3 prototypes designed by Method to explore the assumptions, opportunities, and potential implications of freeing data from screen-based interfaces and making it a useful part of our surroundings.

In today’s world of connected devices and sensors, so many services falter with the presentation of data. The majority of us consistently struggle to make sense of personal information. Our connection to our data remains screen-deep, requiring an ongoing, concerted effort to update and review data to glean any meaningful intel. Moreover, informed interpretation is needed to turn data into actionable insights.

Numbers are digits, they don’t tell a story we can simply understand. Graphs and charts about our life tend to be an abstraction with scant bearing of our personal experience.

As smart as smartphones and as sophisticated as computers have become, the way we know them might soon disappear as computing becomes more and more pervasive in our everyday environments.

“Surrounded by Data” is an ongoing research project the Method San Francisco studio kicked off in 2016 to explore the assumptions, opportunities, and potential implications of freeing data from screen-based interfaces and making it a part of our surroundings.

The mechanisms that govern attention, memory, and engagement have been limited by screen-based interactions. There is a clear opportunity to extend interaction with information to the realm of other senses.

Five Prototypes to Support the Research Process

The team built five artifacts as stimuli for a series of internal tests, culminating in an open event at Method during SF Design Week in June, 2016.

Our design approach tackled the challenge of communicating information through multiple devices available simultaneously. The prototyping process focused on enabling the so-called “pre-attentive visual processing of information” that reduces the traditional heavy cognitive load involved with making sense of numbers and charts.

Our research considered three core areas:

  1. Data Stories: Canvas

A canvas morphing into the shape of data from two individuals at once helped investigate the possibility of gaining insights at a glance though colors, shadows, and voice-based interactions. The “Canvas” prototype also suggested the possibility to pose questions, surface real-life events linked to data, as well as inform conversations and collective experiences.

2. Group Dynamics: Connections

What if a daily act, something as mundane as turning the lights on at home, doubled as a moment with the people we care about? In the “Connections” prototype, each light bulb represents an individual in a group. The height and brightness of the lights illustrate relationships that spur further connections.

Connections + Canvas

3. Resources & Behaviors: Chronos, Liquidity, Insights

Time plays a fundamental role in our lives. We measure it to make decisions according to our objectives. The “Chronos” prototype serves as a framework to explore how non-traditional visualizations can help us reflect on how we use time in relationship to the activities we care the most about.

The “Liquidity” prototype’s intent was to spark conversations around ways to bring our financial information into the physical world in order to increase awareness and support positive behavioral changes.

With “Insights,” the discussion moved to alternate, subtle approaches to identify meaningful insights in the environment. The prototype is a plant that thrives off personal data, collecting information about behaviors and making connections. A blooming flower represents a new available insight to learn.

Chronos + Liquidity + Insights

Five Initial Findings

The prototypes acted as provocations to explore questions such as: What meaning do you get from your data today? How do you feel about a representation of your data that’s visible to anyone but that can only be interpreted by you? What value do you see in making data of the people you care about a part of your surroundings? What if everyday objects could tell you something new about yourself? What types of discoveries would be most meaningful to you?

The answers collected from over 90 participants across demographics informed our perspective on five key themes about the perception and use of personal data in a given environment:

1 — Data Revelations Can Be Uncomfortable.

Information capturing our actual behaviors tends to be uncomfortable when it brings into question personal identity and preferences. An actual example is the recommendation of content on Netflix or YouTube that reveals viewed selections or patterns one wouldn’t publicly admit to having. Such discomfort extends to many areas of one’s personal life, almost like “a mirror you are worried to use,” as one participant put it. “Information about myself constantly present in my home? I better like that data,” another said.

2 — Personal Data Wields Strong Emotional Value.

The possibility to evoke any kind of information (especially if it’s emotionally charged) about oneself through an intelligent/sentient environment is scary for some: “What about bad memories? Forever haunted.” As a possible solution: “An intelligent system should also be sensitive and considerate. But can technology be tactful?

3 — More Stories and Actions, Less Numbers.

A view shared by many participants is that the communication of personal data in the form of numbers is rudimentary and meaningless. “I want fewer numbers”; “I’d like to learn what I can/should do”; “Too much data, what does it even mean? Why do I need it? How do I compare to others? Is my data normal?”; “I see data as a time machine that can bring me back to events of my life. But if it’s all about the past, where is the future? What kind of future decision can I make based on this data?

4 — Data Connects People.

Our research revealed that the types of data that are considered most relevant are based on feelings, health, personal activities, and ideas. They also happen to be those that help foster deeper relationships in a group of people. Being constantly exposed to data about “immediate needs, location, mood and emotions” of family and friends is perceived as a way to “feel like those people are closer” as well as “have richer relationships.” Some see it as a sort of “omnipresence” of the people we care about in our daily life, regardless of their physical distance, and even as the dawn of a “new level of interaction between humans,” a “data symbiosis.

5 — Selfie overload.

We observed polarized points of view about being constantly exposed to personal data in an environment (a provocation we made). On one end of the spectrum was the celebration of rich sets of information about oneself as an opportunity for self-knowledge and connection with others, while on the other was the risk of fostering narcissism, and even a broader negative attitude toward life: “Sometimes knowing isn’t a blessing.” Interestingly, both perspectives shared a common concern about the increasing quantity of personal data, potentially inviting a “selfie overload.”

So, can we make our data more meaningful by embedding it in our physical environment? Based on the research, the availability of relevant information in the context of a private physical environment is a positive factor. However, participants determined the value of being “surrounded by data” almost exclusively in relationship to the possibility of getting insights and guidance to live better as well as fostering deeper connections with other people.