Undergraduate Research Dispatch: Jessie Mindel on Kaleidoscope

19 Aug, 2021

Undergraduate Research Dispatch: Jessie Mindel on Kaleidoscope

This year, BCNM continued its undergraduate research fellowship program, which offers undergraduates the chance to engage in direct research experience with BCNM graduates. Jessie Mindel was selected to work with Molly Nicholas on a team project “Kaleidoscope.”

This semester, I worked on Kaleidoscope at Professor Eric Paulos’ Hybrid Ecologies Lab with Molly Nicholas and Sarah Sterman, doctoral students in Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, and Janaki Vivrekar, a masters student in Design. I joined the team as a third-year undergraduate studying Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences with an emphasis on New Media.

Kaleidoscope is a web-based, collaborative design classroom tool with an emphasis on the creative process and metacognition. We created the tool for 108 students in the Fall 2020 semester of a university introduction-level design class to enable them to build collections of multimedia creative artifacts, including images, documents, links, and prototypes, in a digital studio space. With tools for annotation, linking of artifacts, and rapid foraging, Kaleidoscope foregrounds student reflection on the design process and the evolving history of ideas throughout creative class projects. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the studio experience core to art, design, and new media classrooms had become no longer accessible: students could no longer walk around a space to find inspiration, initiate design conversations or critique, and absorb tacit knowledge. Based on unique strategies and techniques that we identified for managing process and documentation used by expert practitioners across disciplines such as violin making, tapestry weaving, and performance, we encoded three explicit heuristics in the tool: 1) generate large quantities of unpolished work; 2) use parallel prototyping; and 3) rediscover and reuse early ideas through visual foraging. Some features include feedback to encourage design conversation among students, associated artifacts to display the evolution of students’ ideas, check-ins for easy aggregation of artifacts when submitting assignments, and the “portfolio-ify” button to turn any workspace into a polished portfolio for presentation.

Designing and deploying a tool live for students meant having to balance student expectations of the tool (and of course bug reports) with our intentions for the tool and instructors’ pedagogical goals. We worked quickly as a team to iterate and develop new features, and I enjoyed getting to apply software engineering skills I’d built during internships in a research setting.

It was after conducting what might best be described as a Kaleidoscope roast session that we observed an interesting challenge: many students felt overwhelmed by the tool’s clutter and lack of hierarchy. We realized that by encoding strong values in the tool—our attempt to set students up for success based on past research—we had created cognitive load that obscured our design decisions. I set out to learn more about the overwhelm that students experienced in a follow-up study on anxiety and presentation of work in creative practices. Using qualitative research methods (Charmaz’s grounded theory), I found that it was not only the sheer quantity of artifacts that (student) creative practitioners found overwhelming, but also what those artifacts remind them of: the work they have not the work they have not finished, a tension between self and others, the pressure to be sufficiently professional (for students), and feelings of inadequacy. Through semi-structured interviews, we identified four strategies that three creative practitioners (one design student, one animation student, and one professional ceramicist) use to relieve stress:

  • Covert appreciation: Privately enjoying one’s creative output without having to display it to others.
  • Community engagement: Generating discourse and getting meaningful reactions by cultivating a creative community online.
  • Making work sacred: Reserving time to respect one’s own work, even if only briefly.
  • Destructive relief: Completely (and cathartically!) disposing of or losing access to one’s work, although this limits one’s later ability to revisit and glean inspiration from it.

Preliminary findings point us toward a framework of how different modes of display best support creative practitioners and students (whether in feeling affirmed in their work and identity as artists, or in using those process-oriented heuristics that we have found to be effective in previous work). Students may have had difficulty engaging with Kaleidoscope because of a lack of separation between how and where their personal, group, and submitted work were displayed. To address this challenge, I’m interested in the notion of personal rather than social media in tandem with related work in identity curation, which offers promising next steps in this line of research: to create digital and physical spaces where creative practitioners can (re-)encounter themselves in positive, connective ways, and to better understand the function of private spaces in these practitioners’ processes.

I can’t emphasize enough how grateful I am for Molly, Sarah, and Janaki’s mentorship. They have taught me so much about the field of human-computer interaction and creative practices; my fluency in the “language” is very much owed to the Hybrid Ecologies Lab. I learned to translate design skills into a research context, which gave me a new outlook on unbiased ethnography, writing, and insight generation deeply grounded in data. I had my first experience with academic writing and publication (our work is currently in revision), which challenged me to develop effective conceptual framings for our analysis. By studying creative practices, I’ve also been able to reflect on and challenge my own practice. And just as many creative practitioners expressed the importance of being immersed in a supportive, artistic community, I have found the same in the lab between mind-blowing conversations and the sense that this is the line of work and community I’ve been hoping to be a part of for so long. To Molly, Sarah, Janaki, and Eric, thank you for changing the trajectory of my life. Whether laughing about the pitfalls of absurd version control systems, getting some of the most helpful feedback I’ve ever received, or discussing ideas that can’t help but leave me smiling and energized, this has been such a meaningful experience. To BCNM, thank you for this incredible opportunity, and for creating the interdisciplinary space so necessary for this work and community to exist.