Context: Study Abroad (through the HCDE program)

Duration: 3 weeks (Summer 2019)

Collaboration: Team of 3

Skills Demonstrated: Iterative thinking and the ability to create prototypes with varying levels of fidelity to make sense of collected data

Tools Used: Paint, Embroidery, Fabric

In a study abroad program led by two of my former professors, my team and I set out to record data about the Regent's Canal in London. To make sense of our qualitative data we went through many rounds of prototyping, with each prototype leading into the next by way of class critique sessions.

Our goal was to represent our data in the best way that seemed fit, and we converged on a skirt decorated with the personalities of the canal. Our final deliverable was a low fidelity, painted, and embroidered canvas skirt.

The Beginning

Spring of 2019, I took advantage of an opportunity to travel to London for a study abroad program with two of my former HCDE professors.

We were to get in teams of three and prototype a recording device (this could be something as simple as a sketchbook and a pen, or as complicated as a homemade pH tester) that recorded a system in London. For our purposes, a system was defined as anything that shapes human activity and is shaped back. We then would analyze whatever data we collected and create a representation of that data in iterative fashion.

Choosing our System

For our system, my team and I chose the Regent's Canal: an eight mile stretch of man-made canal that runs through central London. It shapes commuting routes, housing, and is equally shaped by the human activity that occurs by it and on it, including many houseboats.

Regents Canal Map

Map of the Regent's Canal, which cuts through downtown London.

Researching our System

We had a makeshift data collection plan coming into London, but when we started recording our data out on the canal it felt much more natural than we thought it would. We planned out nine sites on the canal to visit, and we recorded photos, images, sounds, activities, people, animals, trash, colors, houseboat decorations, and anything that caught our eye. We also sketched our feelings, thoughts, and emotions at each one of the spots we visited on the canal.

The canal at Limehouse Basin, Mile End, and Bethnal Green.

The First Prototype

Using craft supplies that our professors had bought, we began to build what was interesting to us about our data.

No prior experience in prototyping

But I found some clay (which reminded me of the pottery classes I took in high school), and I started building a simple version of a bridge I saw at one of the locations. While I was making that bridge, I realized that making a map of all the sites and their distinct characteristics would help me. Having all the data laid out connected by a map of the canal but all visually distinct helped me make sense of the data we collected. What was different and what was the same between the sites?

prototyped map

Our first prototype as a team that organized our research geospatially.


At this point we were in week two out of three in the trip, and we had full-group critique sessions every other day. We went through multiple rounds of iteration and prototyping and stood up in front of 20 students and three professors to explain our ideas, what we liked, and where we were stuck. Being able to articulate exactly the advice we were looking for is a skill I learned through this.

class critique

My group presenting during critique. I was tasked with taking notes during this session.

Landing on Personalities and a Pleated Skirt

Through a combination of these sessions, my teammates and I realized that the salient and most interesting thing about our data was that each of the spots on the canal we visited had its own unique personality despite being the same water flowing through it.

canal personalities

Each site we visited during our field research had a distinctive personality. Click to enlarge.

After trying out multiple prototypes that communicated that idea (puppet shows, braided ropes, children’s toys, etc.), my group and I were encouraged to pursue our idea of a pleated skirt. Each pleat would represent a unique personality of the canal, but they were all connected on a single skirt just like the binding force of the canal. We also liked the skirt idea because clothes are one way you can express your personality, and the movement of the skirt mimicked the movement of the water in the canal.

skirt idea

How we imagined our pleated skirt would come to life. Click to enlarge.

Making our Skirt

To decorate our skirt, we started out at fabric stores. We wanted to find the perfect fabric that captured the personality of each location. We got embroidery thread, needles, markers, and fabric paint.

We had a couple pleats to show by the next critique session, and we received critique that our prototype lacked the richness of our data. Initially we were a little disappointed because we were all excited about the idea and where we were headed.

rough prototyped skirt

Our very early skirt prototype.

Looking back at our data, we could see why our professors had given us that critique. As a quick aside, during data collection we were lucky enough to run across a friendly houseboat owner. Through our experiences with her we got a tour of her houseboat, a trip down the canal, and insight into her experiences of living on the canal.

purely an insider perspective

With richness of data in mind, we decided to decorate under the pleats with quotes from houseboat owners. That way, when someone looked below the surface of the skirt, they saw the below the surface perspective as well.

skirt inner pleat idea

Our ideas for incorporating the houseboat owner perspective into our skirt.

Finalizing our Skirt

We decided to pair our skirt with a look book, a fashion booklet that has characterizing words for each place and a mini replica of the pleat of the skirt. This way, someone could look at the look book and then at our skirt and know which experiences matched to what place.

look book

An example page of our look book, highlighting Regent's Park.

With last minute Project Runway type edits, we finished our skirt and got to enjoy our finished work as well as see other group's projects. We loved our final product and the way others could wear our skirt and live the canal’s experiences through our design.

final skirt worn as a cape

Surprisingly, one of our classmates wore it like a cape!

final skirt close up

A close up of our finished skirt prototype.

Personal Growth

I loved this project because it was something completely new and out of my comfort zone. This project has made me a lot more comfortable with ambiguity and abstraction than I was before. I initially struggled with the idea of speculative design, and it took me a while to become fully comfortable with what my group was producing.

Although not a traditional UX process, there are many takeaways from this project that I will apply to my UX work. For instance, I am less of an a + b + c = d thinker. I am finding more room for creativity and expression now in the traditional design process and especially ideation. I also am proficient in physical prototyping, something I was not familiar with before this program.

Was the product the shiniest or the prettiest? Not in the least. But I had a blast creating it and have two new friends (former teammates) to share the experience with.

team picture

Our study abroad group.

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