Imagine wearing headphones that could sense your heart rate and body temperature while you’re working out and adjust your playlist accordingly. Or browsing a website that fuses “high culture” with mainstream entertainment, making art less intimidating.
Both of those ideas, along with five potentially life-changing others, were developed in Harvard’s ES21 course taught by Beth Altringer, coined “The Innovator’s Practice.” And after a semester’s worth of development, students presented their final projects at the Harvard innovation lab on Monday night.
Previously described as Harvard’s “real world obstacle course for practicing innovation,” the class is focused on behavioral feedback. Students are tasked with picking themes they’re passionate about and then developing a tangible project that has the potential to not only improve their lives, but the lives of those around them.
Altringer has crafted her course based on the human-centered design process used at IDEO, Continuum and the Stanford Institute of Design, with the hope students are able to share their interests to build “professional, innovative, impact-oriented projects that are designed with a deep understanding of human behavior.”
Most of the teams interviewed 30 to 50 people, according to Altringer, who urged students to spend time in the context they were trying to design for. “I’m kind of a tough love instructor,” she admits, laughing. “You have to create a very supportive environment, but if it’s supportive without being a little tough, it doesn’t push them enough. I actively push the students in ways I think are beneficial to them.”
By the end of the semester, every team achieved proof of concept. Altringer says she also hoped they gained a better understanding of how to negotiate and learned how to disagree. From previous work experiences, Altringer realized there “wasn’t a shortage of passionate people or good ideas,” but rather fellow employees didn’t know how to work in the same direction.
“The classes I create are trying to better educate for that,” she admits. “Your team can make or break your ability to succeed. Learning to deal with those things are topics we don’t tend to teach.”
After seeing the caliber of the projects produced by the class, it’s clear Altringer accomplished her goal. Below, you can read short summaries of the projects produced by the students, as well, with descriptions by Altringer, followed by photos of the students in class working.
Motivating Fitness—Anne Liu, Elizabeth Lenczowski, Micah Stone and Alyx Daly—This team was initially interested in understanding the diverse ways people are motivated to stay fit. They ended up creating playful workout headphones that sense your heart rate and body temperature and adjust your music playlist accordingly. If your heart rate gets low, their demo plays ‘Eye of the Tiger’ to pump you up, and if it gets high, it plays ‘Enya’.
Moments—Akua Abu, Judy Sue, Chenglin Yuan and Hansley Yunez—This team was interested in exploring ways to harness the benefits of virtual and proximal social networks. Based on their behavioral research, they created a privacy-focused, easy-to-use photo-sharing app. This group learned during fieldwork that many people on a trip or at an event, though they fully intend to share photos afterward, often do not. This is partially because of privacy concerns (e.g. not wanting the photos to appear on Facebook), and partially due to ease-of-use once people return to their busy lives. This app uses geo-location information from photos to figure out when people are together and automatically upload photos taken to prompt the user to very easily share with others. Unlike existing products, it is deeply privacy focused, and does not track users.
Pixel Park—Reid Bergsund, Ryn Burns and Cassie Zhang—This group wanted to explore ways to improve the human-environment interface in urban settings, and spent their fieldwork exploring people’s relation to green space. They found that green space projects tend to be expensive, politically difficult to create and maintain, and concentrated in ways that benefit a privileged few who live close to them. They wanted to think of urban space as distributed ‘pixels’ and integrate it in small ways into the urban environment. The tiny planters fit into almost any space. They have air quality sensors in them that speak to an app that allows cities to map air quality throughout, to visualize trends in air quality, warn citizens with health problems to avoid problem areas and encourage joggers to find clean air routes.
Postwork—Ling Fan, Jennifer Ly and Mia Scharphie—This group was really interested throughout the term in exploring how people can participate more in the design and production of products. Traditionally, all you could do is ‘buy’ or ‘not buy’, but increasingly, technology opens up other avenues. They realized during fieldwork that a lot of people are ‘frustrated makers.’ They have creative goals and aspirations, but the daily grind does not support them. Their app makes it easy and fun to find other people and events that support your creative goals.
Culture Clash—Hena Haines, Jennifer Jeffrey and Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya—This group was interested in expanding access to the arts, and particularly the type of arts considered ‘high culture,’ such as ballet, opera and fine art. In their fieldwork, they learned that patrons are literally dying off and younger generations are not particularly interested in traditional cultural offerings. Young people are, however, engaging in ‘culture’ but they are consuming media design for shorter attention spans and immediate interaction. Instead of trying to change behavior, their idea fits into it, and finds ways to link ‘high culture’ to current media, entertainment and news.
WearHouse—Jeff Fischer, Parsa Kamali, Kara Kubarych and Josh Shih—This group spent much of the semester exploring ‘how to design the awkwardness out of group payment situations’ and looked a lot at whether technology can facilitate value exchange in ways that money cannot do well. They became interested in fashion, in particular, and how to help women capture and share value out of the 80 percent of their closet that they don’t tend to wear regularly. Their idea creates size- and taste-based groups who can effectively share their closets, checking items out from one another’s closet sort of like a library.
SMX—Judy Fulton and Hokan Wong—This group grew out of another group (Moments) and their idea allows users to map songs onto physical space and make them overlap however much they want—which makes them blend the songs together and allows you to play ‘urban deejay.’ It’s pretty awesome and you could, for example, follow Beyonce’s walking playlist in NYC or find jogging playlists that allow you to listen to cool music, but also play with your relation to space.