Motorola Sponsors Graduate Design Studio to Create Breakthrough Products
Since its inception, Carnegie Mellon has dedicated its research and academic pursuits to solving practical problems—a mission that has placed the university at the forefront of contemporary developments such as wireless computing networks and environmentally-friendly "green" designs, advances that enhance the quality of life and support a sustainable future. Recognizing that novel solutions often arise from multiple perspectives, the university promotes interdisciplinary collaboration. In the same spirit, and further expanding the institution’s commitment to strategic corporate involvement, the School of Design offers an annual graduate studio in interaction design in which students apply technological innovations to challenges presented by a corporate sponsor.
Shelley Evenson, associate professor and director of graduate studies, instructs Graduate Design Studio II, a course that focuses on people and their products. "Interaction design," she explains, involves "creating the resources to mediate experience." Designers connect people with the world by analyzing the intersection of human desire and social, technological, and economic reality. The field encompasses everything from cell phone technology to ordering coffee, and, she adds "is about mediation between people and people, people and machines, and machines and machines."
According to Evenson, "The point of the class is to help students understand how to take big, open-ended questions and translate them to a concept that has a tangible business plan." More than that, though, interaction designers understand that a successful transition from idea to reality rests in the balance of exigency and economic viability. Even the most well-intentioned plans may not mature if they’re financially unrealistic or simply unnecessary. Because achievability often begins with existing technology, the design faculty aims to match coursework to a corporate sponsor’s end goal.
Real-World Challenges: Motorola
In spring 2007, Motorola asked Evenson’s students to explore the possibilities of mobile multimedia consumption. Because the course (and by extension, the challenge) is rooted in real-world affairs, it draws from multidisciplinary expertise—students aren’t just designers, but business majors, English majors, and more. The obvious advantage, then, is the preparation for life after graduation when students will be expected to work with people from diverse backgrounds. Ultimately, the course teaches teamwork, collaboration, and client interaction.
One of the main goals, according to Rick Hoobler, Motorola design manager in experience planning and design, was for the groups to present ideas of current relevance. He didn’t want ideas that would take ten years to realize, but did want ideas that would be relevant in ten years, which is what the students delivered. "They did a good job of grounding things in the near future and then extending that as well," he said. "It was a good mix of one year, two years, three years out."
The most promising service, presented by at team called Within Reach, addressed the difficulty of maintaining long-distance relationships in the late-teen to late-twenties set. Corresponding to the age range of those most likely to leave home—for college or a job, for example—the demographic also has among the highest homesickness percentages, the students reasoned. Beyond that, and based on the premise that a person only has so much surface area for relationships, the group inferred that as a person moves through life, his or her loved ones expand or lessen their tangential area.
Their research led to the discovery that friendships begin through a shared experience and then endure periods of closeness and distance, both physical and emotional. As distance increases, so too does the possibility of loneliness. To lessen that feeling, especially when physical proximity isn’t an option, the team designed a phone that could act as an emotional link between friends. In addition to calling or text-messaging each other, a person could entice a friend to view an Internet video while simultaneously watching the other’s reaction on a second screen. The group’s research indicates that friends strengthen emotional bonds through media sharing because of a harmonized experience and, in turn, enhance their motivation to sustain the relationship.
Accompanying the synchronous file-sharing is a gift-giving capability. A person could purchase, for example, a song or beverage choice over the phone and send it to a friend. The other, using the device as a swipe-and-go debit card, would touch it to a merchant’s terminal to complete the transaction. Like media sharing, gift giving demonstrates commitment to a relationship by giving time, emotional energy, and empathy. As a result, the group hopes that their service will encourage friends to stay in touch as their lives move in different directions.
Similar to Within Reach’s service, the redkangaroo group designed the MotoRoo, which explores the richness of group media sharing. After researching the intersection of technology and presence (an awareness of others or evidence of their activity), the team discovered that people communicate most often with persons to whom they feel the most connected. Furthermore, people value technology that helps them sustain interpersonal connections. Therefore, the partners developed a system that combined mobile-media consumption with presence to support interactions within a community.
Essentially, the hand-held device would allow users to add friends, family, or co-workers to community lists displayed on a video screen, similar to an IM list. In addition to standard calling and text-messaging features, users could monitor their friends’ activities and choose to simultaneously watch the same video, listen to the same song, or click on the same website. The MotoRoo was designed to magnify media enjoyment while personalizing the experience. From a business end, the concept would greatly expand Motorola’s commercial media-consumption service.
Group Passion’s concept targeted people with devotions—specifically sports enthusiasts. The inspiration for the service came from research that found that although more than 25% of U.S. cell phones are video capable, less than 1% are used for that feature. To increase that percentage, the students opted to create a cell phone that would act as a mediator between people and their passions. Because passions are unique to the individual, the phone had to include a customization feature to match user desire to service detail.
Ultimately, their "tool for passion" resulted in Stadium Link, an enhanced cell phone that could download real-time sports scores. Although similar technology already exists, the team took it one step further by adding a recording feature that reacts to crowd sensors. As people within certain proximity become excited, the device is activated. At the end of the day, the user is left with an automatically stored highlight reel.
Comparably inspired, yet much different in applicability, is the MotoTLR (pronounced Moto-tailor, as in tailored to your needs), which combines cell phone capability with a programmable interface. The convenient design would allow the user to customize his or her interaction with the phone. Whatever feature is most relevant to a person’s life could become its overarching capability—news headline downloads, sports scores, financial indices, photography, and more. The student team essentially envisioned an interactive, personalized, portable website.
Overall, Motorola was impressed by the teams’ varied approaches and their results. Of the four groups, however, Within Reach was selected as the service most-closely aligned to emerging lifestyle trends. The team, accompanied by one representative from each of the other groups, was flown to company headquarters in Chicago to present their ideas. "We wanted to bring people back to Motorola to show off the results," Hoobler said, "[everything was] received very well." He went on to say that the concepts are continuously being shared across the company.
In addition to dipping into the campus think tank for creative ideas, Hoobler said that Motorola also hoped to broaden their relationship with Carnegie Mellon and to recruit more from the university in the future. As a School of Design alumnus, he knows the quality of thinking and dedication to excellence that the school has to offer and his prior relationship with university faculty lent a critical hand to the partnership. And based on the exceptional performance of the class, recruiting from the program will certainly continue. "We feel like there’s a good synergy between our design group and the school," Hoobler said, "and we’re looking forward to bigger and better things."
Previous course sponsors have included Microsoft (twice) and McGraw-Hill. Regardless of the sponsor, one of the greatest achievements, according to Evenson, is the amount of work that is actually accomplished in a relatively short time. The class runs for 16 weeks and is a testament to the potential of "putting the right people together at the right time," she said.
View part of the presentation by Within Reach.
Shelley Evenson has taught Graduate Design Studio II for four semesters. She was a consultant for more than 20 years before she joined Carnegie Mellon in 2003. Her current research focuses on compelling user experience and designing for service.
Rick Hoobler is a native Pittsburgher. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and earned an MAD from Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design in 1999. He works at Motorola’s Consumer Experience Design (CXD) division in Chicago, IL.