UX@UC: Laundry Charrette

May 5, 2008 in Notes from the Field

What did thirty design students at the University of Cincinnati do with six heaping piles of dirty clothes?

  1. Study how people do laundry
  2. Envision the future of fabric care
  3. Evaluate the usability of prospective laundry systems

ANSWER: All of the above.

From April 21-23, a group of undergrad and graduate students from UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning participated in a fast-paced workshop on the merit and methods of designing for user experience (UX). A team of professional experts from MAYA Design and the Global Consumer Design group at Whirlpool Corporation shared a range of industry practices. They encouraged the students to immerse themselves in the act of cleaning clothes; fill their studio with futuristic ideas; cycle through various prototypes; conduct usability tests and repeat as necessary.

The workshop, hosted by Yanling Wang of UC’s Digital Design program, commenced with a glimpse at the technological trajectory of the self-service laundry industry. The first lecture covered future-looking trends, ranging from touch-screen interfaces to the emergence of “smart clothes” containing RFID tags.

Subsequent lectures stressed the importance of designing for people in the age of pervasive computing. Bill Lucas, the workshop’s lead facilitator, proclaimed, “A world full of microprocessors is a world full of messy design problems—calling for good, clean design solutions.

Solutions centered on the wants, needs and desires of people.” In turn, the entire team of facilitators coached the students through a compressed example of observational fieldwork.

Teams traveled to six different locations, including dormitories, apartment buildings and public Laundromats. Students learned to empathize with the patrons at each facility by immersing themselves in the full context of use. They washed loads of laundry, recorded video footage of usability problems, interviewed people as they used all kinds of laundry equipment, drew diagrams of the entire laundry process, drafted personas for archetypical users, and so on. After the contextual inquiry exercise, students returned to the studio to analyze and organize their findings. They filled the walls, floor to ceiling, with insights and opportunities for improvement.

On the second day of the workshop, students learned that low-tech, paper prototyping is an extremely valuable means of getting quick user feedback in the early stages of the design. The morning lecture focused on the “Think Aloud” protocol for usability testing—wherein participants are encouraged to verbalize everything they are thinking in the course of completing a given task.

After an initial round of rapid prototyping, teams were challenged to conduct a usability test. The students served as moderators and videographers while facilitators from MAYA and Whirlpool took on the role of prospective users.

Throughout each test, facilitators stepped out of character to provide tips on how to make improvements for the next set of evaluations. Teams responded to the feedback by testing a second, more refined, prototype with people they recruited from elsewhere on campus.

On Day 3, the teams presented their final ideas for improving the laundry experience. They filled the studio with maps and models. Concepts included redesigned user interfaces on the appliances—and a lot more. One team described a system that encompassed online reservations, a touchless payment system and the ability to know the status of appliances by way of text-message alerts.

Another team analyzed and reconfigured the footpath for one of the dormitory laundry rooms. They built a miniature version of the space to help visualize their ideas for reconfiguration. Then, they mocked up a full-size version of their vision for a new interface on the laundry equipment.

Interestingly, the field research revealed that people did not know much about the proper way to clean clothes. Therefore, several teams redesigned the user interface on the washer to subtly advise about how best to launder particular types of clothes.

All solutions for a better laundry experience were in the context of a defined persona and use scenario—for example, “Anne,” a 28-year-old part-time nursing student strapped for time and money and mom to two kids ages 2 and 4. Students asked, How could doing the laundry become less of a time-consuming chore for people like Anne?

The workshop was a great success; the only disappointment expressed was that it lasted only 2½ days. Students said, “from now on I will be in better touch with the user” and “ it was eye-opening to see how real companies do this sort of thing and how wrong I was about what I thought usability testing was.”

When Oscar Fernandez, Director of UC’s Digital Design program, stopped by the studio, he commented, “It is so refreshing to see the students using paper, index cards, markers, and cardboard.” This sentiment was echoed by several students as they came to value the process of making rapid, non-digital prototypes. One student said, “I really enjoyed the hands-on approach.” Another said, “I’m inclined to spend more time sketching ideas before I jump on the computer.”

The workshop sponsors from Whirlpool and MAYA deemed the workshop to be equally beneficial. Doug Beaudet, Whirlpool’s Director of Global Usability and Interaction Design, considered the workshop to be “a great opportunity for students to apply their lessons to real world situations.” Mickey McManus, MAYA’s President and CEO, agreed and added, “It is really great to see the next generation of designers exhibit so much energy and talent.”


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