13 August 2010

It all began with a project for an Interaction Design course at Carnegie Mellon University, School of Design. We were tasked to facilitate a useful service via the design and use of resources both physical and virtual to support interpersonal relationships. Specifically, we were asked to find how the concept of "video messaging" and webcam technology could create new experiences in an online space. As part of a sponsorship from Adobe, we were encouraged to use Flex to prototype these services. Our multidisciplinary team of five was given seven weeks to find and research an area of interest, explore concepts and prototype and evaluate a final concept.

Paul Robare, Steve Won, Catarina Pereira, Chris Michaelides, Lee Byron

Opportunity finding

So we had to first ask ourselves: who would want this? Who would want and use video messaging? We considered a few potential groups: families, couples, buyers and sellers, and singles. With family, we run into the issue of the "new-fangled whatzit" - the difficulty of using a technology in a design focused for both the young and the old. This is an interesting problem, but not a good fit for our short timeline. We thought designing a tool for couples was a bit too obvious for the prompt, and that buyers and sellers did not present an opportunity to "support interpersonal relationships" - the core of this project prompt. This left us with singles.

There are plenty of existing services out there for creating relationships for singles. We spent quite some time collecting information about all of these, using them and going through the motions taking notes of their usability, and how well they assess the market. We mapped these all out to find areas for potential opportunity, and the area lacking was... flirting!

Gaining knowledge of a new domain - How do people flirt?

Such a silly question to ask, isn't it? How do people flirt? We identified our target audience: young professionals, recent graduates, recent arrivals to a new city and investigated that very question. By delivering a comprehensive survey, performing interviews and collecting anecdotes and finally performing fly-on-the-wall observations of this audience flirting in action.

We actually learned quite a bit about flirting, and what people are most comfortable with. We managed to organize this research into a model of flirting as it relates to physical and online spaces, and identified three reoccurring scenarios.

Physical flirtation

The first is a direct physical flirtation, the scenario we already know. These are the stories where our flirter or flirtee is approached in the real world, flirts and maintains some temporary relationship in the real world and eventually it comes to an end, again in the real world. We see this in bars and lounges, on school campuses and various other venues.

Physical to online flirtation

The next, a result of a new culture, us what we dubbed the cautious and shy scenario. These are the stories where our flirter may approach someone at a party, on a school campus or in a lounge and connect only briefly and trade some online identification such as an IM screen name or an indication that they use some social network such as Facebook or Myspace. These temporary relationships then exist almost entirely in the online space, chatting and using social network sites as a mediation tool. Occasionally, they meet up in the real world - slightly awkward encounters since they are not used to seeing each others faces and true mannerisms.

Online-only flirtation

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, a collection of stories unveiled an online only flirtation strategy, where flirtation begins, is maintained and ends entirely online. This was seen most commonly in massively multiplayer online games, such as World of Warcraft.

However, these online flirtations very rarely move into the physical world, and we found very little evidence to support any that do. In fact, we found evidence that people were currently weary of this. People seemed to think that "online dating is desperate" and that "it's hard to convey emotion online" since they "need the face to face." Some simply said that they "don't trust internet creeps" - a seeming double standard. These reactions, to us, were a great sign of opportunity for a new service and for video online.

Concept generation

After we had identified our target audience and a specific design problem, we dove into brainstorming techniques to generate dozens of concepts to focus on a solution to the faux pas attitude towards online relationship creation and flirting online with video. These ranged from the social networking centric "got cute friends?" to a real-world centered hub for creating scavenger hunts. We selected our favorites of these and created illustrated storyboards depicting how we imagine people using the service. These were shown to our target audience for feedback, which helped us decide which concept to further pursue.

Thus, Flirtastic! was born. Flirtastic! is a question and answer game where its site members pose questions in video form via webcam, which are all 10 seconds or less. Interested members in close geographical range answer these questions in similar form, and 10 seconds or less. These flippant interactions inspire outgoing playfulness and flirtation, and result in video based back and forth messaging where people can make a face to face connection, and hopefully choose to bring their new flirtalicious friendship to a coffee shop or restaurant near them.

Prototyping & concept evaluation

In order to prototype and evaluate this rich service full of complex interactions, video material and interpersonal emotional connections, we have to carefully choose how we represent and communicate our concept, especially considering that we had very little time remaining in the course. Traditionally here at Carnegie Mellon, with Human Computer Interaction, we've been taught to utilize paper prototyping to evaluate interface-based experiences. However it's impossible to convey emotional attachment, video content or rich animation. These elements were too important to our concept and evaluating without these would not be effective. There are a variety of interface development tools with more emphasis on visual prototyping, many of which we've used before within the School of Design and the Human Computer Interaction Institute. For our project, and by the suggestion of Adobe, we choose to use Flex Builder.

Flex-enabling teamwork

Flex enabled us to implement these rich elements in our prototype and evaluate the concept effectively. We were able to better work as a team, with two or three of us working on the code base at any given point in time. We were able to utilize video content and the webcam in a very rich way. Best of all, we were able to assemble this prototype on a very rapid schedule.

At the same time, we were also assembling a short video production which plays out the story of a few "flirtastrinauts" and their experience with Flirtastic! This was created using Adobe After Effects, and also shot and assembled on a rapid schedule.

The result was phenomenal: a working interactive prototype and a convincing video explaining the concept as a whole. Our user base responded well and was able to give very specific feedback for our idea since they were able to have a reverberating experience.