Tuning Conversations

What if we could tune our digital world to match our physical one?
Academic | 2023
Solo project
Mentored by Jack Mama
Tuning Conversations is a design provocation to let people tune in and out of digital communications like they would tune in and out of a radio feed. It asks people to think about what information they want reaching them and when, and puts them in control of that reality by turning written messages into an ambient audio stream.

The radio is the result of a design research investigation into how people find digital communication relates to their daily lives. Most people feel an inherent tension with messaging — we desire, generally speaking, to block out the noise from our phones and focus on our physical realities, but we are afraid, rationally or not, to put down the phone and risk missing something we want or need to see.

I explored these tensions through a series of experiments, prototypes, and research probes to learn everything from ‘texting personas’ to what happens if we only communicate via walkie-talkie for a day. From these explorations, I was able to deconstruct and define the social situations that change the norms we want our phones to follow and look at new ways the design of the device and the medium of messaging could impact the way we connect.

Research Explorations

Design research
Defining the problem
My early studies sought to gain insight into the relationship between people and their communication tools.
insight 01
Physical locations can influence behaviors: taking a photo of an object so you can locate it on a map later, or checking a person’s location to know if someone will be late or if they are available to talk.
insight 02
Many phone users have a concept of triage: relationship, urgency, and physical situation determine whether, and when, they’ll respond.
insight 03
Incoming messages often have no real relationship to recipients’ immediate context. Those that do might be perceived as more important and less distracting.
insight 04
People want to be able to step away from notifications without the stress that comes from being afraid of missing something important.
Persona development
Understanding the mindset
To verify whether the behavioral insights from interviews extended to a wider scale, I sent out a Likert Scale survey and ran an analysis to understand correlations between respondents. This helped define three types of phone users: those who responded to phone stress by avoiding, those who responded by leaning in, and a small group whose phones didn't stress them much at all.
insight 05
Most people, even those who respond quickly, want to spend less time on their phone.
insight 06
The people who fear annoying and distracting others with messages and the people who find receiving messages annoying or distracting are not the same people.
insight 07
People who avoid message are also more likely to send voice messages.
concept iteration
Framing the Solution
With a general understanding of the landscape from interviews and personas, I began creating storyboard to understand user narratives and potential interactions for different design interventions.
insight 08
Using familiar items to create interactive metaphors helps people connect their critiques with a known situation, a potential way to utilize the tension of magical realism.
experience prototype
The Walkie-Talkie Test
From feedback on storyboards, I took my three top concepts and began trying to explore through experiential prototypes. The most fruitful, which would lead to Tuning Conversations, was the walkie talkie prototype: to test whether a) an a more-intrusive, but more personal audio message would change behavior and b) what the impact of synchronicity would be, I asked eight people who text me every day to only communicate with me via long-range, two-way walkie talkie.
insight 09
Dictates of etiquette from both physical context (i.e., on a bus or in a meeting) and communication medium (i.e., phone call) both play a large role in the way people conduct their conversations.
insight 10
The vocal and asynchronous elements of a walkie talkie make it feel more immediate and personal than text messaging.
insight 11
Privacy and intimacy are important elements of conversation, even when the subject matter isn’t particularly sensitive.

Defining Interactions

Introducing Modes
From my experiments, I honed in on the Tuning Conversations prototype, as I felt the interaction gave space to explore the surprise and awareness perspective-shift elements found in both magical realism and embodied cognition research. From the walkie talkie prototype, I created nine ‘modes’ users can tune their phones between based on their space type and desired volume level, and collated these modes with personas to understand motivations to help me define the required interactions.
Crafting the form
Physical Prototyping
At this stage, three primary concepts following the interaction map were sketched: a radio that would let users tune based on time and channel and have ambient conversations; rings corresponding to relationships that could be tuned by taking them on and off; and a chair to tune in and out of conversations based on levels of intimacy. Of the three, I decided to build the radio, and following a series of digital and physical form and concept explorations, began building a model.
The final radio on display at RCA 2023 show.