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Improved workplace of architecture students

  • 9 Weeks at UM (09/2017 – 12/2017) |
  • 3 Studies |
  • With 3 UX Design Members

This project improved workplace of architecture students to reduce stress and encourage healthy behaviors. The final design was an ambient display that provides students with a changing scenes throughout the day, and encouraging positive habits during work time.

User Experience Researcher
  • Planned the studies and recruited participants
  • Performed the studies: field observation, 2 diary studies, and 4 concept testings
  • Analyzed results and brainstormed ideas
  • Created animations for the prototype
  • Drafted the detailed demo plan

Problems: Stressful Architectural Education

This research began with simple curiosity about the problems facing workers as they spend lots of time in one workspace. From preliminary research, we learned that design studio is an unique academic environment that worths more attention.

Architecture ranks 5th in list of jobs most linked to suicide.

2016 US Study


Long Hours
in Studio

Students spend 12+ hours per day in studio



Students often stay up late in studio


Stress from
Rigorous Review

Program and industry is extremely competitive


Poor Self-care

Bad work and eating habits and lack of exercise

Research Questions

How can we better design their workplace to improve mental health and productivity?

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What we did in the 9 weeks

3 Studies

Formative Study

Who do We Build for

After the preliminary research (Phase1 - Observation & interview), we wanted to have deeper understanding of this population.

Research Questions

  • When or under what situation stress will occur?
  • What factors in workplace seem to influence their mental health?
  • What are their work habits?

Methodologies: Diary Studies & Surveys

We wanted to understand this population from both detailed and overall perspectives so that key insights can guided product directions and design criteria can informed detailed design decisions. Here were 4 considerations while designing this study:


Data with context so as to design for environment

Throughout a Day

Situated decision-making, attitudes, and values

Be specific

Key factors to achieve or avoid in various scenarios

At Scale

General habits and thoughts about the workplace

Highlight: Diary Studies

Participant profile
  • 4 UM Architecture students (ideal 5-8)
  • Had an assigned studio desk
  • Was in studio at least 1 day during the study
  • Precoded print forms
  • Camera (participants’ own cellphone)
  • 2 times per day X 3 days
  • Interview after 3 days

Diary Entries Example #1

  • How are they addressing stress outside of work?
  • Help capture patterns, and follow up “Why” in debrief.

Diary Entries Example #2

  • What are the potential causes of stress in workplace at different timing?
  • How do those look like?
  • Use media captured by participant as interview prompts.


Diary Study

We reviewed the diaries and pictures with each participant and asked follow-up questions about their responses. After the interviews were transcribed, the same color-coding used for survey responses was applied to the interview transcripts.

Diary: Coded interview transcript


We analyzed the survey results using different approaches depending on the question type:

  1. Select/Multiple Choice Questions: used graphs to allow us to easily visualize and interpret the data.
  2. Short Answer Questions: used word clouds to illustrate the most common responses.
  3. Open-Ended Questions: color-coded responses based on different categories to identify themes.
Graph showing items architecture students keep in their desks
Word cloud showing what projects people work on in the studio
Coded responses for factors leading to dis/satisfaction of studio environment

Key Findings

Finding #1

Lack of stimulation in environment caused mental fatigue

Finding #2

Lack of awareness, knowledge or time to reduce stress

Design Problem Statement

Key insights guided the product direction

#1: How might we make students less stressful staying in the same environment for a long period of time?

#2: How might we augment the workplace for those who have no access to the natural world?

#3: How might we encourage students reduce stress in a healthy way?

Design Criteria

Informed tactical design decisions
Positive Habits
Does our design help to users balance between work and play?
Does our design keep distractions to a minimum? When it does need to distract a user, does it do so at an appropriate time?
Does our design help users to feel more relaxed?
Does our design require users to make any decisions?
Does our design allow users to customize things to their individual needs and preferences?

Brainstorming with Designers

Based on key themes from color coding, we brainstormed a number of possible solutions.
We ranked on a score of 1-5 to determine how well each feature met each design criteria.
Among several ideas, this idea was finally selected: Ambient display - changing scenes, interactive game

Evaluative Study

Will It Work?

After brainstorming, we wanted to evaluate if this idea work using low-fidelity prototypes.

Constraints & Opportunities

What can we evaluate an ambient design with a non-workable prototype

Although we won't be able to evaluate how our designs reduced a person's stress over a longer period of time, you can study the "proximal outcomes" by evaluating with past theories or frameworks -- if our systems can reach these proximal outcomes, it is more likely that they will reach the distal/final outcomes.

  • Restorative Environment Theory: whether your design supports "Being Away", "Extent", "Fascination", and "Compatibility."
  • Heuristic Evaluation: ambient displays “Peripherality of display.”

Research Questions

  • How interactive NatureFrame can be in encouraging healthy behaviors or improve productivity?
  • How might people Interact with NatureFrame at different timing?
  • How might NatureFrame behave differently considering the interaction between people and surrounding situation?

Experience Prototyping

  • Open workplace in UM library
  • Mid-fidelity, Google Slides
  • 5 Scenarios
  • Wiz of Oz

Scenario Dimensions

Effort Commitment
  • High
  • Low
  • High
  • Low
Surrounding Situation
  • No others
  • A few people
  • A lot of people

Scenario Example #1

Staying a while, high effort commitment
Congrats! …. This time is worth 50 points. Use rewards points towards building a virtual aquarium.

Scenario Example #2

Before Leaving, low effort commitment
Congrats! You've worked for 500 minutes today! Incredible!

Key Findings

Users reaction in experience prototyping

Reflect on all I’ve done to gain a sense of satisfaction


Strategic breaks can reboot the cognitive energy

Minimal effort

Avoid additional decisions added to their days



A ambient display designed to help augment the studio environment and to build positive work habits by sending break reminders, and reminding users when it's time to get back to work.


Changing Nature Scenes

Changing scenes throughout the day based on work hours and breaks.


Relaxation Activities

​Reminders to take breaks, such as completing one of the meditation sessions.


Compliments for Hardworking

​Reminders to take breaks, such as completing one of the meditation sessions.

With this nature sound, I become focused and calm.

— User Enactment's Participant

[Seeing this message before I go home would] help me reflect on what I finished during these hours. And that actually would help with the relaxation and the stress.

— User Enactment's Participant


What I've Learned

Lessons learned

  • Explore the boundaries and risk factors: we want to learn how people react to new technology while also taking into account existing contextual and social factors. Even if we feel that the scenarios may not be beneficial to our users, the point of Speed Dating UEs is to test boundaries about solutions that will/will not be adopted by users.
  • Think beyond the experience: Is this idea usefulness, desirability, practicality? Is the idea may only provide marginal improvement? It's an awesome idea that everyone can think of, but too many (technical or structural or organizational or financially) difficulties to implement?
  • Find ideas can be built easily, creatively: that is, in a way that people have never thought about.

What I would do differently

  • Brainstorm more diverse ideas before narrowing down the scope/solutions. Challenge yourself to think of more design alternatives. Challenge ourselves to use the time creatively.
  • Explore another idea that didn't be selected because of the technical capability.
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