Design Practice

The Design Practice module in the MSc in HCI-E at UCL involved a group project to put established user-centred design methods into practice. Hence its name. The goal for each group was the same: design an interactive device to encourage healthy behaviours. This post describes the process I undertook as part of a team of seven students over nine weeks in 2010.

The Problem

We first needed to define a specific problem to address. Our team chose older adults as the target user population, based on the assumption that people’s lives become more sedentary upon reaching retirement. But in fact we found evidence to suggest that while this was often the case with people retiring from physically demanding manual jobs, in general retirees were more active than before, not less. In addition to examining research papers, we conducted semi-structured interviews with a range of participants. Using Grounded Theory we applied the open coding technique to the interview transcripts and discovered that the majority of interviewees valued exercise, walked regularly and categorised themselves as “active”.

A comparison of the actual activity levels of our interviewees with the NHS guidelines (30 minutes’ exercise five times per week) revealed a disparity that became the focus of our study: despite considering themselves active, older adults were not hitting the recommended levels of exercise.

Personas and Scenarios

Extracting salient information from our interview data we created a couple of personas, Pam and Archibald, both retirees in their 60s with ordered if busy lifestyles. It was difficult to see how we might introduce a device into their lives, so we drew up some scenarios to enable the exploration of needs and requirements. This exercise revealed that there were opportunities for Pam and Archibald to improve their activity levels, and we decided to create a device offering encouragement to extend an activity’s duration, or increase its intensity, as it was taking place.


We drew up some requirements for the device, the principal ones being:

  • Present when user is active
  • Motivates user towards increased exertion to meet guideline targets
  • Calculates and presents optimal exertion targets to user based on personal data


In order to offer timely encouragement our device needed to be able to know when the user was active. The simplest way to achieve this was to ask the user to switch the device into a particular mode. To tailor the encouragement to the specific user, we decided to incorporate a heart-rate monitor: the device would know the user’s resting heart-rate, from which it could deduce the optimum rate for exercise. We brainstormed and sketched to develop our ideas. I drew up this early iteration of a design for the device, at the time dubbed the “Do-ometer”:

The Do-ometer imagined a heart-rate monitor as a wristwatch or finger band, communicating with a smartphone application which would perform the encouragement. We also discussed the idea of a chest strap or some kind of necklace for detecting the heart-rate, but these seemed impractical and unlikely to to be adopted by someone from our target population. Similarly, from our interviews we had learned that smartphone ownership in our user group was low, so the dual aspect Do-ometer was an unlikely solution.

We focused upon creating a single device and the obvious format was a wristwatch: it could monitor heart-rate, it could be worn all day inconspicuously, and it could serve as a replacement timepiece for the user. We developed some paper prototypes which we took back to our interviewees to get their feedback. Appearance was important: people did not want the device to be sporty. Furthermore, simplicity was key, as was the ability not to draw attention to oneself. I drew up some sketches of a possible interface for the device, such as:

The design was gradually refined into a device to be worn all day that the user would switch into “walk mode” whenever he or she was out and about. The device would show a target duration of time in the optimum heart-rate zone, emitting a tick to set the user’s walking pace. The frequency of ticking would steadily increase until the user’s heart-rate entered the optimum zone. At this point the device would offer auditory and visual encouragement to keep it up. And the name we came up with was simply inspired: “Tickety-Boost”. It ticks, it boosts, and hopefully makes you feel tickety-boo – which is a pretty old-fashioned term but one that the target user population might appreciate.

The Poster

Our deliverable in this project was a poster presentation. We needed to condense the previous two months’ work into an appealing and informative illustration of our methods, findings and design, and be interrogated about the process by a series of examiners. This is what we came up with:

This was a great learning exercise, not just in terms of data gathering (research, interviews, codifying), persona/scenario development, requirements analysis, sketching, prototyping and communication of ideas, but also in working as a group: seven people thrown together to organise and motivate themselves through goods times and bad to deliver to a very specific deadline. At the time of writing we know not how we faired, but I’m pretty confident and thank my cohorts for the ride.

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