We were given the opportunity to reach out to design alumni in the Pittsburgh area through our school. We sent out a survey asking questions that yielded long-form responses about their experiences and how their design education has affected the path they’ve paved for themselves. Some questions asked included skills learned at CMU, formative summer experiences, influences on career choice, best piece of advice from faculty members, and deciding factors of their current job. The responses we received in return were detailed and thoughtful. Compelling stories of past experiences and endeavors were told through their responses. One respondent even wrote an essay reflecting on their time at Carnegie Mellon. In order to keep the integrity of the content, we wanted to create a visualization that allowed for exploration of the individual while displaying the interconnectedness of our alumni as a result of our education.
Of the questions we sent out in the survey to alumni, we chose to show six that would perfectly encapsulate the distinct stories of the 33 respondents. The six questions that made it into the experience we created were skills learned at CMU, formative summer experiences, how college has influenced career choice, deciding factors in current job, job title, and best piece of advice from a CMU faculty member. We found that these responses gave us a holistic view about the past and present of these alumni, providing a perspective on what design is like outside of our school.
In considering the final deliverable, we wanted the visualization to feel immersive. Because most of our responses were more qualitative than quantitative, we also needed a medium that would be able to encapsulate stories that were told. We mocked up the possibility of using a 2D interface and gestures to navigate layers or timelines, but ultimately found that it took away from the experience of how personal and insightful the responses were. We also made a point to create iterations that highlighted terminology or phrases that were similar across multiple alumni. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people had similar experiences. For example, multiple people had summer internships where they learned a lot doing work that wasn’t related to design.
We started to explore the possibility of using tactile interfaces to show layers of information. We wanted the user to be acutely aware of the presence of all 33 alumni while being able to actively seek a better understanding of them. We entertained the possibility of using gyroscopes or haptic feedback to enhance the physicality of the experience, yet none of it would be as immersive as having physical objects representing the respondents. Through several iterations, we came to construct 33 wooden cubes that each represented a different alumni. Beyond allowing the user to feel the presence of each alumni, we also wanted the user’s experience to be one of discovery. At first glance, the only information that the user can receive is a surface-level understanding of the alumni: no name, no location, just job title. We achieved this by printing each alumni’s job title on the top face of the cube. Only when the user interacts with the cube can more information come to surface.
In order to allow users to go beyond a surface level understanding of each alumni and see connections between them, we had to think more deeply about the experience of discovery. As a way of “allowing the cubes to speak,” we came to the idea of using an interactive surface that would scan faces of the cube to reveal information. Each face corresponds to one of the six questions we asked and direct quotes taken from the responses surface as users turn the physical cube. The cube acts as a remote control for the interface, yielding information at each turn. As quotes appear, other cubes that have similar responses will light up, allowing users to draw connections between alumni and possibly exploring different alumni accordingly.
To better communicate the mode of interaction expected of the user, we had to create a visually compelling system to prompt users to want to find out more. Using abstract shapes and bright colors as well as motion, the system speaks to a broad range of audiences. Through each iterations, we had to consider literal to abstract representations of the questions on each side. We found that spelling out what each side corresponded to made it the most accessible. The animation of the graphic elements on each face of the cube comes to life when users explore the corresponding question, further making it clear to the user what is being answered. In this interpretation of data visualization we were able to allow individual data points to come to life as well as collectively showing themes in a design education at Carnegie Mellon.