 2pm session as I was attending my Systems Design class. They initially set up a tarp that would not stay in place due to the wind. Adapting to the weather, they eliminated the tarp and outlined the square in chalk, and placed paper cones in the perimeter. Strangers did not interact with this as they were on their phones or purposefully walking towards a destination.

Tarp struggles and cones in the chalk playing field (photo courtesy of Shipra and Sol).

My teammates pivoted towards a game of hopscotch in order to test whether it would engage pedestrians. They also moved away from Union Square Proper and drew the game in front of Bow Market, one of the locations designated as dense in pedestrian population. This also yielded little interaction.

Hopscotch in front of Bow Market. Notice there is someone standing on top of it with a dog, not engaging. (photo courtesy of Shipra and Sol)

March 2, 6pm

Because I was unable to join the earlier session, I went to both locations at 6pm and spent about half an hour monitoring each one. The chalk at the Bow Market location was barely visible due to dim lighting and while there were several pedestrians, they did not notice nor engage.

Photos I took at the Bow Market location at 6pm; the “hopscotch” was slightly more visible than the boxes.

The Union Square Proper location was slightly more visible due to the contrast of chalk and pavement, but the area that this was located in did not have as many pedestrians; people kept to the sidewalk or locked a City Bike and walked briskly to their destinations.

Next Steps

To further iterate on this, our team will regroup and discuss further possibilities for enticing strangers to interact with this environment. If we stick to an interaction that involves stepping on the pavement, should we investigate panels that light up or give a stronger visual cue that invites strangers to press? If we lean back towards the theme of construction, could we make the cones perform actions without physical modification — i.e., by placing remote-controlled lights or sound devices that would “activate” when someone passes by? Or could we outfit one with a remote-controlled car that gives the illustion that the cone is following people, or aimlessly drifting by in order to find more construction sites? We will explore these possibilities.



Yvonne Blanco

Making scientific data enjoyable through UX. Masters in Experience Design. Heavy Metal enthusiast. Mother of Meatball. She/her.