The Stonemaps Project is a social experiment/distributed art project, in which imprinted stones are used as physical keys to connect users to a slow intentional network. The project originated from Vanilla Five Creative Inc. and was situated for incubation and testing at Emily Carr University’s Basically Good Media Lab. It was featured in the ISEA 2020 Conference, “Stonemaps: A Slow Intentional Network for Collective Sentience”.
Stonemaps, which originated with an artist's lived experience of traveling and encountering people, was the most unique UI/UX project I have worked on. As a distributed art project, there were no specific user groups, problems, or pain points to tackle; only the question of how we may build a slow and thoughtful network using technologies that nowadays often lead to the opposite.
In the beginning, I was briefed on the project's previous developments: physical assets, software components, and initial concepts.
My role on the Stonemaps team was (1) to help develop test parameters using UX design methods and (2) to create high-fidelity prototypes of the web app for pilot testing.
The project had a blurry front end, which posed a great challenge for the team to narrow down 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-making at each stage but instead an alternative process that allowed me to be more actively involved especially in the early stage.
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. 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 and then conduct a competitive analysis of various platforms 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 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 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.
As mentioned earlier, the project is not targeted at one specific user group (several major groups and scenarios will be identified after pilot testing). But it is necessary to define the two types of “user” here:
Founder: People who purchase the stone and start/customize their network.
Participant: People who become part of the network after receiving the stone.
I 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 in person in order to strengthen the “gifting” concept.
First, I made iterations of user flow diagrams 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. With this information, I was able to define the basic IA.
“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.”
Coming from a user-centered design background, I was used to following a standard 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, a user journey map helps with designing the entire experience, while user flow is more about getting the flow of the interface done right.
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 fitting perfectly 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.
© Harley Guo 2022