Presence: How to Use Digital Technology to Live a More Analog Life

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So much of modern technology is inherently designed to distract. But what if its aim was to provide calm and focus instead? Presence outlines a suite of electronic products that enables users to regain control of their attention and limit the negative impact of digital distraction on their daily lives.


  • Presence

    Kathryn McElroy

    How to Use Digital Technology to Live a More Analog Life

  • PresenceHow to Use Digital Technology to Live a More Analog Life

    Kathryn McElroy

  • 2014 Kathryn McElroy. All rights reserved.

  • 347










    One: Introduction

    Two: Goals

    Three: Audiences & Market

    Four: Research Reading Interviews with Experts

    Five: Part One Speculative Objects Social Intervention Brand

    Six: Part Two Concierge Cortex Juice Bar Tempo

    Seven: Looking Forward

    Eight: Endnotes

    Nine: Bibliography

    Ten: Appendices A: Resources B: Acknowledgements C: About the Author

    Table of Contents

  • 4Introduction

    Distraction by devices

    photo by Flickr user Mr. T in DC

  • 5In America today, the digital age is in full swing. Cellphones are pocket-sized, computers lightning fast, and people, enabled by their gadgets, are busier than ever. This tech boom has largely been positive. However, a Harvard study shows that people spend 47% of their waking hours distracted and not thinking about the task at hand.1 Technology-based distractions result in over 3,000 deaths and half a million injuries every year because of distracted walking and driving.2 Distraction also lowers productivity in workplaces; one study found that office distractions waste 2.1 hours each day and that workers switch activities every three minutes.3 Due to this annual loss of 525 hours, employees will require more overtime to complete their work.

    A popular proposed solution is to limit technology usage through digital detoxes, technology-free vacations, and unplugging from the internet;4 however, it must be

    Chapter OneIntroduction

  • 6Introduction

    acknowledged that technology is an integral part of modern life, and it is not easy to separate from it. Technology, as a human tool, must be part of the solution to the distraction dilemma. Taking this into account, my goal is to design technology that limits distraction and allows users to be more focused in their work and present in their experiences. A series of experiments and case studies, using concepts I have developed, have tested different approaches to limiting distraction through software, apps, smart objects, and experiences.

    Interviews with experts in multiple practices, including the field of human ergonomics (the science of user-friendly design) revealed parallels between the concepts of physical and mental comfort. Robert King, founder of office furniture design firm Humanscale, explains how he uses ergonomics to limit users keyboard and chair adjustments, so as to not damage their wrists and spines. The field of neuroergonomics, which combines human performance and emerging research in neuroscience, is used to design systems that are safer for humans, but is not currently applied to technology design. If applied more broadly to design, neuroergonomics may lead to technology that measures its success on the amount of time users are focused rather than the total amount of time that the technology is used.

    This book shows the evolution of the thesis topicfrom mindfulness and meditation to focus and technologygrouped into a series of chapters. Chapter Two discusses the goals and objectives of the thesis work. Chapter Three addresses its audiences and markets, both the objective and personal audiences of the project and the markets and competitive landscape for the

  • 7solutions. Chapter Four describes the research done throughout the year, which includes reading and speaking with industry experts. Chapter Five explains the work done during the first semester of the thesis year, including the prescribed methodology of lenses, and design work done for each lens. Chapter Six dives deep into the case studies and experiments conducted in the second semester of the thesis. Finally, Chapter Seven examines possible future plans for the work if it were to continue on after the end of the thesis year.

    My experience in the first year of the MFA Products of Design program greatly guided this topic choice. Two of the most empowering classes I took were Making Studio, taught by Becky Stern, and Smart Objects, taught by Carla Diana. Making introduced me to the Arduino microcontroller, an open-source electronics prototyping platform,5 and was my first experience designing with electronics. It enabled self-driven learning about programming, coding, and making fully functional prototypes. The Smart Objects class allowed me to apply these new electronics skills in the area of emerging technology. Smart objects are wirelessly networked objects that relay sensor information and other data to users through the internet.6 These products are becoming less expensive and easier to make, and companies are filling the market with internet-connected products.7 From this class, an insight emerged that has been a major theme in the project work: in a world where everything can be connected to the internet, what really needs or deserves to be smart?

  • 8Goals

    Computers allow for flow in many tasks

  • 9The exploration, experiments, and case studies of this thesis are aimed at limiting distraction caused by technology and allowing users to be more focused in their work and present in their experiences. Focus and flow (the mental state when a person is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus in a task1) both contribute to increased performance and improved morale in the workplace.2 Information technology allows flow, but it also distracts from flow by providing unlimited access to information and social media, which are designed to capture attention and reward constant checking for updates.3 This behavior affects all areas of life, at work and at home, and design needs to approach this problem in multiple ways in order to affect beneficial change, increase productivity, and also increase well-being.

    Chapter TwoGoals

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    Prototyping in progress

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    Each experiment is designed to test a different approach for limiting distraction through a variety of media, including software, smartphone apps, smart objects, and experiences. Each experiment has elements designed to entice the user, but also features sophisticated and savvy interventions for limiting distraction. Testing data and user feedback will aid in improved design, function, and usability. The overall intent of these experiments is not to create final, polished products ready for market, but rather to conduct quick iterations across numerous directions to learn as much as I can through the process of rapid prototyping and user testing.

    Skill building and hands-on making are also a focal point of this project. I am using this time as an opportunity to learn about emerging technology, and to work with new advancements in sensors, microcontrollers, Bluetooth-enabled processors, and internet-connected devices. I will use this knowledge to improve my electronics-making skills and build numerous prototypes.

    I also want to share my findings and designs with the open hardware and open source communities, which allows other makers to build on my work and continue these projects in new ways. I want to increase my ability to design and build functional prototypes with which to conduct user testing. In order to do this, I need to be able to make simple, robust models that will withstand heavy wear and tear. These skills will allow me to invent new devices for alternative interactions with digital technology.

  • 12

    Audiences & Market

    The Vatican during the unveiling of the past two popes

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    The elements of this project, which combine emerging technology and thoughtful interactions, are of great interest to large technology and design companies. The goal is to present my work in a clear and professional manner in order to gain employment and to continue working in the smart object and wearable technology areas. Companies like IDEO, frog design, IBM Design, Google, and Apple are leading thinkers and change makers in design; using human-centered design to speculate the future of technology and how users will interact with it.

    The products described in this thesis have one audience but two target landscapes. The audience consists of early adopters of technologypeople who are comfortable taking a risk on new hardware devices and are tech-savvy. They own a smartphone, and are up to date on the latest operating systems and apps. However, these users have very high expectations for new technology and can be easily disappointed. This audience expects a fully thought-through and designed experience, from introduction to the products end of life. They have a sweet spot for the

    Chapter ThreeAudiences & Market

  • 14

    elements of an objects interface, and prefer that one is not too complex so that its quick and easy to learn, but not too simplified that lacks functionality. Products for this target must be simple to grasp, but robust enough to deliver useful features, and this is a balance that is very difficult to achieve, as high-level users prefer to be slightly challenged when discovering and learning a new device.

    The first target landscape is the individuals social lives. In this landscape, the individuals acknowledge that they have a distraction problem and want to improve their focus. They use information technology throughout their day to accomplish tasks and connect to social networks. They are interested in being in better control of their time and attention, but dont know where to start or what to change. These people have read articles about technology sabbaticals and detoxes and are considering adding a tech-free day to their week, but they are still attached to their devices and do not want to give up the convenience. They enjoy the feeling of connectedness with their peers online, but are beginning to realize that they may not be in full control of this feeling and that it is driving an increase in their technology usage.

    The second target landscape is the typical workplace. In this landscape, people regularly take breaks from their projects to check social media and email, losing up to two hours a day to distractions and task-shifting nearly every three minutes.1 Due to their high stress jobs and high expectations of work quality, this demographic allows themselves to become distracted when uncomfortable, and often eat lunch at their desks to make up for lost time or to avoid work interactions and conversations.2 They enjoy their work and want to be productive and efficient, but are still drawn by the allure of what is new or happening online. They dont want their internet access restricted,

    Audiences & Market

  • 15

    The office landscape

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    Competitive market

    Audiences & Market

    Signal Jammer Phonekerchief Headspace

  • 17

    but would be open to receiving help to train their ability to focus. Their employers are also interested in productivity solutions that not only increase profitability, but also increase employee well-being. The ideal offices for testing the thesis projects are high stress, and high reward, environments including start ups, co-working spaces, and small companies.

    For this target audience, changing their interactions in one landscape will affect the other. If an individual uses a smart object to improve her focus, she will also be more focused in her work. If a worker learns how to control his impulses to check social media during a project, he will also be less likely to do so at home. By approaching both at the same time, the solutions will function in all areas of this audiences lives.

    Market and Competitive Landscape The competitive landscape in limiting distraction and increasing focus includes four main types of products: programs and apps, smart objects and devices, low-tech solutions, and mental training programs. The largest field of competitors are programs and apps, due to their low cost to build and buy. These programs limit or prevent distraction for specific tasks, like writing, by defaulting the program window to take up the full screen. Others limit access to certain websites or disable wifi and internet completely to stop users from being distracted by the Internet. Since companies have developed so many programs like these, technology designers must address the issue of distraction in their initial research and plans.

  • 18


    A collection of articles and videos

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    Research to establish the problem area began with looking at emerging technology and mindfulness. The definition of mindfulness is the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience,1 and it is one of the seven factors of enlightenment in Buddhism. Although mindfulness is a popular and interesting area, the continued research for this thesis shifted over the course of the first semester to include more neuroscience and information about attention. The terms focus and presence, and their counterpart distraction, made more of an impact on this project. This chapter contains an overview of readings and insights collected from speaking with subject matter experts.

    Chapter FourResearch

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    The number of stories about distraction, focus, and technology in top magazines during 2013-2014, including Fast Company,2 the New York Times,3 the Huffington Post,4 the Atlantic,5 Wired,6 Popular Science,7 Popular Mechanics,8 and TED,9 show the immense impact of these topics. In addition to news and online articles, many books have been helpful in learning about this topic.

    The early research conducted about presence and mindfulness has been from varied sources, and according to The Happiness Project,10 by Gretchen Rubin, and The Happiness Hypothesis,11 by Jonathan Haidt, mindfulness and happiness are correlated. However, although there is similarity between the two, they are not necessarily equal. Mindfulness, with practice, creates a calm and distraction-free mind that is less stressed and occupied. Once the mind is free from distraction, one is more likely to feel happy. A few suggestions from these books are to clear

    Research | Reading


  • 21

    A selection of relevant books

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    mental clutter and create space for awareness and mindfulness rather than to focus on the end result of happiness.

    Nathan Shedroffs Make It So12 examines the technology of science fiction and analyzes how the design of fictional interfaces shapes future technologies. Shedroff disassembles technology found in television shows and movies to see what is feasible to make and when it may become reality. These far-fetched devices are seriously analyzed for clues into the future of interface design, and the most poignant insights often come from science fiction that improperly predicts the future.

    Michio Kakus The Physics of the Future13 takes a more scholarly approach to speculating future technologies by gathering the viewpoints of more than 300 experts, researchers, and scientists. Kaku compiles them into an interesting collection of future scenarios, including advancements in eight different areas: computers, artificial intelligence (AI...