Category Archives: Prototyping

Why do we need design?

A joke I’ve often heard before is about engineers and their inability to actually design apps. The gist is that the engineers have large amounts of creativity and technical expertise and can create amazing devices, but the actual interface is designed terribly. Now, obviously this isn’t the case in real life: engineers are just as good as the general population in general interface design properties, if not better.  The problem is that, to make a good interface, one needs to put in some serious research and effort. I learned from a human factors class that, when you design something, you want it to be so good that your consumers don’t realize that there could be any other design.

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One important factor to note is that the device in which the interface is used on is extremely important to understanding the design. Earlier in the year, my design team tossed around ideas about some sort of web app or website, so I looked around a little on the internet and learned about WIMPs

But not that kind of wimp. WIMP is a term in human-computer interaction which stands for “windows, icons, menus, pointer.”  These are elements that are—or were—supposed to be used in user interfaces, and have been in place for a few decades now. WIMP interfaces have:

  • Window: a usually rectangular area which runs a self-contained program or application.
  • Icon: A symbol used as a shortcut that represents and execute an action or run an application
  • Menu: A list or sets of lists that allow a user to select and execute programs and tasks, and are often in “pull-down menu” format.
  • Pointer: an onscreen navigation symbol that allows a user to select things.

All these seem very basic right? You’re probably reading this post on a computer that uses these elements as part of the UI, on an internet browser that also uses a WIMP-style GUI (Graphical User Interface). In fact, but a decade ago, this was the dominant form of UI design. As I mentioned before, the thought was generally “Well of course you design an interface that way. How else could you design it?!” Later, we got the iPod, which was one of the major players in moving away from this system due to the lack of true windows (the iPod used different screens instead of discrete windows), icons (text was used), and pointer (no actual pointer, but the blue “select” option served the same purpose). Now, we have interfaces that no longer require WIMP-style interfaces: touchscreen devices, augmented or virtual reality systems, and voice or gesture based systems. They are considered post-WIMP interfaces and rely on different types of design elements.

I’m going to come back to this topic: I find it useful for anybody that wants to design a product or companion for some kind of service. For now, though, I just want to leave with this: the design elements of a device must be considered carefully. Not only do computers have different design strategies than mobile devices, but the design strategies will differ between iOS, Android, and Windows apps. With this in mind a little research on design will prove fruitful.

Engineering Conferences

Ping. Have It Your Way.

Ping.  That must be my daily reminder.  How am I feeling now in terms of arousal and valence?  Well, I just had my weekly meeting with my research advisor.  He was really getting into the nitty-gritty and suggested that I should have been farther along with my project.  I don’t even like this project.  I wish I could just get it over with… Anyway, probably low valence.  It was a pretty negative experience.  Also high arousal… He really stresses me out, and I could feel my blood pressure rising.

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One of the greatest benefits of mood tracking is increased self-awareness.  Mood tracking apps like Moodscope and Mobile Therapy remind users to take a step back and to reevaluate their life choices.  They can reflect on what is bringing them happiness and what is bringing them down.  By connecting their moods with other factors happening in their lives, users can develop a greater understanding of themselves with respect to their environment.

The beauty of mood trackers is that they also provide spatial and temporal information.  Users can link their moods to their immediate spatial surroundings and to the time of recording.  By randomly sending pings throughout the week, these apps can help users determine where and when they tend to feel upset or happy.

Additionally, mood trackers do not only take in information, they can also offer advice.  Mobile Therapy offers therapeutic exercises, including breathing visualization and muscle relaxation.  It also offers strategies to quit smoking, treat anxiety, and detect relapses in psychotic disorders.  Ideally, these mood tracking apps could personalize therapeutic exercises to a user’s specific input.  You could “have it your way” by inputting end goals, such as cultivating happiness or controlling the relaxation response.

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With most mood trackers, it is also possible to add information through texting—users can share paragraphs of information if they feel inclined to do so.  Therapists and physicians could use these self-reflections to see how their patients are doing over time.  Appointments with health professionals are short, and they are not necessarily indicative of how the patient normally acts.  Some patients may experience white coat syndrome, so there is an additional benefit of having records of patients outside of the doctor’s office.

In the future, perhaps these apps could notify the patient’s physician directly.  Jon Cousins describes the benefits of connecting his data to those close to him: “We leave traces of ourselves with our numbers, like insects putting down a trail of pheromones, and in times of crisis, these signals can lead us to others who share our concerns and care enough to help.”

If physicians have access to their patients’ personal information, they can individualize their treatments.  While there would be a lot of information to handle, this issue could be alleviated with efficient organization and clean programming.  It is possible to automatically assemble the relevant information in a visually aesthetic way, and these apps track not only the physical health of users, but also their mental and psychosocial health.

Transmedia Hackathon @ OEDK!

OEDKEarlier this week the Medical Futures Lab parachuted into Matthew Wettergreen’s class in the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen at Rice University to run a two-day transmedia hackathon inside a summer engineering design course. Our goal: explore how the visual and narrative representation of problems shapes our ability to find solutions to those problems. Students engaged in a series of experiments using different communication and representational tools to develop their understanding of how the form of representation for a problem shapes the way we analyze and solve that problem. By exploring with different tools, students saw different dimensions of their problems, which included doctor-patient communication about a variety of complex subjects, including risks & benefits of genome sequencing, end-of-life conversations, and talking about socially uncomfortable topics.


Peter Killoran started things off with a narrative medicine + EMR re-design warm-up exercise, routed through two classics: IOM’s To Err is Human (1999) and Edward Tufte’s Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1992). We spent a lot of time talking about the role of storytelling in design, and then these incredible students went about prototyping (in about 90 minutes) consumer-facing EHRs that could also be useful to clinicians. The beauty of the non-expert approach was definitely on display, as these young creatives weren’t hampered by all the restrictive protocol (HIPPA, can you hear me?) and instead could concentrate on the core message: get the patient’s story into the EMR.


Later in the day, Allison Hunter ran the group through some eye-opening visual arts exercises in flow-charts and mood-boards. The next morning, I launched the group into a session on doing things with words. We did exercises on metaphor, simile, and analogy, both textual and visual. We also worked on point-of-view as a critical dimension of design. After a final session on storyboarding with Allison, students were tasked with a problem to solve using a set of tools (written, visual, moving image, audio), and at the end of the hackathon they presented their experience of experimenting and identifying which tool best helped them develop a solution to the problem.

This was a laboratory designed to generate ideas and strategy for the Medical Media Arts Hub, and my big take-homes included affirmation (again) that collaboration across difference is truly critical to engineering design, to medical problem-solving, and to tackling the wicked problems of the world; that art+engineering+storytelling is the answer to many problems; and that listening to future users’ needs is everything. Mind-expanding experience, and fun to boot. Next time, we’re taking it public, so stay tuned – we’ll be seeking local “wicked problems” to tackle soon!

Announcing the All-Star Cast of the Medical Media Arts Hub! (aka part two)


We’re growing our team of multidisciplinary transmedia theorists and makers, and we’re inspired by the hackathon ethos of rapid prototyping as well as the “thinkathon” ethos of engaged theoretical praxis (thanks to the brilliant Wendy Chun for bringing that great term to my attention).


A sampling of our group includes the renowned multimedia artist Allison Hunter, bioengineer and co-founder of the Caroline Collective Matthew Wettergreen, Communications expert Tracy Volz, Archimage principal and Playnormous designer of award-winning games for health Richard Buday, media agnostic principal of ttweak consultancy and Houston. It’s Worth It. visionary Dave Thompson, and more.

hiwi_1lHalf of the reason we’re so excited about this new project at the Medical Futures Lab is that we have a serious celebrity lineup on deck to help make the vision a reality.imgres-1 And every time we talk about this project, we find more top talent ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work! Watch this space for more information on becoming a community partner or a sponsor, and look for some pilot projects to appear this summer. And, as always, if you want to get involved, let us know!

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