Critical Review Report

21st Century Barometer

As a product design student, I feel quite comfortable in what I do. I would also say I’m confident in how I do it. But I’ve never properly asked myself why I do it. I don’t believe I can ever be a good designer unless I understand what motivates me. This module provided me with a platform on which to develop this understanding and find my own agenda.

My motivation

The first spark of inspiration came from the late designer, Bill Moggridge, co-founder of IDEO whose death on September 8th, 2012 coincided with the start of the module. After watching a short video in his memory it became clear that he was driven by people. If his design team weren’t talking about the people enough he would encourage them to find a way of bringing them closer to the design. I believe his methods ensured his work held value and fit into the lives of people with ease. It’s been my intention to adopt a similar design philosophy in the hope that my work may benefit not only myself as a designer but the people who I may design for.

Finding an agenda

Kate’s masterclass in design ethnography presented us with a rich source of material from theBusy Families/ /Busy Cities project undertaken in the MSc Design Ethnography Hothouse in collaboration with NCR. The research consisted of hot-reports from New York, Paris and Shanghai. It was interesting to see the different ways people live their lives in different cultures around the world. I enjoyed picking apart the routines and trying to find ways of making certain aspects of their daily lives more convenient. Some ideas were influenced by our society and other times we came up with completely new ideas. It was quite refreshing and incredibly energizing knowing that our ideas were based around the needs of real people who could benefit from whatever concept we might create.

Similarly, the visit from Amar Latif provided me with food for thought. It became clear to me that designing for the blind, or any disability, has great potential but must be considered carefully. For instance, you might be forgiven for thinking that aesthetics don’t matter when designing for the blind and that usability is your only priority but that’s absolutely not the case. Amar explained that what he loves about using his iPhone is that it’s a product that doesn’t draw attention to his disability. But it’s not a case of hiding the fact that Amar is disabled, rather making him feel included. Many of us have iPhones without knowing about the features on board that make it so useful for Amar. It’s about making normal, everyday products more accessible so anyone can use it. It’s an attractive route to go down because if you get the design right, you have a product that holds immense value.

Although both avenues were very appealing to me, I chose to go down the path of design ethnography over disability because it was a bit more outside my comfort zone and since our third year doesn’t count towards our degree, it’s a great opportunity to gain new experiences and look at design in a new light. I think I made the right decision and developed new skills and core values that will help me as I work towards my degree.


As with any Social Digital project, the brief we received combines people and technology, mediated by design. Using the Busy Families/ /Busy Cities research, I found a family in Shanghai who managed their family finances using a computer spreadsheet. Most family activities seem to be determined by the state of these financial reports. Being a budgeting student, I can relate to this, so I immediately started thinking of ideas. When we presented our initial half-baked concepts to the class, I noticed that there were no other concepts involving money apart from Rachael Johnston’s, so it made sense for us to work as a team. Rachael and I were able to contribute our skills from Digital Interaction Design (Rachael) and Product Design (me) to create an internet enabled information appliance that gives the householder specific and appropriate information about their finances as they leave their home at the beginning of their day. Communication was hugely important in ensuring that the technology Rachel developed using her experience in coding, fit seamlessly into the physical product that I built using my experience in the workshop. Every decision was made as a team to make sure we shared a common goal and took the same path to get there.

Below is a video of the digital aspects working in perfect harmony with the physic prototype:

When the teams were decided I was happy to be working with Rachael since I’ve worked with her on past projects and know from them that she is a conciensious, hard worker. I also looked forward to learning some coding skills from her, specifically in Arduino as this could be useful for future projects. I have experience in coding using Picaxe from second year, but when Ali introduced us to Arduino in another module it was made clear that it’s a micro-controller designed by designers for designers and will be much easier to navigate once I get to grips with it.

Unfortunately, I still wouldn’t say I’m entirely comfortable using Arduino since the code Rachael was writing was more advanced than anything I’ve ever tried using Picaxe. Likewise, Rachael probably would have liked to learn more about building a working, physical prototype but as we both worked on our specialized tasks the project seemed to move too fast for us to go into much detail when explaining these things. However, I do feel that whenever I need assistance with Arduino projects, I now have a capable teacher in Rachael and I’m sure that if she ever needs help using the workshop, she’ll be able to approach me for help.

Class critique and user testing

After the pressure week in October when we made our mark 1 prototype we presented to an audience of classmates and tutors. In my opinion, this was one of the major turning points in our development and without it, our final concept may have been very different. Kate’s system of having a few supporters and a few challengers helped us to identify both the strengths and weaknesses in our concept. For example, people loved the idea of using water to represent money but felt that it should be explored more to make it a richer experience. They did not, however, see the need for the interaction of inserting your bank card into the device in order to activate it. It dealt with privacy issues and perhaps no interaction would add to the abstractness of the water symbolization.

The class critique wasn’t the only factor we took into account though. Since we were dealing with a culture so different to our own, and the fact we wanted to keep the people we were designing for close to the project, we got in contact with Weiran, a design ethnography student from Shanghai. She was so influential to the project and provided us with lots of great insights into Chinese culture in the modern world, rightly steering us away from what we perceived to be traditional Chinese culture.

What I’ve learned

At the start of this brief I felt at a little bit of a loss and wondered what I would gain from the module. But I think I’m beginning to develop a much deeper understanding of why design exists the way it does in our society and it comes down to the people. Hopefully I will carry these core values through to fourth year and forward still into my career. I’ve also developed an improved sense of communication through collaboration in teamwork, helping me produce better designs as part of a group.



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