An inclusive & interactive urban bench

(Global Service Design Jam HK 2021)

A Jam is about the rhythm we create when creative energy and diverse backgrounds fuse together at the same time in the same place. We loose sense of time and allow our ideas, post-its, sketches, and our imagination to run wild, before finally refining and tailoring the beat to fit problem at hand. The Global Service Design Jam in HK 2021, was a whirlwind weekend of creative energy that challenged us to use design thinking to solve a wicked problem around us.

I worked with a diverse team of four designers skilled with backgrounds in UX, industrial design and architecture. This year’s theme was “[Ex-tensions]”. At the end of the weekend, all teams presented their final design pitch to the judges.

So what did we design & present?

Tweet promo for Circuclus

In an increasingly digital world and despite living in a populated urban city, individuals still experience the feeling of isolation. To address this offline, we proposed Circulus! A circular interactive urban bench to spark a new conversation in a public space.

Presenting Circulus for urban spaces in Hong Kong

Keep reading to learn about our design process throughout the weekend.

The initial topic of pursuit was data privacy, and uncovering barriers for trust with sharing personal data on digital applications. We kicked off the project with quick guerrilla user research in the neighbourhood we were in. We split into two teams of two and spoke to a variety of citizens in the area to understand more about their everyday life in Hong Kong, their struggles and their thoughts with sharing their data on a local app.

My teammate and I ended up speaking to 5 different individuals ranging in age and income: including a domestic helper, construction worker, web designer, building guard and banker. We had a quick and casual interpretation session, where we all exchanged the interesting findings that we had from our conversations.

Some of the interesting insights included a higher trust for the TV news, as opposed to the news from the internet. Another interesting finding was the majority of people we spoke to were all comfortable sharing their data knowing it was keeping the community safe and if they knew they were doing nothing wrong.

However, at this point, given the limited time and number of people we could reach we didn’t have sufficient findings to continue in this direction. Instead, we needed to make a serious pivot and reframe the problem based on data we collected from the interviewees.

A commonality that we found across the individuals that we spoke to was the feeling of isolation and loneliness that still exists despite being in a populated city. Our chosen HMW was:

How might we reduce the feeling of isolation to increase a sense of belonging and happiness?

We went through our own post-its of generating as many raw ideas, proceeded to crazy eights and were encouraged by our mentors to even make small sketches to help visualise our ideation.

Some of the ideas our team came up with included: one unified sports community platform for the city, a physical installation dashboard showing industry contributions globally, a type of interactive bench and having zones that pause cell-phone network to encourage physical talking and interaction.

Our work station with all our ideas & connections

After much discussion & challenging each other’s ideas, we decided to take a risk and go for an idea that was primarily offline — an interactive public bench. We didn’t feel a digital solution for loneliness was currently needed in the market and began research into urban furniture. We revisited our user story and put ourselves in the shoes of a person we spoke to sitting alone in the bench park and not interacting with anyone, but willing to speak to us when approached directly for a quick interview.

The architect on our team guided us towards a circular design, where the philosophy of a round formation was welcoming to a second passerby. We also looked at a study done on bench design by Poly University in Hong Kong, that showed a circular bench design encouraged eye-contact and interaction, with peripheral vision on others in the circle, versus a linear bench where the view was solely the park.

Based on Study: “User Preferences of Urban Park Seating Pattern in Hong Kong” by School of Design, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, 2015

Our team split into two: The architect & industrial designer worked on iteration of the physical bench design itself and the 3D rendering.

The the other UX designer & myself worked to brainstorm additional features and digital add-ons to further encourage interaction. We found that having a shared commonality or memory such as books, food or music was promising to help strangers interact with each other. We explored connection with clubs that could electronically book these benches in the city to have their meetings & connecting with apps such as MeetUp to facilitate the digital booking.

We also explored the idea of setting up a QR code in the bench facility to spark a topic of conversation, or even allowing the visitor to select a topic of conversation.

After coming together as a group, we decided to role-play out our full storyboard of strangers having a conversation at the bench. We found a short sound or word to be easier to spark conversation & found that partnering with a food delivery service to deliver to the bench caused more complications than necessary and took away from the new interaction.

While we had copious options for adding the digital element to the bench, we decided to scale back our ideas and just focus on the bench itself being the primary mode for sparking a new conversation through pulling and extending a seat from the existing section. We then decided to just include a short sound of a historic Hong Kong sound (such as the tram) via sensory detection, to help spark a conversation between two strangers.

In order to tell a compelling story, we localised the problem of social isolation among 1.5million people living in Hong Kong and focused on the economic value that the solution brought to the city, to amplify the benefit from the $30million that the government spends on urban furniture in the city. We also provided the audience and judges a quick role play of Circulus in action!

We ended up coming in third place, and I’m truly grateful for the experience of working with and being challenged by individuals from different disciplines.

It has been great learning to continually dig deeper for the root cause of a wicked problem. What we keep thinking is the problem, usually has another deeper underlying cause. We learned to take a different approach and work towards solving the problem without relying on a digital platform. In addition, we learned more about the role urban furniture plays in the well-being of individuals. We were challenged to think about interaction design in the urban furniture and how this influences our interaction with individuals in close proximity. We also explored the seed of sparking a new conversation and iterating on ideas to achieve this.

UX Designer