Research phase of user interaction design, hands shown drawing a user flow chart

Comm Design Student-Project: Recyclar

User Experience and Interaction Design Students Design Prototype for a Dallas-Based “Zero-Waste” App

By Michael Gibson, professor, communication design

June 2020 — Dallas is one of the largest producers of garbage in the U.S. The people who live and work there generate approximately 2.2 million tons of waste that winds up in area landfills each year. That’s the equivalent of slightly over 1,000 Nimitz-class American aircraft carriers, or slightly over 78,000 American fire trucks. It’s the result of each person living in Dallas throwing away almost four-and-a-half pounds of non-recyclable trash every day. To try and reduce this, and to potentially eliminate it altogether, the City of Dallas announced a “zero-waste plan” in 2018, which calls for either the re-use or recycling of all of the city’s municipal waste by 2040. Getting this plan to work in a way that will transform Dallas into a zero-waste city in 20 years will mean getting the majority of those who live there to change their behavior regarding how they do and don’t throw their trash away. One way to begin this process is to combine how Dallasites use personal technology devices, like smartphones and apps, with what they do—and (again) DON’T do—with their personal waste.

This intersection between personal tech use and personal waste disposal had, in the minds of a team of UNT CVAD Communication and Interaction Design students, the potential to affect city-wide waste reduction. More specifically, it sparked the development of a personal app for smartphone use called “Recyclar” that this student team would develop during their participation in an eight-week-long, professionally mentored learning experience during the spring 2020 semester called “Dialexa EDU.”

Dialexa, Inc. is a professional design consultancy located in the heart of downtown Dallas that specializes in developing and designing interactive products, services and systems on behalf of clients who need things like websites and apps. Beginning in the summer of 2019, Dialexa’s senior leadership, led by project design lead Sanjay Shah, reached out to Communication Design faculty at UNT, TCU and the University of Texas at Dallas. Their intent was to discuss how Dialexa personnel might draw from their professional expertise to effectively “contribute to university students’ interaction and user experience design educations.”

This led to a combined group of Communication Design faculty from these three institutions, including Professor Michael Gibson from UNT CVAD’s Department of Design, working with Dialexa’s senior leadership team to develop a set of project parameters and a schedule to guide a design project that would address an issue of “pressing concern” in the City of Dallas.

UxD example to take a personal assessment in a user flow processWhat emerged from this collaboration of Communication Design faculty from three of Texas’ leading universities with Dialexa’s leadership team became Dialexa EDU. Its goal was to immerse four- to six-person teams of user experience design [“UXD”] and interaction design [“IxD”] students from each of these universities in a six- to eight-week learning experience that would yield a means to help Dallasites reduce their personal waste output. Teams from each university were assembled in early February 2020—UNT CVAD’S team became known as “Team Eagle”—and Dialexa EDU began on February 14 with a briefing from the Dialexa EDU leadership group about Dallas’ goal to become a “zero waste city.” Each team was assigned a project mentor from Dialexa who had an interactive product design and development background, and the work began. It would progress for the next eight weeks, across spring break and into the shelter-in-place guidelines implemented across the UNT landscape by the Covid-19 pandemic. The last four-and-a-half weeks of each student team’s project were completed while students worked and interacted remotely, as per each university’s instructions.

On April 17, 2020, a five-member team of UNT CVAD Department of Design Communication Design students completed its working prototype of an interactive product design—the Recyclar app—in collaboration with the team's professional interaction and user experience design mentor from Dialexa. This team comprised four communication design majors studying user experience design and one graduate student: Abril Caraballo-Marin ('21, Design: UxD), Taylor Loredo, ('22, Design: UxD), Jonathon Maloney, ('22, Design: UxD), Lasamy Sarawichtr, ('22, Design: UxD) and Joshua Payberrah, ('20 candidate, M.A., Design: IxD).

Team Eagle’s project goal was to develop and design a “Most Viable Product” to help people living in and around Dallas cultivate and sustain “achievable goals and long-lasting habits” that could help them reduce their individual waste outputs. Team Eagle also envisioned the Recyclar app as becoming an essential part of a community-based system that would unify Dallasites around the issue of protecting their environment.

The first three-and-a-half weeks of the project schedule were devoted to engaging in types of research processes that are taught in both CVAD’s undergraduate user experience design and in CVAD’s graduate-level interaction design curricula. These processes were guided by approaches that helped the team develop deep understandings of their potential users’ attitudes and behaviors by visualizing them in maps and diagrams that all Team Eagle members could extract and effectively deploy information from as the project progressed. The primary goal of engaging in these approaches was to ensure that Team Eagle could prioritize the primary needs and aspirations of the people who were to use Recyclar — its “target audience,” or “primary users” — and then use this knowledge to guide their decision-making as they designed it.

The next phase of the project involved Team Eagle members creating a “business model canvas” to help them clarify how particular features and functions of Recyclar would help its primary users fulfill specific purposes and key tasks. Undertaking this phase fueled the development and design of Recyclar as an app that would employ gamification to encourage more widespread community participation and to help its users develop long-lasting habits regarding waste treatment and disposal. Gamification involves applying elements and principles of game playing, like point-scoring, rules of play and competition, to encourage a target audience to engage more fully with a product, service or activity.

Completing the business-model canvas then allowed Team Eagle to engage in the type of broadly informed marketing research necessary to determine 1) if there were existing interactive products and apps in the marketplace similar to theirs, and, if there were, to 2) establish that the features, functions and user interface, UI, design of Recyclar would be unique and desirable enough to warrant its further design and development. They found two other products that were similar in limited ways to what they were proposing for Recyclar, but neither of these enabled its types of functions and features combined with its community engagement perspective.

The completion of the marketing research phase enabled Team Eagle to begin the process of determining the specific types of tasks the Dallasites who would use Recyclar “would, could and should” engage in to reduce their waste production as they engaged in earning points for doing this and in keeping score with their friends and neighbors. This process yields what those in the User Experience and Information Design industries refer to as “user flows,” which involve designing an interactive product, service or system to ensure the functions and features embedded in a given UI actually perform in ways that meet a user’s wants and needs.

Team Eagle determined that some of the most crucial user flows would be enabling users to:

• scan individual waste items, such as so-called “single-use plastics,” in ways that revealed crucial information quickly about how these items could be kept out of landfills and that allowed users to score points if they used this information effectively;

• view a scoreboard to compare and contrast points earned among particular groups of their friends and neighbors;

• set up a personal account and take a quiz that would help them construct useful knowledge about how to begin and then sustain their personal, home waste reduction processes.

Team Eagle then created what is known in the user experience and interaction design industry as an information architecture diagram to help them organize the types of functions and features that would constitute Recyclar into information sets and groups. These formed the foundation for a series of sketches that would guide the eventual design of Recyclar’s UI design.

The UI design comprises various typographic, image-based, and symbolic elements that together form what a user actually sees and interacts with on a smartphone, tablet, or desktop screen through thumb- or finger-touches, or swipe or scroll motions. The UI design phase is the aspect of a project like this that many people familiar with graphic design processes find easiest to understand, as it’s the phase during which design decisions that determine typographic layout, the deployment of a color palette, and the integration of imagery and symbols are made on a screen-by-screen basis.

One of the most important takeaways Team Eagle members gained from engaging in their Dialexa EDU experience was how essential engaging in all of the steps in the design process that transpired ahead of the UI design phase was to its success, and to the overall success of the entire project. Another key takeaway was the reinforcement of the knowledge and understandings they had gained during their coursework at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in CVAD’s user experience and interaction design programs. As voiced by Team Eagle member Jonathon Maloney: “Our coursework had prepared us really well to jump into situations where we were challenged to develop, critically discuss and then test and re-test multiple ideas as prototypes.”

Despite the fact that the final four weeks of Dialexa EDU had to transpire remotely and be facilitated via Zoom chats, Facetime exchanges and Microsoft Team meetings due to the need to abide by UNT’s COVID-19-induced distance learning guidelines, Team Eagle was able to design and execute what is known in the industry as a “mid-fidelity prototype” of Recyclar. This was presented, along with work designed and executed by the student teams from UTD and TCU, via a Zoom chat hosted by Dialexa’s leadership team on the afternoon of April 17.

After Team Eagle’s presentation, Dialexa’s principal and co-owner Steven Ray offered the following: “Wow, accolades to [UNT’s design faculty] for whatever you've done to get your students to the level they're at… We interview people with so many more years of experience that couldn’t hold a candle to your students and their level of output.”

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