An ‘A’ Story about ‘B’ees: Design Case Study

During our first week in the MHCI+D program, the director Dr. Amanda Menking, spared no expense to expose its 8th cohort to the rigorous and rewarding design process we would engage in here at The University of Washington. Basing our process off of the Double Diamond model, we condensed what could have been months of work into 5 days to explore the concepts of ideating, designing, and collaborating within the field of Human Computer Interaction.

Meet Team Artsyface: Alexis, Angela, and myself Isaiah Morales

Duration: 5 days

The Challenge:

After some reading into the article ‘Posthumanism and Design’ by Forlano, we dived into the idea of how we can better design for non-human actors. After discussing the way in which we perceive socio-technical systems from a human perspective(see ‘Posthumanisn and Design’), we were eager to explore the development of tools from a non-human viewpoint. For team Artsyface, this would be done through finding a gap in tools that could help better the lives of animals that humans rely on in their daily lives.

One of the most prominent non-human actors our team discussed was honey bees. Symbiosis was important to us in this design challenge, and bees had such prevalent benefits when correctly handled by humans. With all three of us coming from different corners of the US, we all had seen in someway, the steady decline of these busy workers. For me, I saw this task as a way to truly explore the intricacies behind honey bee harvesting, and the subculture of beekeepers themselves, and learning to design for non-human actors.

Initial Steps:

To start our week, we began brainstorming amongst the team to develop concepts based off of our theme. Our main focus came by finding commonalities in our ideas. These commonalities were the following:

-Interest in designing for non-humans in urban environments

-Interest in exploring sub-cultures of humans in urban environments

-Interest in environmental preservation

All three commonalities pointed to the idea found in Angela’s cluster: Beekeeping.

Our Research Methods:

From there, we began our research. First, we needed to fill the gaps in our knowledge on the subject matter, so secondary research began on the subject of beekeeping in the United States. We divided our findings into ‘themes’ found across all readings, and ‘raw data’ that would inform us.

These two categories helped create three potential design questions we wanted to address when moving on to the ideation process:

  1. How do we promote beekeeping on an individual level, away from large organizations?

2. How do we help long term beekeepers develop novel methods of beekeeping?

3. How can beekeeping be integrated into non-rural areas in an effective and safe way?

We found that number three would be the best to take into account for a final “How Might We” (HMW) statement and moved on to some primary research. Our primary research method was done via a survey with the following Research Question:

Would individuals who have never tried beekeeping consider taking it up as a hobby?

Insights:

After a day of survey response collection, we divided our findings underneath these topics :

-Anecdotal thoughts on bee populations

-Anecdotal thoughts on beekeeping

-Perception on the beekeeping experience

-Personal reasons for wanting to start beekeeping

-Personal reasons against beekeeping

When analyzing the responses (n = 7), we found that a little more than half of respondents said they would consider taking up beekeeping as a hobby. With some confirmations on our assumptions and context filled from our research, we were ready to begin our go at ideating.

The Ideation Process:

During this stage, we wanted to create rapid fire solutions to the problem space (keeping in mind the insights we gained from our research). After some long hours of solitude with a screen, mouse pointer, and line tools, Team Artsyface developed some 30ish ideas. Since this was a rapid fire process, some if not most, came out quite rough around the edges (mainly on my end); however, after some talk in identifying the role of some of these concepts, we were able to create a Concept Suite of 4 main products that would inform our prototyping.

Concept 1: Hivemind — A digital beekeeping guide with social networking components to promote teaching and collaboration. Beekeepers, novice or expert, could interact with each other online to discuss, ask questions, or hold virtual workshops.

Concept 2: The Hive Exchange — A local equipment hub where novice beekeepers can use hand-me-down beekeeping kits donated by experienced beekeepers. More keepers = more hives = more bees.

Concept 3: The Hexa-Nexus — A synthetic beekeeping center akin to a greenhouse, a public place to visit in your local urban park. Patrons can pass by and observe or engage in beekeeping by renting out hive spots.

Concept 4: Syntheteehive — A synthetic beehive that resembles ones found in nature. Meant to be an alternative to the typical beekeeping “towers” or “buildings” found in traditional beekeeping farms. Meant to keep bees stress free and at ease while also attracting them to parks they wouldn’t normally be seen.

Once the concept suite was collected, we went on to a critique with our cohort. For the most part, our 4 concepts were met with an equal amount of positivity. The one consistent form of criticism we faced was to really keep in mind the safety of the bees in these ideas. The prototype at the end of the week had to show how we were designing for not just humans, but how these bees were being designed for as well. My personal favorite concept, was the Syntheteehive, for it really was a product purely developed with the comfort of bees in mind. Basically, the Air Bee n Bee we all need in our lives. I’m sorry for that: moving on…

The Prototyping Process:

So with our concepts validated and iterated on, it was time to get to prototyping. Basically, we had to create a scale sized model of a bee green house with cardboard Synthetic bee hives filled inside of it, that allowed people to walk around and see what could be the desirable location of their preferred local park.

At least that’s what would’ve been the task before us if A. we had the time, and B. we weren’t separated due to the superbug going around at the time (see COVID-19 pandemic). So we did the next best thing…we played pretend.

Now I don’t like to brag, but playing pretend is something I’m quite good at in my life. I’ve played pretend on the playground at 5 years old, to now pretend that I was smart enough to get into The University of Washington grad school at 24, so I’ve got it down pretty well I’d say. With that, in my spare time, I’ll play pretend in another manner with a game that has seen rising popularity in the last few decades. I’m, of course, referring to political commentary on the internet. Just kidding, I’m talking about Dungeons and Dragons (or D&D). In my experience, with that time waster, I’ve come across some interesting tools on the internet that are used to run these pretend scenarios. One of my personal favorites, is the website known as Roll20:

With Roll20, you can construct maps for different situations you may find yourself in while playing the game. In a nutshell, one player controls the movements of different tokens, while the rest control their own custom made tokens to complete the predetermined objective of the game.

I thought that creating tokens of potential human actors and concepts would help illustrate the synthesis that would be had with all 4 concepts we developed. With this in mind, Angela and Alexis got to developing digital assets while I set up the ‘map’ of our design space. When mashed together, came our prototype demonstration, which you can find here:

https://youtu.be/nqXtnyHQuLU

Conclusions and Takeaways:

Once the week was over, it was time to look back. This project was entirely about the journey, and some key takeaways I found in my time working on this were the following:

  • Design for cohabitation does not simply mean tech solutions for animals, it’s the process of visualizing physical or digital artifacts to promote a healthy symbiosis between human and non-human actors.
  • The Double Diamond process doesn’t mean the design process ends at the second diamond, but a way to perpetually view the ebb and flow of expanding on a concept and then refining it through critique and research.
  • Developing solutions doesn’t mean carelessly throwing what ‘sounds’ right at the design board, but constantly referring back to your insights informed by your research.
  • Using our anecdotal perspectives is better to inform questions for design rather than solutions.

A huge challenge for me was not to use my own previous knowledge on beekeeping and the decline of bees that I had collected either through study or happenstance. In regards to the discussion on climate change, bees have taken center stage in some of these discussions, so preconceived notions on what was best for this project were sometimes frequent and almost invasive.

Overall, the week was rapid fire, challenging, and ultimately rewarding. I hope to find myself in a sprint scenario again soon, for it truly is a great way to test yourself as not just a designer, but as a collaborator and creator.

Finally, I’d like to say a couple of thank yous to the MHCI+D program and Dr. Amanda Menking for the opportunity to work on this project. And to my team, Alexis and Angela, thank you both for your hard work and excellent collaboration on this, I look forward to seeing what this program has in store for all of us, cheers!

Trying to get through the superbug, one project at a time. Full time Grad Student and Video Creator: https://www.instagram.com/actually_morales/?hl=en