An introduction to the Sensing London design sprint

Through our Sensing London Project, we are partnering with Intel Collaborative Research Institute, The Royal Parks, Enfield Borough Council and ScienceScope, to instrument parts of London with a network of low cost, high quality sensors, to deliver a more detailed picture of air quality within the city.

But once we have this more detailed picture, what then? How do we help people understand and engage with the data generated by this sensor network? And how do we help citizens take action to reduce air pollution?

We decided to set up a Design Sprint to tackle this issue, and settled on the following design challenge:

How might we help citizens make sense of air quality and do something about it?

What is a Design Sprint?

The world of product and service innovation often uses a human-centred approach to discover new solutions. Our Sensing London design sprint brought together a multi-disciplinary team including designers, engineers, ethnographers, data scientists, and researchers to focus on the needs of people – in this case citizens – and used this insight to inspire new ideas.

How did we go about it?

The sprint took us to the boroughs of North London where we met with people in their homes to conduct in-depth interviews, to better understand their attitudes, behaviours, needs and desires around air pollution.

The 12 people who took part were found by a professional research recruitment company to meet our specification. They were recruited primarily to cover a spread of different transport modes, as this is one of the largest contributions individuals make towards air quality. Our sample included car commuters, users of public transport, walkers, cyclists, a taxi driver and a tube driver. Across the sample we asked for a spread of gender, age, and socio-economic status.

We also included some additional characteristics that we thought would generate interesting conversations about air quality. These included: school run mums, buggy pushers, asthma sufferers, someone from a less polluted place, someone from a more polluted place, a semi-professional sports player who trains outdoors, someone who wears a mask to avoid pollution, and someone who’s taking steps to track their own behavior to make a change to their lifestyle.

Why take this approach?

This type of research is all about getting outside of our own perspective, building empathy, identifying needs and inspiring new solutions. It is known as design research or empathic research and is different from other forms of research for a number of reasons. It is qualitative, favouring small sample sizes; it takes place in context (ethnographically inspired); it uses design tools to provoke the conversation; and it looks to the extremes of the user population, as well as the norm, to unlock a more nuanced understanding of attitudes and behaviours.

It treats human stories as truth. Through a fluid but rigorous analytical process known as synthesis, it seeks to identify patterns and themes that are clustered and distilled to create insight. This insight allows us to understand things from the users point of view. It reveals hidden meaning. It grounds us in a clear understanding of human need, and it forms the springboard to ideas that meet these needs. It doesn’t aim to answer a hypothesis, but instead seeks to explore.

In short it aims to inspire. And we hope that’s what this blog does.