Air pollution is a big problem in many parts of the world. In spring 2017 Beijing broke many records of previous pollution readings, with a thick blanket of smog covering the city. But it's not only in high pollution areas like Beijing that pollution is a problem. Even in a city like Copenhagen, certain high pollution locations can be a challenge for people who are especially sensitive. And even if you are not very sensitive, spending a lot of time in moderate pollution can have serious health effects.
The same time as Beijing was covered in record high pollution, we started working on an app concept for our two week course with Matt Nish-Lapidus, Blair Johnsrude and Frank Rausch. The brief was to make an app based on the UN sustainable development goals.
The app I designed helps sensitive people monitor their daily pollution exposure in a quick, but powerful way. By matching your daily activity with pollution readings near you, the app alerts you if pollution have exceeded your daily limit, or if you are currently in a high exposure area. Over time you can see which locations have the most impact on your overall pollution exposure.
The Chinese government had recently started sending out official warnings, urging people to stay inside when air pollution was high. But there where growing concerns about the legitimacy of the readings.
"Every morning, when I roll out of bed, I check an app on my cellphone that tells me the air quality index as measured by the United States Embassy, whose monitoring device is near my home. I want to see whether I need to turn on the purifiers and whether my wife and I can take our daughter outside."
– Life in a Toxic Country by Edward Wong, New York Times
There are many apps available for checking the air pollution at your your nearest monitoring station. They all use AQI which is the index for air pollution used in most of the world.
The AQI is calculated by measuring four air polluting factors: ground level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide. When the AQI is above 100 it is deemed unhealthy, but even if its below it can be dangerous if you are sensitive to certain chemicals.
People with asthma, lung diseases and different allergies are summarised as "sensitive people" in the AQI. But if you are sensitive to specific factors you need specific readings, not the overall air quality given by the AQI. And you not only need to avoid high pollution areas, but also watch your exposure over time.
I saw four major problems with how people get their air pollution readings today:
Which pollution readings can I trust?
How accurate is the nearest monitoring station to my location?
What does the pollution index mean for my specific conditions?
How much pollution have I been exposed to over time?
I started thinking about different pollution sensors in the urban environment. What if there was an open source network that you could connect your own pollution sensor to? This would ensure that any government could not tamper with the readings.
Or what if there was a small pollution sensor you could wear, that would share hyper local readings with other people in the network? I began thinking about a mobile device that would be easy to set up and solve the problem of accurate, local readings.
But do you really need to carry around a dedicated pollution sensing device? What about your phone? Someone suggested using data from already existing pollution sensors matched with your current location. This would solve the problem of local readings, as well as giving you personalised warnings about pollution.
One of the major learnings from this course was Bill Verplank's 8 tile framework. Here is a great paper where he writes about it and other frameworks for designing interactive products.
The 8 tile framework looks like this:
At the top are overviews, along the bottom are details. From left to right the columns could be called motivations, meanings, modes and mappings, the process from left to right might involve observation, invention, engineering and appearance.
It takes a few tries to get it, and it's only ment as a tool to get you thinking. After a handfull of examples I ended up with the metaphor "Canary in a coal mine". The metaphor would guide the core functionality of the app.
Having a basic description of the functionality in place, I started working on the architecture and layout of the app. Looking at the scenario of biking to work in the morning, I designed a quick glance first screen displaying the pollution data for your current location. This could also be used for a watch interface.
The structure builds from that first layer of information, giving the user the ability to dig deeper. A timeline of your day gives you the possibility to see how much exposure you had int total. I also imagined cards giving you suggestions on how to avoid areas with high pollution you visit often.
After a few iterations I switched the first "Right now" module with a higher level of information: how much exposure you have experienced compared to your daily limit.
This gave me the idea for a more detailed user profile, giving the user the ability to define which specific types of pollen or chemicals they were sensitive to.
Simultaneously with sketching the structure, I thought of different ways to incorporate the metaphor visually, and create a branding element. I quickly tested some variations of a little scene with a bird illustrating how much pollution you had been exposed to.
Early in the second week I started to settle on an architecture for the app, and I began setting up more detailed sketches of the user interface. I started to design the interface using almost only elements from existing Apple apps. I also illustrated an actual canary, instead of a parrot.
A big focus of the project was typography details. I spent at least half of the last week looking at little layout details. The different layers of information needed to have a consistent visual style, while still being clearly distinguishable and readable.
The app needed to look technical and detailed, while still remaining simple and easy to understand. This served a big challenge when I started to dig into the lower layers of information. The expanded graph below was the last part I worked on. It could need a few more indicators and legends.
I often read out the elements of the layout as a series of questions in the order they are visually weighted. If the sentence sounds somewhat logical it means I'm going in the right direction. The layout below took a few tries to script the right way.
A big consideration was how small I could make my type and icons. The challenge is to create as many variations inside the limited hierarchy of the biggest and the smallest size. Colors, type weight and little icons make this easier.
At the end of the design process I started to look at the interactions and animations of the app. This also fed back in to the design of the hierarchy and structure. The transition animation also had the added benefit of giving the most important elements added focus.
Designing the setting screen allowed me to insert some of the ideas from the early brainstorming. Connecting sensor devices would help extra sensitive people control where they got their data from. And enabling sharing of this data would create decentralised network of pollution data free of government tampering.
The biggest learning for me in this project was how similar editorial design is to interface design, and how I could apply my skills from the first to the second.
When I was designing each screen and module I encountered many of the same problems as designing a page in a magazine. The design system of a magazine, with navigation, icons and identity elements is very similar to the design system of an app.
I also felt how challenging, but also rewarding it was relying heavily on the Apple design language. Creativity within boundaries speeds up the process, and makes it even better when you need break the rules and design something custom.
But most of all, I loved being able to spend time designing nitty, gritty typography.