The Stonemaps Project is a social experiment/distributed art project about gifting, dialogue, and collaboration, in which imprinted stones are used as physical keys to connect its users to a slow intentional network. The project originated from Vanilla Five Creative Inc. and is situated for incubation and testing at Emily Carr University’s Basically Good Media Lab.
During the incubation phase, I supported the team to develop pilot testing parameters using UX design methods and created iterations of UI design. My work was featured in the project’s conference paper for ISEA 2020, “Stonemaps: A Slow Intentional Network for Collective Sentience”.
The project had a blurry front end leading towards possibilities of a brand new mobile platform / social network, which posed a great challenge for the team to narrow down on key testing parameters and, for me, to work with limited and evolving information. Therefore, I did not adopt the traditional UI/UX design workflow that would require more definitive decision-makings at each stage, but instead figured out an alternative process that allowed me to be more actively involved in the team especially in the early stage.
During the initial team meetings, the team was briefed with the project’s previous developments (4-1). I realized that unlike my past user-centred/problem-solving projects, this one comes from an artist’s lived stories of the land/journey/encounter with people instead of any specific user group or pain point. There was some blurry and beautiful idea(s) about slowing it down and building something meaningful in today’s digital world. We started secondary research and expert interviews with game developers to process all the information and kept throwing more concepts and references into the picture (4-2).
As the team was diving deeper into multiple possible concepts, I was able to extract a few keywords to consider relevant UI/UX design opportunities (4-3) and then did a UI research of various platforms with relevant functions (4-4) for future reference.
To get down to designing without a clear “product definition” — the team wasn’t ready at that time — I decided to drop the traditional workflow and let my artist side’s instinct kick in: to create some visuals first. The moodboard (5-1) contains mostly textures in nature and map patterns and has two sets of colour palette. I set out to create conceptual landing pages, maps, and a few pages (5-2) that took inspiration from onboarding UIs of mobile games & the media contribution forms of social networking platforms. These pages helped the team visualize the platform and informed our later decisions.
I was experimenting with two sets of colour palettes. The dark/light mode could represent user’s limited/full access to the entire network according to the user’s group (registered/anonymous) or status (before/after releasing the Stonemap). They may also be used to suit the phone’s light/dark mode.
As mentioned earlier, the project is not targeted at one specific user group (yet: several major groups and scenarios will be identified after pilot testing). But it is necessary to define the two types of “user” here (6-1):
Founder: People who purchase the stone and start/customize their network.
Participant: People who become part of the network after receiving the stone.
Technically, the “users” of my design are pilot testing participants who will receive the testing stones with preset rules. Thus, I further focused on mapping out the participants’ journey to identify the information needed at each touchpoint. Based on my mapping, we decided that the stone should be delivered to the next participant in person in order to strengthen the “gifting” concept.
First, I made iterations of user flow diagrams (7-1) to define key pages. I then created a checklist to let the team decide how much access is allowed for participants who don’t want to register to the network. Since we all hate those apps that almost force people to register without giving them any idea what’s in there, we went pretty generous, allowing participant to post on the network without signing up (7-2). With these informations, I was able to define the basic IA (7-3).
Based on the wireframes, the team set a series of sample action prompts for me to create high fidelity key pages with an updated visual system.
Key Pages Prototyping
The pilot testing platform will be an installable Progressive Web App for Android devices in order to ensure successful NFC-scanning and to provide fast and dependable platform experience.
“Harley was hired as a research assistant to the Stonemaps project to provide design assistance as we progressed towards a functional prototype for pilot testing in the Spring. They attended all meetings and were diligent in contributing relevant resources and researching/discussing along with the rest of the project team. This project is difficult because it has a quite fuzzy front end. We are creating something quite new and getting it at least somewhat right for the pilot experiment is crucial for gathering the information needed for the next steps. We all learned a lot from the process and Harley was instrumental in providing key practical design touchpoints to focus the conversation at various junctures.”
- Be flexible:
Coming from a user-centred design background, I was used to following a standard UI/UX design workflow. In this research-oriented project, I learned to be flexible based on the project’s actual needs. When there is more information needed from the team to carry on the next step, I can take more initiative and work on something else while waiting for it to be finalized.
- Ask not only “how” but “why”:
Looking back at my journey, I gained a deeper understanding of the role each UI/UX design tool plays in the process. For example, user journey map helps with designing the entire experience, while user flow is more about getting the flow of the interface done right. I used them both.
- Find balance:
This was the first time that I have jumped in on an existing project. By using UX design tools like user journey mapping I helped rule out many ideas that, although fit perfect with our defining concepts, may not make much sense from the user’s perspective. I learned that while I should listen to the creator/“the client”’s ideas and try to meet expectations, it is equally important to express different opinions based on my own expertise.
Credit to The Stonemaps Research Team:
Hanif Janmohamned, CEO, Vanilla Five Creative. Project Concept.
Maria Lantin, Director, Basically Good Media Lab, ECUAD
Alex Hass, artist/designer at ECUAD
Devon Girard, Software Engineer, Vanilla Five Creative.