IN-TOUCH is interested to know how design students think about and through touch, and what happens when digital touch communication moves to the centre of the design process. We worked with Dr Val Mitchell and Dr Garrath Wilson at the Loughborough Design School to co-develop a student design brief for their course on User Experience Design. The design brief was to:
Develop an innovative, future-facing digital product or service that enhances communication through touch in one of three sectors: personal relationships, leisure, or health and wellbeing. To do this, you need to first research a specific communication context that would benefit from the introduction of touch technology, for face-to-face or remote interaction. You then need to identify specific user needs and, in collaboration with target users, develop and refine a product or service that will respond to those needs that includes an element of digital touch.
Students were encouraged to move beyond touch screens and mobile apps and to incorporate other forms of tangible interaction. They could either work with existing or emerging technologies or those that could be considered as possible developments of current technological trends. While they could draw on other senses or modalities, touch was to be central to their design solution.
Students were first introduced to the broad concept of ‘digital touch communication’ and the kinds of technologies that may facilitate digital touch communication now and in the near future. The research process involved following the students’ work through a series of workshops (led by Val and Garrath) focused on different design research and prototyping stages, and their associated coursework, which included storyboarding and video prototyping. (Students’ participation in our study was voluntary and did not impact on their assessment.)
We are exploring the students’ work, reflecting on the kinds of design concepts that emerged and how the digital-touch-centred brief shaped the design process. Part of this is trying to locate the students’ concepts in the emerging landscape of digital touch and, in doing so, explore what types of touch are involved, where on the body, where and how communication happens, in relation to what other modes and senses. We are noticing different ways in which the students have brought the body into digital touch, from using it as an interface to something that can be sensed and differently known through the digital (e.g. through bio-sensing and wearable solutions), using touch technology as a sensory extension of the body or as sensory mediator between a person and their environment. From a social perspective, it is interesting for us to tap into the designers’ imagination, to explore what narratives underlie their user scenarios, and what problems are solved through digital touch. In terms of the design process itself, we are beginning to develop tools for designers to go beyond technology-driven solutions by putting more emphasis on the sensory and communicative properties of touch.
Our first toolkit prototype ‘Designing Digital Touch’ (pictured below) is currently being tested by a new cohort of Loughborough design students. The toolkit has been developed to support engagement with the complexities of working with touch across the Double Diamond model stages of Design Thinking (with an additional ‘Pre-Discover’ stage to help participants reflect on types of touch, what touch might mean and feel like in different contexts, as well as bodily sensations and social and cultural boundaries). There are three types of cards for each stage: FILTERS (questions to help participants reflect on their own and others’ experiences), WILD CARDS (deliberately abstract prompts for thought or action), and ACTIVITIES (more structured exercises which require some time).
We will continue this collaboration in year 3 of IN-TOUCH to trace changes in the way touch technologies and design concepts are envisaged or employed across time.
Dr Val Mitchell, Senior Lecture in User Experience Design, Loughborough Design School, Loughborough University
Dr Garrath Wilson, Lecturer in Industrial/Product Design, Loughborough Design School, Loughborough University