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Stellar

A night light board that facilitates meaningful connection with loved ones from a distance.

Problem Space

For this project, we were tasked to design a product that would facilitate social connectedness in an isolated world. When we started this project, lots of people had been separated from their loved ones for months on end due to the pandemic, leaving them with feelings of loneliness and the desire to connect with their loved ones again.

In addition to this prompt, our product had to have both a physical interface and digital interface and one of our stakeholder groups needed to be children.

Design Response

Video

Features

Physical Board

Stellar is a night sky-themed light board that allows loved ones to communicate with each other through abstract messages in the form constellations. Messages sent by loved ones display on each other's boards, allowing them to feel the other's presence even when they are physically far away.

Website

A website accompanies the physical board. Through the Stellar website, users can connect with their friends and loved ones to send and receive messages. The website is also where users craft messages to send to their loved ones.

While it is recommended to have the physical board for the fullest experience, the website offers a digital version of the board. With this option, users can still enjoy Stellar even without the physical board.

Send Constellations

Users send messages to their loved ones in the form of constellations and animations. Through the digital interface, users can design their own constellation pattern or select a preset animation. Once sent, the constellation or animation will show up on their loved one's board.

Night Light

When it's time to go to bed, the board goes into Night Light mode. In Night Light mode, the user's board displays a unique constellation made up of stars that represent each of their loved ones who are connected with them. It serves as a reminder that your loved ones are always with you, even if they are physically far away.

Ideation

Background Research

To start off, we did a bit of background research. We collected and reviewed 26 papers on previous work done in the space of technology-mediated social connectedness to get inspiration for our own project. We analyzed each work and then drew out some high-level themes.

View full background research doc

Sketches

Using our background research as inspiration, we brainstormed our own ideas for technology-mediated solutions for social connectedness. As a team, we generated 63 concept sketches in total.

The initial set of concepts.

Downselection

We started the downselection process by dot voting as a team on ideas that we thought could be interesting to explore further, while also keeping feasibility in mind. After dot voting, we were left with 23 concepts.

The concepts that remained after dot voting.

To help us downselect further, we parsed the remaining concepts in several different ways. We placed concepts onto a prioritization matrix to rate each on feasibility and desirability. We also sorted concepts by high-level themes or categories. We also each picked out 3 concepts that we were personally most excited about.

We ended up with 10 concepts that we then polished up, giving a description of what each concept is as well as a description of how the interaction might work. These 10 concepts were then shared with the rest of our class. Our peers and instructors dot voted on their favorite concepts of ours and provided feedback.

From this peer input, we narrowed down the 10 concepts to our final 2, which were the Constellation Night Light and the Pregnancy Belt. The Constellation Night Light was our most popular concept. The Pregnancy Belt was not quite as popular, but we decided to pursue the idea further because of the intimacy of pregnancy and potential for cross-generational connection.

Initial Storyboards + Video Prototypes

To better convey these two concepts, we created video prototypes for each. We came up with a short script for each, which I used to sketch a few storyboards to help plan out our shots. We filmed our footage and recorded voiceovers and produced our two video prototypes.

Video Prototype Feedback + Final Downselection

UW KidsTeam generously participated in two participatory design sessions with our team during this project. For this first session, we wanted to gauge which of our two ideas was more appealing to children. Our plan was to show the KidsTeam children our two video prototypes and elicit feedback through discussion questions. We prepared a Google Slides deck so that the children could type or draw out their thoughts.

The children were quite excited about the Constellation Night Light and expressed interest in using it to play with their friends. They even brought up some interesting considerations such as word-based messages and usage time.

They also generally seemed curious about the Pregnancy Belt, though not as many expressed interest in feeling a baby's movements due to a lack of knowledge or experience around the topic at their age.

Since there was a more universal interest in the Constellation Night Light, we decided to move forward with that concept.

View full session slide deck

Final Concept Storyboard

With our final concept chosen, we reworked our previous Constellation Night Light storyboard and fleshed out a more detailed scenario in which the product would be used. We created a new storyboard for Stellar to illustrate this scenario and the key interactions within it.

For this storyboard, we imagined this scenario of a young girl celebrating her birthday, but she finds herself missing her grandfather and friends who couldn't be there. Her grandfather sends her a Stellar board for her birthday, which she sets up on the computer. On the computer, she connects her grandfather and friends to her account. She creates her own constellation design and sends it to her grandfather. Her grandfather receives her constellation on his tablet. He decides to send something back, so he selects a shooting star animation to let his granddaughter know that he misses her. The girl is delighted to see the stars that her grandfather sent on her Stellar board. At nighttime, the girl sleeps below the light of the Stellar board, with shining stars representing each of her loved ones.

Final storyboard for Stellar, illustrated by me.

Website

Physical Board

Build Details

I took charge of making the physical night light board. As part of the course, we were provided an Adafruit Circuit Playground Express microcontroller and a set of basic electronic components. For our project, however, we needed a larger quantity of LED lights, so we purchased some additional materials.

Drawing from my prior electronic prototyping knowledge, I determined that the easiest way to construct the night light board was to use NeoPixel strands, which would allow for individual control over many lights while only requiring the use of a single microcontroller pin. In addition, they would be easy to program since there were existing NeoPixel libraries with functions to easily control the lights. I constructed the circuit using Adafruit's NeoPixel guide as a reference.

After testing the circuit, I mounted the lights onto the backing board, which was simply a piece of cardboard with holes poked through it. While it would have been nice to have a more polished backing board made of plywood or acrylic, access to makerspaces was limited at the time due to COVID safety restrictions.

Code

Final Board

Future Work

Functioning Digital-Physical Communication

We would have liked to have built out a fully functioning digital interface to control the physical board, but due to technological limitations and time constraints, we opted to focus on conveying the idea and story around the design through our video showcase.

Solidifying Interaction Details

There were also quite a few interaction details that we as a team discussed at length throughout its development but didn’t quite make it into the final showcase of the project—details such as different operational modes, parental controls, and amount of customization, to name a few. Getting those a bit more fleshed out would also help us to refine the digital interface a bit more.

Exploring Different Forms

We’d also be interested in exploring different forms for the physical board. For example, we had heard from a guest critic that round shapes tend to be more appealing to children, so doing a bit of research into that and testing different shapes and sizes of boards could be valuable.

Testing Cross-Generationally

And finally, I think there’d be quite a lot of testing to be done overall, but in particular, we’d like to test our product across multiple age groups. We wanted to design a product that could be used cross-generationally, from children to older adults, but during the time this project was in development, it simply wasn’t feasible to do more extensive testing due to safety concerns.

Reflection

Testing What We Intended to Test

One of the biggest things we learned from this project was to make sure we were testing what we actually intended to test. Due to the circumstances, we had to get pretty creative with our testing setups, but there were times where the setup we designed wasn’t really 1:1 with the interaction we were trying to test. For example, with our Wizard-of-Oz prototype, the test would have been more accurate to have a message sender and message receiver in different rooms. And in both our Wizard-of-Oz and co-design sessions, our participants would draw lines on the grid to create constellations, but the actual constellation would only be made up of dots.

The Power of Abstraction

We also got hung up on including text-based messages in the system for a while before deciding to lean into more abstract ways of communicating meaningfully.

Conveying Ideas and Story

We also had to make the hard decision to not pursue implementing a fully functional web interface–physical artifact system and instead focus on our final video prototype to demonstrate our product. This proved to be the right decision in this case, as the video prototype was enough to convey our ideas.