LAB REPORT: Flexible Displays

Group D: Hannah Hoffert, David Ott, Julia Petrich, & Di Yu

In this week-long project, we were tasked with exploring ways in which a flexible display could be used to produce fitness-related and sport-specific accessories that improve people’s experience and/or performance in those activities, while adhering to a number of technical constraints that would likely be present with such a display.

Prototype Goals

As our team began working, we brainstormed numerous athletic contexts in which a flexible display would be useful including swimming and weight training. Ultimately, we decided to prototype two different concepts: a quarterback’s football helmet with displays in the face shield and a small flexible map that offers quick information to hikers.

Concept 1: Football Helmet

Our first concept aimed to deal with difficulties that football players (especially QBs) have remembering plays and communicating with their coaches. A flexible display could be used to present legible information on the helmet’s face shield.

Concept 2: Hiking Map

Our second concept targeted the problem hikers face being encumbered by outdated technology. We aimed to consolidate and update many of the tools and information hikers need on the trail into a small, lightweight collapsible screen. Such a product might easily and effectively display information like location, statistics, weather, resources, viewpoints, and more.

Prototyping Process

We created a series of prototypes to explore our concepts and to reach the design that we would ultimately present to the class.

Initial Sketches

In brainstorming, we quickly sketched a number of ideas for flexible display applications, as well as brought up a number of considerations that we might have going forward. We were able to quickly generate a number of concepts, from which to choose two to move forward with further prototyping.

Initial brainstorming sketches

First Iterations

To create our first physical prototype of the football helmet, we used objects we had access to during class to test out the flexible display and to prototype how the hardware might work. We used sheet protectors and a pair of safety glasses to prototype the face shield, Legos and string to prototype the electrical components and the wires connecting them, and a take out food box to prototype the helmet itself. (As mentioned, we were limited by what we had available and the time constraints of the class. But quick and dirty is sometimes good enough!)

Sometimes you have to make do with what’s around!

We chose to prototype the visuals on the screens toward the bottom of the safety glasses, so that they would not obstruct the field of vision of the player and would just require a small eye movement in order to read. We did learn that, for this to work, the face shield needs to be at a further distance from the face than safety glasses. We surmised that, if we were prototyping using a more comparable helmet, the distance would have been sufficient to read the information on the display. Using safety glasses, we were able to create one display that covers the whole field of vision; however, due to display size constraints, if we were prototyping on a face shield, we likely would have had to use two screens, one on each side of the helmet.

Prototyping the interface

Before creating the first prototype of our second concept, the hiking map, we put ourselves in the mindset of the consumer and tried to determine what they would desire in an ideal hiking tool. Our goal quickly became to create a pocket sized, lightweight device capable of providing hikers with valuable information. Hikers often have to carry heavy loads of gear, so we knew our consumer would not want to add a large, heavy device to their load. This made the lightweight, flexible display technology the ideal vehicle for such a product. By imagining ourselves as hiking enthusiasts, we were able to brainstorm a list of possible features for our device: GPS, trail information (wildlife hotspots, dangerous zones, campsite locations, etc.), reviews, statistics, notifications, and a rescue option.

Our first prototypes of the hiking concept

After determining the features, we focused on creating a prototype to meet these demands. The flexibility of the material was intriguing, so we decided to exploit this feature by making our device foldable, thus decreasing the size even further. We then hypothesized the order in which hikers would want to view this information and how screen size impacted the quality of its display. We used a sheet protector to act as a screen for our prototype and sketched out concepts of what the different displays would look like. The first version called for three different sizes of display, with both sides of the device outputting information. The starting position of the device was a quarter of the display screen with notifications appearing on the front side and a call for rescue option on the reverse. In this state, the device would be in a low power mode until the user took it out for use in order to save battery. By unfolding it once, the user had two half screens visible, with user statistics on the front and trail reviews on the back. Performing this action once more gave the user access to two full-sized 80 cm2 displays with a GPS on the front and trail information of the reverse.

While prototyping, we had two main challenges: the electronics and the display of information. We had to play around with different locations for our electronics so as not to obstruct the images while still allowing it to fold in half twice. Additionally, we realized that our initial goal of providing a full-sized map with GPS and trail information simultaneously would require two screens thus doubling the cost. Because of this, for our second iteration, we replaced our double folding model with a sleek single, full-sized screen that used a button to scroll through the viewing options. This button could also be used as a beacon if held down for 5 or more seconds. Folding the device once would serve as its power down mechanism.

Revisions Based on Learnings from First Iterations

After the first class, we decided to focus on iterating our hiking concept further. For the hardware structure, we decided to add more functional modules besides the bluetooth module and rearrange the electric components in order to save space on the screen. We moved all of the modules onto the screen’s backside. To make TrailAngel more functional, we added an accelerometer module, a magnetic button as well as a control button. The accelerometer was added as an option to let the device turn itself on automatically by the shake activations. We also thought that it might be able to assist in the compass that we wanted to add (although we would learn later that that was not the case).

Iterations on the product’s form.

We also installed magnetic button on the back side of the display which allowed the device to fold more readily, making it more convenient to transport in a pocket. In our previous prototype, we had placed the control button on the front side, but after testing out the prototype amongst ourselves, it seemed more reasonable as well as more ergonomic to incorporate the button into the electrical components on the backside of the screen. This way, the display would not be covered.

Battery power is critical to devices that are meant to be used in the wilderness. Therefore, we added a supplemental battery to the device in order to increase the cruising time. Without charging, the device could remain at full power for up to 6 hours.

User Testing and Feedback

We did two rounds of testing to gather information from our users. First, we conducted informal interviews with a few avid hikers. Chris and John semi-regularly partake in trail running, camping, and a range of different hikes. In interview, they echoed a lot of our initial thoughts and ideas but also added other information that would be useful to them on a hike like weather, notifications, and other useful statistics. Both John and Chris agreed that 2 hours would be the minimum battery they would need for their hiking purposes. They quoted a price point of around $50 to $100 if the device could do everything we advertised to them. These two interviews confirmed a lot of our original thoughts but also produced some valuable ideas and feedback that we were able to incorporate into our next prototype iterations.

We conducted further user research with Kate, a hiker, REI employee, and designer. We first administered a card sorting activity in which Kate thought aloud as she organized the cards which represented some of the content that might exist on our display. She chose to organize the cards by what she would like to see most to least. Here, she also pointed out some content that we were missing: water locations and average pace. We then asked her to reorganize the cards from information that is needed most to least frequently. After card sorting, Kate walked through the early rough screens of the display. We asked her to annotate as she went.

User research with Kate

The most important insight we gained from these exercises was that less is more. The information included on a device like as this, under such dimensional constraints, should be information that is necessary to have as a hiker moves, not the kind of information that one should gather before a hike or that would be interesting to see after. The purpose of hiking is to be disconnected and in the moment. It’s not a time for the cognitive overload of the modern world. This helped us pare down and simplify the features of our device to the most essential.

Final Prototype

For our final prototype, based on our user insights, we stripped the information included in our product down to the most vital. On the map, there are two views, zoomed in and zoomed out. On these views, we’ve simplified the information to current trail (highlighted), adjacent trail (muted), rivers, topology, campsites, water locations, and lookouts. The time of day also proved to be much more more prominent in our final design.

Mockups of what our device might look like in context
The two views of the map, each with different contextual information
Views of different screens based on time of day
Cost and Pricing

Future Considerations

The feedback from our in-class presentation offered us many future areas of consideration for our product. We would definitely like to look into customizable ways to carry the product, including the ability to wear the device on your clothes. We also acknowledge that we need to do further research into researching the technology behind accelerometers, compasses, beacons, and the app driving the overall product. Our peers responded very well to our different methods of user testing, such as card sorting, allowing the subjects to annotate, etc. Due to the positive feedback and helpful critique, we feel that we can improve the device more, through further iteration and user research.

Moving forward we would make more iterations on the hardware and product design, likely testing out different mechanisms for the closing of the device (as was brought up during critique, there are many other options that merit exploring), as well as improve the aesthetics and ergonomics of the device. This will be key to competing with existing products.

Finally, we would like to explore how a device such as this might fit into a product-service ecosystem. A product like this could very well fit in with a web and mobile platform for planning your hike as well as reviewing analytics of your hike upon return. This would bring up many questions that we would have to test with our users: What support might they find useful pre- and post-hike? What services might we create to offer our users the best hiking experience possible?

Observations and Reflections

Divide and Conquer; Then Unite

Our process was inspired by IDEO’s model, which promoted wild imagination, out-of-the-box thinking, and positive team-building. After selecting our two most promising ideas, we broke up into two teams to dive deeper into developing two prototypes. This was very effective as we were able to begin to explore multiple concepts and later decide which was more promising. Once we received feedback from our peers, we came together and selected the one concept we were most compelled by, which seemed like it could most benefit from further exploration. Whereas before we had been more focused on the breadth of our ideation, now, using double the number of minds, we were able to expand on the depth and fine details of the product through further research, user testing, and prototyping. While this method worked very well for us in this situation, we do understand the ways it might go wrong if not everyone on the team feels heard during pivots or other large moments of transition.

You Can’t Not User Test

User testing and feedback were critical to our design. We were gather more information which helped us to simplify the features of our product to the most essential. Without user feedback, we might have offered an overwhelming set of unnecessary features. We might have created a product with not enough battery life. We might have created a product that offers the wrong information in a given context and that leaves out vital information such as the location of water. User testing, especially through qualitative methods, is the best way to gain real insight into the needs and desires of people.

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