Reflection through interaction

Can personal objects reinforce young people's awareness about energy consumption and stimulate a change of their energy behaviour in everyday life?

This master thesis in interaction design by Mattias Ludvigsson has been carried out within the framework of Interactive Institute's Static! project, which investigates interaction and product design as a way to increase energy awareness and stimulate changes in energy behaviour among the general public. The thesis narrows the scope by focusing on young people and the personal objects they use on a daily basis and investigates how interaction design can be used, in combination with conceptual design and a speculative approach, to change existing attitudes and behaviours regarding their energy use and consumption.

The investigation was carried out in form of a design project, where the exercise in design methodology played an equal important role as the actual outcome from the design project. Many new and non-traditional design methods were used and explored in a both dynamic and reflective design process.

The design project resulted in three themes of conceptual design proposals, represented by sketches and mock-ups without technical functionality, which all exemplifies how existing personal objects can be re-designed in order to raise energy awareness among young people. The provocative behaviours inherited in the design proposals are all illustrative examples of how interaction design can be used to achieve reflection through interaction.

The master thesis introduces speculative re-design and suggests that it can be used for giving provocative properties to re-interpretations of existing objects. Speculative re-design resides in the span between critical design and real-world products and its provocative and speculative nature suits well in order to achieve reflection through interaction, preferably over a longer period of time. Introducing speculative re-design as an approach to interaction design also suggests that it can be used even in a broader sense, applied in different contexts and situations in order to achieve actual changes of existing attitudes and behaviours.

Download master thesis, conference paper, presentation.

Energy localisation

The final Wind music player mock-up.

In the probe returns, some students associated energy with more natural and sustainable energy sources like wind-, wave- and solar power. Even though these forms of energy are constantly present and always surrounding us, we tend to not think of their presence. Another finding from the probes was that students mentioned music players as their favourite personal object. One reason for this appreciation was the company they brought during travelling or waiting. It would be interesting to combine these two findings as a way to explore the localisation of energy.

All music players must be provided with energy from different sources to work properly, since they have no batteries of their own. In order to play music, young people are forced to continuously explore, localise and parasite on available energy sources in the surrounding environment. One of the music players is powered from wind that could be gained by running fast, holding the player in the hand; another of them requires a temperature difference and may parasite on the heat from an indoor radiator. Each music player is equipped with an ambiguous indicator, making it difficult to intuitively, without testing, knowing how much energy is actually needed.

When power gets short, the user has to continue the search for another energy source that could provide the player with new power, which could lead to new findings about undiscovered locations of hidden energy sources. This uncertainty about available power sources produces a strong feeling of dependency and the exploration can be seen as an intricate way to gain awareness about the energy geography in the surroundings. The players also illustrate that we sometimes have to surrender some control to larger structures outside our own control, e.g. the solar driven music player that stops working if it is cloudy.

Energy generation

The final Toothbrush battery charger mock-up.

The personal inventory showed that many of the objects used by the students, e.g. mobile phones and music players, require electricity to work—an energy source not always available or affordable. A problem with electrically powered objects is that they quickly run out of power and therefore often needs to be recharged. Changing focus from consumption to generation could perhaps make young people more aware of the costs of producing energy, whether it is in a small or a large scale.

The battery chargers give young people a choice to generate energy by their own in a sustainable way, to be used instantly or perhaps saved for later use. Instead of plugging an ordinary battery charger into a wall socket, users can charge their mobile phones while brushing their teeth or powering other electrical gadgets by using a natural form of interaction with ordinary objects and tasks that is either fun or necessary, e.g. skateboarding or doing the dishes.

This re-interpretation of ordinary and daily activities can act as an incitement to adopt a change in energy consumption among a group of people where energy is often taken for granted. In the end, this may generate some interesting interpretations of the battery chargers and it is possible that alternative energy behaviours will evolve over time. The physical effort resulting from ordinary activities can give young people a deeper awareness about energy and a hint of the relation between producing versus consuming. It may for example be sufficient to power music players while skating from school but a month of brushing to fully charge the electrical tooth brush.

Energy visualisation

The final Blood medallion accessory mock-up.

The probe returns showed that many of the students thought that mobile phones represented a “dangerous” form of energy. This was an interesting contradiction; especially since almost all students participating in the personal inventory carried a mobile phone in their bag and used it frequently on a daily basis. In order to evoke some reactions among young people, it became obvious that the invisible and intangible nature of electromagnetic radiation had to achieve some sort of physical representation. Without committing to whether mobile phone radiation is unhealthy and dangerous or not, these proposals all act as ambiguous displays visualising this kind of radiation.

The accessories were inspired from dosimeters; badges indicating exposure of radioactive radiation. In similar ways, these accessories react to and visualises the amount of “dangerous” radiation from mobile phones that is exposed to its user. The key strap is sensitive to such radiation and reacts with an augmented effect by slowly dissolving the material, which in the end will make it non-functional. The fact that these straps are commonly used by young people to hold, not only important things like keys, but also their mobile phones, further emphasises the contradiction where increasing daily usage of mobile phones substantially decreases the important functionality of the key straps.

The medallion slowly releases small red drops in its glass container when exposed to mobile phone radiation, resulting in a visual effect similar to a lava lamp. Both the key strap and the medallion display accumulated, in an ambiguous way, values of electromagnetic radiation exposure. The red drops may be perceived as blood originating from the users body where the red colour indicates danger, but its aesthetical appearance and poetical nature leaves the interpretation open for speculation. The high visibility of the medallion, as for most jewellery, forces the wearer into a number of dilemmas; showing the medallion to others implies explicit knowledge about the owner’s exposure to radiation, while hiding it away contradicts the very notion of jewellery—to be seen. Another dilemma occurs if the owner decides not to wear the medallion. Then its main purpose will fail, leaving the owner unaware of the possible risks during extensive mobile phone usage.

Unlike the above mentioned proposals, the bracelet instantly indicates the current amount of radiation exposure by printing a graph on a paper. This extensive amount of received information forces the wearer to continuously make decisions whether to give attention to or ignore the results being displayed. Individual interpretations of how to use the printouts are encouraged by not offering any fixed solutions. Instead, personal preferences and interest in this kind of information will determine the usage. Some users may collect the printouts for further analysis, knowing important information could have been missed, while others may throw them away instantly without any further attention. The printouts may be given away as gifts or used as a tool during an exploration of the invisible electromagnetic radiation in the surrounding environment.

Personal inventory

To find out a little bit more about the personal objects young people surround themselves with on a daily basis, a personal inventory was performed in order to document the things they identify as being important to them. Sixteen master students in interaction design were asked, without any prior notice, to empty their handbags and backpacks on a table where the content was documented with a digital camera. The students grouped all their objects and bags without any explicit instructions, which in itself rendered some interesting insights of their personalities.

Common objects among almost all of the students were mobile phones, pens, wallets, calendars, coins and keys. More rare things identified were a Leatherman tool, a key padlock, a pack of cards, a clarinet mouthpiece, a patent application, a ring, a pocket mirror and a marsh tree seed.

Cultural probes

Objects included in the probes.

The probes created for the design project were used to achieve a better understanding of young people’s habits, thoughts and perceptions of energy in specific, but also to get a glimpse of their relationship to personal objects and the impact they might have in their mundane life. A probe package was carefully and purposefully crafted, consisting of a disposable camera, a pen, a set of dot stickers and a small booklet with instructions and a number of reflective questions.

All probes were given away in two rounds to in total nine students and collected after three to five days. Among the findings from the returns was the fact that many of the students perceived electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones as a dangerous form of energy, and that many of them had music players as their favourite personal object. Electricity and electronic appliances were often related to energy, but some students also associated energy with human power, sun, animals, heat and food.

Some reflections around energy connected to photos taken with the disposable camera (in Swedish): "Jag såg en räv springa in i skogen. Vi stadsbor tänker inte på hur mycket energi det finns inne i skogen.", "Energin som bussen använder kommer från bensin, som i sin tur kommer från växter mm.", "Spinningcykel. Energin kommer från mig själv." "Vatten. Kraft genom kranen strömmar mot mina händer.", "Jag har 8 lampor på i mitt rum, en stereo, en TV, en DVD, en klockradio. Men jag har bara 3-4 saker på samtidigt.", "Snabbmiddag på McDonalds. Detta är energi som ska få mig att orka ta mig hela vägen hem."


I would like to thank my supervisors; Peter Ljungstrand at the Interaction Design group, Chalmers University of Technology, and Johan Redström at the Design Research Unit (Research Director of the RE:FORM studio during the thesis) at Interactive Institute for all their help and constructive feedback during my work. Further I would like to thank Ramia Mazé (studio director of the RE:FORM studio during the thesis) for her valuable input and encouragement. Thanks also to all members of Interactive Institute’s Static! project, sponsored by Energimyndigheten (The Swedish Energy Agency), my opponent Tomas Andersson for his useful comments and Kristina Nyström at IT University of Göteborg for her help with the giveaways.

I am grateful to the following students for all their time and help, from IT University of Göteborg: Ina Maja Bengtsson, Emelie Dolfe, Jon Mårtensson, Anna Olvenmyr, Johanna Oxstrand, Hanna Stjernkvist, Sofia Torberntsson, Kalle Ulvstig, and from Polhemsgymnasiet in Göteborg: Linn Durhammar, Anna Kuliginova, Amanda LaMont, Lisa Nyman and Gabriel Triana.

This master thesis has required lots of time and effort so I would like to send a special thanks to my girlfriend Sara who has encouraged me during this time with valuable advices and practical help. I wouldn’t be here without all of her support!

About the author

This site is authored by me, Mattias Ludvigsson, an interaction designer living in Gothenburg on the west coast of Sweden. I have been working professionally with user experience, interaction design, information architecture, usability and web design since 1998. This site is a place for me to present my master thesis and share the knowledge I have gained during my master at the IT University in Göteborg.

Contact me at LinkedIn or Twitter.


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