Soundscape is a citizen science app that turns noise pollution into short songs. Users collect noise levels of their city and that data gets aggregated for city officials and the public to utilize. I worked with two UX designers to create this experience.
A sound-level recording app that turns decibel levels into short tunes. User recordings help cities dynamically tackle noise pollution.
When our team formed, we individually wrote down all of our thoughts about the problem and potential solution. This quick brainstorming led to a round of sharing and early design directions based on smartphone limitations and our own insights.
Each phase of our design was only as complex as it needed to be. Work that gets progressively more complex allows you to focus on the level of detail at hand and get continual feedback on the elements you’re designing.
The hardest design decisions we made focused around defining the motivations for using Soundscape. From our experience with citizen science communities, we saw that motivation was either intrinsic to science (e.g. “I use X because it helps science”) or extrinsic to the result of science (e.g. “I use Y because it helps science which helps the world be better”). To gain some insight, I interviewed my sister about her app usage, social media usage, and motivations for studying science. From that conversation and our previous thoughts, our team compiled a list of potential motivating factors for Soundscape:
Each motivation, taken as the locus of design, would lead to wildly different design patterns. We explored badges, social connections, and generative art paths the most.
Badges The design element we went back and forth on the most was badges. (Oh units of glory, why do you have to be so hard?) We initially wanted badges to help motivate users to continue logging data and complete actions we defined.
Our results indicate that badges are useful to motivate students while activity streams have the potential to activate students.
—Santos et al. in “Evaluating the Use of Open Badges in an Open Learning Environment”
Good thing we were thinking about an activity stream.
Findings reinforced previous research that digital badges function differently according to the type of learner. Results indicated a generally positive view of badges in English courses, though levels of intrinsic motivation to earn the badges increased for high expectancy-value learners only.
— Reid, Paster, & Abramovich in “Digital badges in undergraduate composition courses: effects on intrinsic motivation”
Ok. So badges need to be able to be achieved for some level of internal motivation. Further research into this study shows that the badges should be related to performance rather than just external motivators.
Ultimately, we decided to leave badges for a future version of the application. For the first version, badges themselves shouldn’t be what we rely on as the primary motivator nor did we want to spend our resources on some sort of badge management UI.
Social Groups We also explored how motivation might work with teams. Early on we decided that we wouldn’t create a social media app around sound pollution, but we could still learn from social media design decisions.
Our first proposal had exclusive and private groups users could join. Each user could join one group and users would only see the activity of the people in their group. We liked this decision for its simplicity and team-based dynamics. However, when thinking through use cases, it seemed as though the group-based interaction would be overly restrictive.
We abandoned this idea and re-focused our design to work better with existing social media applications. A more complex social aspect could be designed in a future version, but not version one.
Generative Art We ultimately decided to focus our efforts on creating generative art. User recordings could be motivational if they were turned into a song after a few recordings. Badges and social dynamics have been explored before. We wanted to explore a less-taken path.
There are two times a user can share their activity on social media channels. Each time a user makes a recording they are prompted to share a composite image of their decibel level, location, and the scientists they are helping.
Then, after a user has 15 recordings, we create a soundscape: a 15 note tune that maps the user’s decibel levels to a scale of MIDI notes. By mapping the decibel readings to a musical scale, we guarantee that the random numbers from the data are represented as notes that work well together. The mapping can be done an infinite number of ways. But, for our prototypes of soundscapes, I chose the scale of C and played the same set of notes with different MIDI instruments in Garageband. Previously, I had used an life-logging app called Reporter that, among other things, records the decibel level when you make a data entry. My real data generated these final soundscapes.
Creating interesting, sharable content for the Soundscape users allows them to make a post on social media easily. Interest from their post can drive new users to our application.
Given a longer time frame, we would have reached out to other citizen science app users to discover their motivations via interviews and speed-dating exercises.