Day 69: Kill Your Darlings

Thanks to Desperate Dan and his fliers scattered around Dundee, upon my arrival home from Copenhagen I was dropped straight back in the deep end, prepared to speak to a whole cast of potential users who would help shape my project. Going into my interviews, I wanted to develop a wide idea of what the area looked like, establishing key problems and needs from current cyclists, before reducing a number of what started to be over 20 willing participants (which dropped to 11 due to drop-outs and people who apparently vanished off of the face of the earth) to about 5 or 6 to conduct more focused, detailed user research with.

My first interview was with a Deliveroo driver from Abertay — someone who I was very keen on interviewing due to the intense nature of his cycling experience within Dundee. As a smoker and non-cyclist before his job with Deliveroo, my participant initially struggled with the notorious Dundonian hills, and ironically even considered leaving the job as he considered himself too unfit to work. Alas, he persevered, and says that he now loves cycling and has become quite interested in the culture. Speaking about the hills was obviously a very shallow insight — one that pertained to most, if not all of my interviewees over the course of the week. Instead, what interested me about my first participant was his attitude towards the fitness aspect of cycling, and how he was considering buying a Garmin GPS to track his statistics during his working hours.

A cyclist’s best friend

This interested me for numerous reasons. Initially I was curious as to why the Garmin GPS exists in the first place, and why it couldn’t just be in the form of a mobile phone app. Speaking further with my interviewee, I realised that the Garmin contains things such as a heart and pedal monitor that would give him added insight into his ride, but he is also wary of using his phone on a handlebar mount due to the cobbled streets in Dundee as well as the fact that the Deliveroo app wastes so much of his battery. The idea of data collection linked back to the idea of the Smart City, and how it fits in with both the cycling and technological aspects that my topic has been inspired by so far.

This insight was the main take away from my initial interview, and it was something that I had in the back of my head during the rest of the interviews. The idea interested me so much because it all seemed to fall into place, seeming so clear and obvious, that all these different elements could combine into one neatly wrapped package. I began to think about how the pre-existing data accumulated by cyclists could be used to inform both councils and locals in the area, in order to increase awareness on bad roads.

This idea is all fair and well — infact, I will probably proceed with it when I begin to develop sketch prototypes — yet I need to bear one vital piece of advice when moving my thinking forward.

Looking back at my favourite project from my Uni experience so far, the process I most enjoyed was concept generation and development. The brief was to develop a design that would improve the sleep quality of astronauts within space, and I had two great ideas — one was to enhance the comfort of astronauts using a fold out blanket that you could wrap around yourself, almost like a sleeping bat, and the other was a harness that would support your back and ensure that you had a normalised, supported posture during the night (or rather rapid change between bright morning and jet-black night that you experience due to the position of the sun in space).

When I was developing these ideas, I didn’t just dispel one design or the other as each idea had an important value at the core of them. Instead, using miniature clay models to represent the ideas and physically manipulate them, I integrated both designs into one another, placing the importance on the batsuit idea with the added functionality of the back support. I achieved this by storing the blankets in a backpack that also added back support for it’s wearer, making both ideas work seamlessly in one awesome design.

My design combatted the “unsettling” feelings of microgravity

I learned from this that you need to leave your design process as open as possible until the right times. Obviously you can’t just have a multitude of possibilities for a design concept come the time of a deadline, because that is quite simply daft. But you also need to make your decisions not only correctly, but timed well, so that you can amass as much insight into the problem as possible, and then make your judgement call. It also taught me that it’s okay to kill your darlings, and abandon what seems to be a great idea for the greater good.

You have to remember as a designer that it’s not about making what you think is cool, but what the user actually needs. Your user might want a go-kart in real life, but if you give them a rocket ship, then yes, that might be cool, but it’s not a go-kart. Rockets are expensive, high maintenance, and can only get you to a lifeless rock far, far away. They’re cool, but they’re useless for your avid petrolhead who wants to race around Knockhill on a Saturday afternoon.

The point is, ideas are great, but just hold onto them until you are really sure that other people think it’s great. It seems like an obvious thing to say, but I feel that so many projects I’ve seen in years gone by (especially me previously) have been made simply because the idea sounds awesome. As I came to this realisation, I began to open my horizons and pick up on some other fantastic, unexpected insights from my following participants.

For example, due to the large student populous of Dundee, many people seem to feel disengaged and unaware of their local environment. Places such as Tentsmuir, Camperdown and Broughty Ferry have gone unexplored, simply because the awareness for new movers is not there. As one participant noted, he wasn’t aware of the plentiful supply of scenic places in Dundee until he began cycling. These are not solely for cyclists, yet the bike meets that beautiful balance between freedom, speed and the full effects of the outdoors that can’t be matched by the extremes of walking or driving.

This point is especially interesting due to the fact that I put out a survey to over 100 non-cyclists over the past week. After commuting, the activity that non-cyclists took the most interest in with regards to cycling was exploring. I tend not to trust surveys due to the fact that one simple word in very little context could mean absolutely anything (in fact, the only reason I made the survey was to canvas a second round of participants), yet this basic sign is already very encouraging.

Having refined my interviewing tactics from my first round of cyclist interviews, and fully aware of the fact that I need to get the other side of the story to make the best product possible, I am hoping to speak to around 8 non-cyclists in total, and dependent on what I am interested in taking forward and exploring more, I will hopefully remain in contact with around 5 or 6 people, either cyclists, non-cyclists, yet most likely both.

From these non-cyclists, I don’t know what I want to learn, but I am keen on following up on many ideas, most specifically technology, exploring, and finally community. I find the idea of community quite interesting due to it’s importance in the context of a Smart City anyway, but from the cycling aspect is one that is quite poor. When talking about the social side of cycling, many participants seem to enjoy it as a social activity — but not with people they do not know. It’s a way for people to connect and explore together, but when it comes to expanding the reach of loved ones, the social side of cycling is viewed quite negatively.

Participants almost all agreed that MAMILs (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) and other cycle clubs were intimidating and not really what they wanted from a social setting. It’s not a problem on the MAMILs parts, however I can’t help but feel there is a market for social cyclists wanting to take a more casual approach to the activity, and dispelling the idea of cycling being a middle aged male thing could make it not only more of a welcoming proposition, but more inclusive as well.

The lycra-clad bane of the British cycling community

For a more rounded and complete insight, it is important that I dig deep into these non-cyclist interviews so that I can learn as much as possible from my willing participants. Moving on from them, I am quite wary about resting on my laurels and settling for the 1-on-1 interview technique. I want to try and give them cultural probes, or arrange ethnography sessions in order to learn more about what they do, not just what they say.

One thing I can say is that the organisation of these methods will be measured and controlled. I need to make sure that I’m doing things because they are the right thing to do, and if I have to turn my back on them then so be it. I still need to learn how to kill my darlings and plan out what I’m doing in relation to necessity, not because it appeals to me.

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