Idea/problem/context: While tending not to let things slide in professional environments because of the immediate repercussions, we often neglect our personal lives, where the effect of our actions are less apparent. Good at building systems that assist us in structured environments like the workplace, we find it difficult to design for the ambiguous, less tangible nature of our social lives.
What it is: The Social Fabric is a representation of your social world, displayed as a single visual array on your mobile phone. It does not replace your address book or calendar but keeps you subtly informed about which relationships are prospering, which you have neglected, and the overall state of your social fabric.
How it works: Your phone's screen shows a crowd of human figures, each an avatar of one of your friends, acquaintances or relatives. The frequency of all digital communications between you and each person, which the system monitors, determines that avatar's posture: an alert stance indicates frequent recent contact, for example; a lethargic posture or turned back means neglect. You can also register non-digital contacts manually. The avatars can be grouped manually according to sentiment, category, and so on, or programmed to begin clustering together before an upcoming event: your family before a birthday, say.
Value/potential: More generally, this project shows how, as well as hard information (amply served by current applications), personal management tools can also record and represent the 'softer', more ambiguous, but still central aspects of our lives - and with no less elegance and power.
The work shown below is a summary of the design process from the 'My Social Fabric' thesis project.
My main topic of interest was to explore and design a visual system that would assist and prompt me in strengthening my social ties. I began with simple graphic experiments in visualizing the social fabric. My goal was to explore emotive, powerfully visual language cues that would inform and prompt me into action. Besides many experiements, these explorations produced two main design solutions. The first being'Pond Life'that used the metaphor of a pond to communicate the state of the users social fabric. The second takes its title from my entire thesis period and so is called 'My Social Fabric'. It depicts your contacts represented as humanoid avatars on screen. The main concept in this is that the avatars use a form of non-verbal communication, body posture, as a mechanism to communicate the state of the relationship.
Why visualizing the people in your life as people? I stumbled across the illustrative art of Joe Magee titled'Playtime'. I was transfixed. I interpreted a lot in those visuals. I saw people I knew in those people, I saw social behavior, emotion and I always saw something new. There is so much up for interpretation when looking at a picture, painting or illustration of people.
The page that extends below can be split into two parts. Part one represents the main function of the system so it deals with body posture, the avatar and the thinking around database and profiling methods. Part two represents extentions and design ideas that naturaly occur as a result of visualizing your contacts as people on the mobile device.
Inspired by Body Posture
Having the people in your life represented as humanoid avatars opened up opportunities to explore the richness, complexity and subtlety of non-verbal communication delivered by human body posture. Body posture became the primary mechanism by which the avatars would subtly communicate the current trend of the relationship as well as gain an impression of the overall health of the social fabric.
Depending on the frequency of contact and involvement, the avatars display a body posture that is reflective of the current state between the user and the contact.
According to anthropological studies there are approximately a thousand stable human postures that we consciously and sub-consciously use to communicate. The criteria for the system was that the avatars exhibit varying degrees of contentment, anticipation, anxiousness and dejection, thus communicating to the user the trend in the relationship. The postures needed to be both simple and iconic so to be interpreted over a wide cultural landscape and that that the postures be ambiguous so that it would be open to self-interpretation.
After a rough analysis 14 body postures were selected that depict the different states with a relatively generic flair. Future design improvements could yield a much lower figure of approximately 5 or 6.
Above: A brief study in body posture. The illustrated people depict a positive trend, starting at the left, which then transforms into a negative trend ending at the far right.
Database and profiling methods
The avatars are plugged into a system that streams processed data to it that is collected from a variety of communication channels. This system employs an algorithm to analyze the raw communication data and produce a ranking value, which is used by the avatar to determine the body posture it should exhibit.
An added dimension to the data analysis is the idea of profiling. Each relationship has its own idiosyncratic qualities, where frequency of communication and preferred communication channels can vary greatly between different friends. It can depend on many kinds of circumstances ranging from geographic distance, economics and understanding of what is the normal cycle of things. Profiling is used to determine what this normal cycle is for each individual in my contacts list and to produce a trend for each relationship based on its profile.
The design criteria for the avatar was partly based on an understanding that the visual language of the Social Fabric relies to a degree on the subjective interpretation from the user. Therefore the baseline criteria required that the characters trend towards being iconic, universal and simple in their design. In effect abstract, as this then leads to self-interpretation.
The obvious technical contraints where that the avatars on a screen resolution of 320x240 stand no higher then 16 pixels tall. Within these constraints it would be important for the user to be able to identify different body postures.
The simple iconic designs above were inspired by the artist Julian Opie.
An important and powerful continuation from visualizing the people in your life is to arrange them into groups. These groups can be roughly sorted into two stations: The event group: Individuals who are grouped to reflect their association with an event. The sentimental group: Individuals who share an emotional bond. Event based groups form just ahead of the event that they represent.
The main idea is that groups form to create awareness of upcomming events that they maybe associated with. So in practice the clusters on screen change according to
Groups form and emerge to signal the event that is coming up. Through group communication one maintains an understanding of the situations and status of these events that are coming up.
Interaction: Forming a group involves the followng steps. 1) Using the stylus to clear a space on screen by making an anti-clockwise swirl on screen. As you expand the stroke, avatars will continue to move away creating a larger space. 2+3) Selecting the avatars and sliding them into the clearing. 4) Using a clockwise circular motion to seal and form the group. At this point a dialogue screen apears as a step towards profiling the group.
Expiration: This is a exhibited graphically through the avatar to create awareness of an action or task which so far has been left undone and that the time to comfortably and gracefully respond or complete the event is expiring. Mapping the task to the Avatar
The sequence above depicts various stages of a visual reminder that is associated to an avatar. As one keeps delaying or dismissing the task the avatar begins to exhibit a negative trend in body posture. Colour is used in addition to the body posture to further convey the developing sense of urgency. The final stage. You Suck! The avatar begins to show dejected body posture.
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