Presenting at the
Microsoft Design Expo
This is a story from long ago, which I like to tell because it was one of my first entrances into the design world. And because I'm still really proud of the work we have done.
The setting was the annual Design Expo at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit. I came from Jerusalem to Redmond after my project had been selected, and was up on stage in front of hundreds of people for the very first time.
Each year, Microsoft Research sponsors a semester-long class at leading design schools. Students are asked to form interdisciplinary teams and design a prototype that solves a real-world problem. From these groups, a representative team from each school is selected to present its work to Microsoft.
This year, the expo topic was “People-to-people, from close friends to strangers.” We were lucky to have Hillel Cooperman from Microsoft, and Rob Girling & David Gilmore from IDEO give us feedback. Our project was ‘My Memory Box’, a metaphor for a messaging system for creating, reading and searching your memories.
Everybody has a shoebox…
but in today’s world, when almost everybody uses email, some of the everyday experiences we used to have by using regular mail, are lost. Do you enjoy tearing up the envelope with a letter that was sent just for you as much as opening another e-mail?
We chose to deal with the advantages and excitements of real mail that got lost when the world started using e-mail: the anticipation for the mail man; tearing up the envelope; the old shoe box we used to keep our letter collection in. Technology has made it so that we communicate more often than we ever did before; and still, we feel the personal side of communication somehow got lost. Today’s communications should get the benefits of new technology while keeping its roots as a powerful and emotional experience.
Feeling nostalgic, but also wanting the speed and accessibility of email, we asked ourselves what would happen if we put a hard drive in a shoebox? ‘My Memory Box’ is a real wooden box that combines a personal shoebox with your inbox.
In contrast to the wide variety of electronic products that offer endless possibilities, varied menus and diverse buttons, My Memory Box is indeed technological, but maintains a (purposely) non technological user interface. There are no menus, no buttons, and as a whole the product does not consist of many components. This strengthens the concept to offer a way for people to communicate with the speed, accessibility and ease of e-mail, without sacrificing the excitement of opening a real-world mailbox in hopes of finding a letter from a close friend.
The wooden Memory Box contained a set of removable postcard-sized electronic screens that simulate the use of the old shoe box and mailbox combined into one product. The electronic screens receive new letters, and all letters are saved within the wooden box.
From talking to people, and after looking at their shoeboxes, we learned that email’s are closer in character to post-it-notes, even between friends, while letters are more like small and personal journals people write to each other. In contrast to other things people own, the shoe box is kept unorganized. While looking for a certain letter, they like to find others accidentally.
"The box was a kind of treasure chest, a safe, a parent proof place for the strongest feelings - love, friendship, occasionally lust - people had about me."
"Emails are never as personal as letters, even if printed, the papers are not the actual papers that the person you care for has written on, nor are the words the same words he has written."
"There is magic in a letter because you have to put some real physical effort into it, buy a stamp, go to the mail, grab a pen - its harder, its realer"
"...I treat them as a kind of historical or biographical record..."
Three main guiding lines escorted the logic behind the design:
(1) Emotional: Returning the lost excitement of letters into email. We achieved this by creating a personal identity to e-mail (as the handwriting and paper create a personal identity to letters); enabling a collection of letters; and returning the coincidental and surprise elements attributed in the shoebox, to the inbox.
(2) Permanent: Creating a timeless product. Technology changes every once in awhile. Our memories don’t! Today, as technology moves forward, the device on which data is saved changes every few years. It is still possible to read text written on paper or parchment from thousands of years ago; yet, presenting digital data written only ten years ago which is saved on big floppy disks that no longer have available drives on the market, is hardly possible. In addition, an e-mail collection can be very inconstant. Changing an e-mail account or ignoring an e-mail account for some time will lead to a deletion of the collection.
In this project we chose to combine the data (which today is encoded) and the output. In the same way as handwriting is not encoded and therefore can be read even after thousands of years; the electronic screens used by My Memory Box save the text and pictures as they are, not as a file. The connection between the data and the way it is presented (the output) ensures the maintenance of letters for a long time. There is no need to purchase an external device in order to read the data (unlike the CD for example, which needs a computer in order to perform). The wooden box can escort a person in fifty (or more) years of correspondence.
(3) Accessible: Simple use of the product. E-mail should not be locked to some of us. In order to use e-mail, you need a computer and basic knowledge of how to use it, characteristics that don’t apply to a large portion of the population. I want my grandmother as well as my next door neighbor to use e-mails to. After all, it’s just about getting mail. Therefore, this product has more common characteristics with a telephone (which is very easy to use) than it does with a computer.
Using My Memory Box will make sure that you enjoy your emails in the same way you’ve enjoyed receiving regular letters just a few years ago. It combines a personal letter box with the advantages of technology.
One important feature of the product dealt with returning unique elements of real mail to email: the handwriting, the paper, the envelope, the stamp. The e-mail is abundant with information coded into text: the time and date in which it was sent; the number of times it was read; the place from which it has been sent and so on. The Memory Box uses this information in a different way, to create uniqueness:
The time of day in which the letter was sent defines the background color of the postcard. A letter written in the middle of the night will receive a dark background and a different personality than a letter sent in the morning. This change in background color (every hour has a different color) will assist the user to differ between the diverse letters; and also create the feeling that the letter was sent from far away: a letter sent from Japan, for instance, just moments ago, will have a different background color than the time of day in which the US recipient receives the letter.
The more times a user reads a letter, or the older it gets – its color will fade with yellowness. In this way it is possible to recognize immediately the older and more read letters, without having to actually read the text.
Finally, the place (country) from which the letter was sent will be translated into a pictured stamp belonging to that country.
Discovering a New Passion, Exploring New Territories
As an industrial designer, ‘My Memory Box’ was my first project that used technology to enhance the hardware. And that opened up a whole new world for me. I became passionate to explore other ways everyday objects can become smart using technology and later projects reflected that.
Furthermore, being part of the Microsoft Design Expo, and getting mentorship from many smart Microsofties, made me hope that someday I’ll get to work with such people.
A few years later, and after getting married, my husband and I wanted to explore what it would be like to pack everything and live in a new country. From Israel, we started our journey in Portland, OR, where I joined my cousin to build our first company for remote controlled skateboards, Metro-Board. After selling a few hundred units I decided to explore other opportunities and got an offer from Microsoft. I was over the moon! This was a company I’d been passionate about since the Design Expo and I couldn’t believe I’d be entering an opportunity to impact hundreds of millions of people.
At Microsoft I worked on the design of the Windows 7 desktop and mapping artist wallpaper themes to different Windows Live products (such as MSN and Windows phone). The goal was to keep the design consistent across all platforms while taking into account the different scales, resolutions, and volume of text. This effort resulted in a rich and consistent look and feel for all of the Windows Live products. I loved this design process because I got to work hands on with extremely high fidelity illustration assets, created by artists all over the world whom Microsoft had chosen to design their wallpapers.