Having everything from groceries to vehicles home delivered has become a staple of pandemic living. While the crisis accentuated and accelerated the move away from in-person shopping, it’s not a new phenomenon.
For the Fall 2020 semester, Art + Design & Architecture associate professor Kristian Kloeckl and lecturer Paul Kahn had students in their Experience Design Studio 1 classes investigate this rapidly evolving trend. The students’ research and design work not only optimized existing home delivery formats but experimented with new ways to add value to the process. The resulting home delivery projects take into consideration issues that are both deeply relevant today and the future.
Applying Experience Design to Real Life
Buying a houseplant online seems like a straightforward process. First, pick out the plant you want. Second, buy it. Bam. Done. Mission accomplished. For a green-thumbed indoor gardener, that is probably close to their actual experience. Although, if you are one of the millions of people who took up gardening as your new quarantine hobby, you now probably realize that first step can be a bit misleading.
Plants are delicate and living entities. Unlike a coffeemaker, they cannot be identically mass-produced. Consistency can vary wildly, even between two plants of the same variety. Size or shape might not match online pictures or, on delivery, plants may be dead, unhealthy, or rotted. Then, there are the multiple factors that lead to a plant thriving under your care once it is in your home. What grows well indoors in your area, where you put the plant in your space, and how much attention it needs (and if you provide it) — are just a few of the hiccups associated with plant care.
Motivated by the pale and yellow leaves of her own cherished Fiddle Fig, Northeastern master’s degree student Niyati Kothari created Floaura. She explained, “I read a lot on the internet about what was I missing to care for my plant. That’s when I noticed many reviews and comments from other frustrated plant owners too. I was inspired to tackle this complex problem and design a better experience for novice plant owners.”
Floaura is a virtual plant shopping and care service that uses crowd-sourced advice to support and inspire plant owners. The conceptual platform would link with local nurseries to reduce the chances of receiving unhealthy plants. This regional-expert network would also help make shoppers feel more successful when caring for their plants.
What is Experience Design?
For Kloeckl, Floaura encompasses the fundamental lessons he hopes students will take away from Experience Design Studio 1. The field of Experience Design studies human interactions with their environments, products or services, and finds ways to improve that engagement. Research guides students through the developmental process. Referring to her own project, Kothari said, “Before the research, I anticipated to design the experience of receiving the plants, but the survey and interview insights inspired me to tackle the core issue of the care of plants.”
What’s more, Experience Design encourages practitioners to examine the relationship between various elements of an experience or, as Kloeckl refers to it, “the connective tissue.” Other branches in the design field tend to have narrower focuses. User experience, or UX, optimizes how people engage with interfaces, e.g. websites, ATM screens, or smartphone applications. Interior design deals with organizing inside spaces. Graphic designers interpret information through text, color, and shape. Adding to the challenge of parsing out what is and is not Experience Design, is the fact that the separate design branches often overlap and support one another.
Kloeckl hopes to impart students with a better understanding of Experience Design through examples and its research methodology. To achieve this end, he invited guest speakers to provide contemporary applications of the approach. Lecturers have included representatives from major corporations such as IDEO’s Senior Design Lead Chris Wright and Siemens Healthineers’s VP, Head of Venture Strategy Ben Little. Author of “Mapping Experiences,” Jim Kahlbach, has also made a digital appearance.
Conducting observational studies is another key element of the course. While taking the class, Ragini Srikrishna, an avid runner and Northeastern master’s candidate noticed a blend of emotions when preparing for a virtual road race. She was excited for the opportunity to participate remotely despite quarantine restrictions; however, logging stats into an app was decidedly anti-climactic. Following the steps of Experience Design research, Srikrishna observed that she was not alone. She started to imagine what alterations would create a more fulfilling virtual race experience. Her solution: Race in a Box.
A Better Way
Race in a Box proposes a platform for organizers to host a race, partner with vendors to deliver race perks (such as number bibs), and coordinate charitable efforts. The project enables fellow runners to connect while competing at a distance. They would also have the opportunity to experience the tangible aspects of a race day.
In this instance, a UX designer may have focused on building a better race app. If Srikrishna decides to realize Race in a Box, updating app interfaces may be an element of her overall Experience Design initiative, just not her only focus.
Design Experience in the Pandemic and Its Future Impact
Each iteration of Experience Design Studio 1 centers around a timely theme. For Fall 2020, students observed home delivery and posited ways to make it better. Kloeckl chose the topic for several reasons, in part, because it was practical. Interacting with people is a major element of Design Experience research, and regrettably, it is in direct opposition to pandemic safety measures. Focusing on home delivery allowed students to conduct first-hand observations and identify delivery friction points caused by social-distancing protocols. Their projects also can potentially change the home delivery experience beyond the pandemic by tying into existing trends.
Over the past five to ten years, the rate of online shopping has grown astronomically. From 2014 to 2021, the number of digital buyers worldwide is expected to increase from 1.32 billion to 2.14 billion, according to a July 2017 forecast assembled by eMarketer. A more than 80% rise in just seven years is staggering. The global shutdown, followed by the rapid influx of online sales, has been a stress test for an already strained virtual retail industry. The recent spike combined with the current situation has exposed the system’s fragilities and fault lines.
Some complications were predictable, such as insufficient stock and supply-chain breakdowns. Notably, arrival speed, one of the most frequent home delivery complaints, was not a significant focus area for the students’ projects. Their research heavily suggests there is a lot more involved with home delivery than just getting packages as fast as possible. This hyper-specific and unique situation demonstrated the variety of opportunities to have a much richer, nuanced, and enjoyable home delivery experience.
Quarantine restrictions made getting together with friends an impossibility for Qinzhe Chen. Longing for an afternoon of bonding sparked the Northeastern graduate student to imagine Shopping Online Together. Chen’s project brings the social dimension to online shopping. With the assistance of a Zoom plug-in, groups can listen to a shared soundtrack, discuss items, and browse web stores together. Again, the solution to a pandemic problem has “back-to-normal” applications. For example, choosing a bridesmaid dress. People want to gather to support their loved ones, but many cannot due to travel and financial limitations. Digital showrooms currently exist, but they do not fill the craving for person-to-person interaction.
The desire for companionship and rich experiences is going strong, despite our increasingly digital world. As Kloeckl notes, “It’s a classic. If you look up the history of technology — innovation — it’s always like this. We get a new phone, and we think this thing is going to do everything. It’s going to save everything. Then we realize, no, it doesn’t. It’s another great technology or tool to have, but it doesn’t just do it all.”
Like the latest and greatest gadgets, Experience Design cannot replace lived experiences. However, it does offer an exciting and inventive path towards enhancing the connection between our virtual and physical worlds.
Explore the gallery to view the Final Projects conceptual art for Experience Design Studio 1 – Fall 2020.
eMarketer. (July 19, 2017). Number of digital buyers worldwide from 2014 to 2021 (in billions) [Graph]. In Statista. Retrieved April 12, 2021, from https://www-statista-com.ezproxy.neu.edu/statistics/251666/number-of-digital-buyers-worldwide/