Designing for Strangers, pt 2

Yvonne Blanco
5 min readMar 10, 2022

Pivoting to explore platforms that allow strangers to “mix” colors with their bodies.

Since the hopscotch didn’t go as well as it could have, we decided to pivot and modify our intervention in order to have dimension and catch attention. We discussed elevated surfaces, so I pitched this idea to my teammates:

Page from my sketchbook in which I proposed two platforms surrounded by LEDs that change color once people step on them. That phallic-looking thing represents the monument in Union Square proper; as the area is open and we could easily hide behind the monument.

The concept is pretty simple; you have two boards with an LED edge in two different colors (yellow and blue). If you and another person stand on them together, they will “mix” and both will turn green.

My teammates agreed that this was a good direction to pursue, so we gathered MDF from the Northeastern makerspace. We settled on 8 boards and quickly bodystormed to determine which quantity and configuration could mimic a walking pattern.

Bodystorming with slabs of MDF to determine how far they should be spaced and whether four would be enough. (spoiler: four is too much and they’re too close for the technology).

I took the boards home and glued them together to increase height and volume. The boards were then weighed down with various heavy household objects to prevent warping.

Gluing boards in my kitchen in Somerville. I have a studio yet prefer to do heavier things in my kitchen, as there are less stairs to navigate, as well as less dust. After two intestinal ultrasounds, you’d think Beef learned his lesson to not eat non-food things. He is but a cat, and cats are gonna cat.
Weighing down the boards to minimize warping. Note the Encyclopedia of Typography. I can guarantee that anyone who was at RISD in the early 2000s owns a copy, and harbors a love-hate relationship with it. Along with various biology textbooks, my entire career is summed up on one slab.

After the boards dried, I applied LED strips that were obtained from Amazon. Adafruit would have been ideal; the best design for this would have involved a pressure-sensitive platform with LEDs coded to react to differences in pressure by changing color. Alas, I needed a fast turnaround, and my ability to code a Raspberry Pi is weak, so I went with an inexpensive model that is controlled by remote and operated by batteries. This was a simple solution to test whether this concept was viable within time limitations. The strips had an adhesive film, which allowed for easy attachment to the boards.

Testing the LED stip (left) and applying it to the edge of the slab (right). The LEDs had a handful of negative reviews, so I wanted to test them as soon as possible to avoid any delays that could impair our ability to test within a one-week timeframe.

After applying the strips, I decided to test the placement of the boards to see if they could be controlled separately and what the delay between color transitions would be. The remotes have a short operating distance; they must be within 1–5 feet in order to change light colors. Also, a remote can affect multiple light boards; one remote could turn both boards on and off, so their receiver boards need to be facing opposite directions and at a considerable distance from each other.

Standing on panels set to blue and yellow (left) while I try to figure out color buttons in the dark. Took me a few tries to press them at the same time. This is when I found out that one remote can turn both panels off and change their color, so they must be placed further apart to be operated independently.

Let’s test these in the wild

Due to differences in our schedules, the only time we were able to meet was on Sunday evening. We were short a member who was traveling. After setting up in Union Square proper, we decided to move to a location with more foot traffic.

Board setup, Washington Street, Union Square

This setup allowed us to place the boards 5 feet apart to avoid remote interference. Rudimentary instructions inviting people to “mix” colors by stepping onto the LED boards were placed on an easel stabilized by an empty plant pot. We added a hashtag for intrigue. Shoe symbols were cut out of construction paper and taped to the boards.

Around 7pm, a cluster of young men read the sign and talked amongst themselves, asked each other “what is Colormix” and asked each other if they should step on it. They deliberated for 10 minutes and one stepped on the blue, the other on the yellow and we remotely switched the colors to green. We cheered them and they said they didn’t know whether it was ok to step on them, so we decided our instructions should be clearer.

Afterwards, people walked by and looked at our installation, but did not pause to read nor deliberate on stepping on the boards.

We were not able to capture the interaction from the cluster of boys, but we did capture their footprints.

We then rapidly adjusted instructions — foot prints added to colors along with the words “step on it”. This didn’t help much to encourage others to interact with it.

I do have to admit, I hastily wrote it so it’s not as legible as I would like.

At around 8:30, we packed up and left. There was a discussion of the things we could do to improve interactivity, such as:

  • Create clearer signage that assures pedestrians that it is ok, and encouraged, to step on the boards
  • Foot symbols and arrows on the ground directly pointing at the boards in a contrasting color
  • Foot symbols on boards in a contrasting color — boards will be painted black, so white would be ideal
  • Unravel the LED strip to give more length between the receiver port and the boards; currently, the boards have two edges where the strip is double-wrapped
  • Do a better job of hiding so that people will perceive it to be a standalone structure and not an in-progress project (unwinding the strip to lengthen the cord will help with this)

The second attempt to test this prototype was derailed by snow, so we only have this experience to analyze. However, I feel optimistic that deploying these improvements and focusing on initiation and assurance cues will help us have more successful interactions.

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Yvonne Blanco

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