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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

UVM Students In Design Class Tackle A Common Problem: Smartphone Addiction

Taylor Dobbs
Sierra Maust, left, and Alyssa McCabe demonstrate their group's invention designed to get people interacting face-to-face.

A group of students at the University of Vermont is finishing up a semester in a class where they were encouraged to fail early and often in order to ultimately succeed in solving a problem.

One group of undergrads chose a problem that was too often right in front of their faces.

“It affects people of different ages, different genders, it really is a huge problem,” said Tomoki Nomura, a student in Eugene Korsunskiy's advanced design thinking class.

The problem? Smartphone use.

In the early stages of their project, the students studied cell phone users. The group’s observations were somewhat predictable: People spend a lot of time looking at their smartphones, and many people don’t even like checking their device as often as they do.

This is where “design thinking” comes into the picture. Design thinking is essentially a holistic, user-focused way of designing things.

Korsunskiy says that instead of deciding to make a certain widget and then building it, design thinking starts by considering the people who might need a new widget.

“Design thinking — or human-centered design, which are synonymous phrases — seeks to put the person who's using the system, service, product, whatever at the center of the process by starting first with 'Okay, let me just study this person and figure out what their needs are, and then an idea will come out of it,’” Korsunskiy says.

“It affects people of different ages, different genders. It really is a huge problem.” — Tomoki Nomura, UVM student

So Nomura and the other students in his group studied cell phone users, which is just about everybody these days.

They noticed what a lot of people noticed: Everybody's looking at their phones a lot, and most people actually don't even like how much they check on their devices.

So the students made a little box. The idea was that people would sit down for a meal and there would be a soundproof, vibration-proof box on the table. Phones go inside, and face to face conversations ensue.

Sam Damphousse was part of the group, and he says it didn't quite work that way.

“People liked the idea, but when you just leave a box out on a table, no one really knows what to do with it,” Damphousse said.

Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR
The boxes designed by students charge smartphones, and are sound- and vibration-proof, so that users can eat their meals and chat without being interrupted by notifications.

The group's invention wasn't working, but to their instructor Korsunskiy, the project was going exactly as it should.

Korsunskiy says the early problems weren’t problems as much as opportunities to improve. He says one of the benefits of design thinking is its “focus on prototyping and iteration as a way of learning.”

If it seems like Korsunskiy is encouraging failure, that’s because he is — but only in service of long-term success.

“We want all of the failure that's ever going to happen in your life with regard to this project to happen as early as possible," he says.

So after their failed sound- and vibration-proof box, the group tried a new approach. They labeled the boxes to make their purpose more clear, and they added an incentive: the boxes have cables and a big battery in them so the phones inside charge while users eat their meals and chat without being interrupted by notifications.

In the end, the students found their peers were using the boxes at dining halls and, at least for that one meal, being with their friends face-to-face.

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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