Context, Context, Context

If content is king, then context is queen; or so the story goes. Regardless of the hierarchy, it is imperative that we understand the context of who we are designing for. Otherwise, our content, or the designs we produce, will not resonate with our users.

The goal of my thesis is to instigate physical activity in those who would normally choose to be sedentary. I am hoping that my work will create an association in the user's mind between activating their body, and having a good time.

Mapping the context is imperative if I am to understand why someone regards physical activity as a chore, or something one is supposed to do, but does not want to do. For instance, in this exercise, I map the context of a specific persona: the office worker.

They spend most of their waking day in a chair, sitting down, most likely because they are tied to a computer, and never move beyond a 5-10ft radius around their desk. In fact, office environments are designed to minimize extraneous movement and maximize productivity. There are very few opportunities for an office worker to engage in physical activity, and if they did would they feel self-conscious? 

Understanding their needs, and the context in which they will be experiencing these designs dictates the channels of distribution, and the factors that I need to consider when developing products.

-Michael Lee Kenney

Research: To Date

Research has been a critical part of my thesis development. Starting last summer I picked up a heap of books that dealt with the psychology of motivation, behavioral economics, developing habit-forming products, game design, cognitive behavioral therapy, and neuroscience. Some of the content was easier to wrap my head around, but all of it had some value, as an input, or to spark interest in a particular field. For instance Dan Ariely’s book, “Predictably Irrational,” turned out to be much more relevant than I expected, and Dr. David Eagleman’s book, and accompanying PBS series, “The Brain,” were incredibly fascinating, and really delivered an easy-to-understand overview of Cognitive Psychology, and how we perceive the world around us.

At the beginning of last Semester, i embarked on a voyage to interview as many subject-matter experts as I could possibly find. During that time, I was focused on user’s with chronic pain. This focus dictated the type of experts that I spoke to. Many of my interviewees were medical doctors, physical therapists, chronic pain sufferers, and alternative medical practitioners. I believe that interviewing this many successful, and accomplished experts helped to steer me into the direction I am currently headed. However, I need to supplement the heavy medical focus of my research with interviewees who are successfully creating dynamic, artistic, physically activated experience designs. I have spoken with Emilie Baltz about here contacts within this space, and I am hoping to be contacting leading experience designers, such as Zach Liebermann, to help guide my projects from here on out.

In addition, I need to narrow my academic research and focus on the psychology of motivation. It is critical that I am baking this research into all of the projects that I am producing between now and the end of the semester. Motivation seems to be the one thing that this whole thesis hinges upon, and I really need to get at the heart of what drives people to engage, or participate in an activity that they normally would avoid.

To this end, I have started reading a few different books: “Drive,” by Daniel H. Pink, “Hooked,” by Nir Eyall, and “Pre-suasion,” by Robert Cialdini. My hope is that I can start to integrate the learnings I derive from these readings into my future work.


Vocabulary plays in important role in any thesis exploration. Accurately defining terms reduces ambiguity and guarantees that your audience understands your intentions. However, in cases where your thesis is in active development, clearly articulating definitions and refining vocabulary can be equally helpful in discovering the meaning of your work.

I have had some clarity issues in the past that, I believe, stem directly from the structure of my problem statement. I have a statistic that claims 1 in 5 deaths worldwide are caused from a lack of basic physical activity. Following that statement, I present a hypothesis that the cause may be related to the traditional gym experience and the myriad of problems that exist within the institution.

Much of the work that I have produced so far aims to instigate "basic physical activity," but since I had positioned that phrase next to traditional gym culture and exercise, the audience doesn't see my solution as a substitution for the gym, or a valid form of "exercise."

So, I need to first define what exactly I want my audience to do. What is exercise? What is basic physical activity? Exercise seems like a word that is so loaded, and stigmatized that I am hesitant to continue with that vocabulary. Either way, I need to understand where on that spectrum I am designing for, and define what I am trying to instigate from my user.

"Social" has been a new word that I have been throwing around, and I also need to decide what that means for my project. Is this two player, multiplayer, over a network, for friends or strangers? What do I want social to mean to me?

The title for my thesis is "Instigationism;" a word that I made up, and have defined as "a designed intervention that instigates action from a living being." The dictionary definition of "instigate" is "to bring about or initiate (an action or event)." I feel pretty solid about that definition, and it is exactly what I am hoping my work will do.

Right now, I have a series of words that I would likely to take the time to clearly define, and find how they fit into my thesis work. These words are:


Michael Lee Kenney

Finding a North star

"Put a stake in the ground."

Defining what you are designing is critical, and in some cases, that can be the hardest part of any project. What exactly is this going to be, and for whom? Finding a your north star can be a confusing, chaotic, magical, and sometimes arduous process. However, there are many tools you can leverage to make the process more efficient.

Working with the amazing Abby Covert, IA genius extraordinaire, I produced a continuum map to define the direction of my thesis:

Starting with the creation of continuum "buckets," I mapped where my work lies along the scale. Where has my work been? Where is it now? Where do I want it to be?

Will it be "social" or "solitary"? Instinctually, I strongly believe that developing products which integrate, or encourage, social interaction will be the winner. This has been evidenced during field trials conducted on my current designs, and the mechanics of gamification. 

"Speculative" or "market ready"? Presently, I am more inclined to develop speculative ideas. In the past I have played it safe, and steered the direction toward market-ready products. In the future, I would like to find a balance between the two.

"Interactive art" or "consumer products"? I believe that this decision is one that effects myself and my users' experience. I'm bored by consumer products; I think my audience is too. I want to make some art.

-Michael Lee Kenney

Persona R&D

I have been curating the information for several people that are representative of the audience I am hoping to engage and design for with my thesis work. Most of my users have a common problem: they had been physically fit until this particular point in time, and are now concerned about their level of activity or weight.

Many of my questions probe their plans to exercise. Whether they have started or plan to start? Are there hesitations? What are the hesitations? Is there trouble with motivation trumping intention? What are their concerns with traditional options for exercise? How do they feel about those traditional exercises and institutions.

I would like to know what they did in the past to stay healthy? Was it genetics? Or did they live an active lifestyle that didn't necessarily involve specific trips to exercise institutions or fitness classes? Do they have friends or acquaintances who exercise, or do they know people who also lack motivation? What are their plans for starting to exercise? Have imagined themselves exercising? Has the of themselves exercising been happening for longer than they have actually exercised? What do they find enjoyable about exercise? What don't they find enjoyable?

Instigationism - Activating the Body Through Persuasive Play

Exercise has numerous health benefits. From the physical to the mental, and the mounds of research we hear everyday supports that. But in this case, knowledge isn’t power. Because right now, one-third of adults, and close to 80% of adolescents worldwide, are at increased risk of disease as a result of physical inactivity.

So, what’s their problem. It’s simple right? Just do it. In NYC alone, there are 1,200 gyms that are waiting for you to walk through the door. Unfortunately, most people just don’t. As a matter of fact, 67% of people that have gym memberships never even go. This means that 10’s of millions of people would prefer to pay hundreds, or even thousands per year,  and literally die, then set foot in a gym.

Even though gyms try to convince through enormous marketing budgets that gyms are amazing, the reality is that most gyms are not like waht is presented. They aren’t social, they are anti-social. They aren’t engaging, they’re work. They aren’t motivating, they’re boring. 

  As my interview subject, Chris Valley, explained, "It is impossible to overstate the part that fear plays in promoting inactivity. It sounds easy to just go to the gym, but the onboarding process, whether we realize it or not, is incredibly difficult for novice users."

That didn't sound very positive, right? After interviewing over a dozen experts, I couldn’t help but feel that an overwhelming amount of the language was negative. But I wanted to find proof. So, I embarked on a detailed examination of the vocabulary used during my interviews, and I documented, and labeled each recorded word as either clinical, or emotional, and subjectively determined whether it was positive, negative, or neutral. And, honestly,, the amount of clinical, negative language was alarming.

 So, how do you design the opposite of that? Well, let’s start with vocabulary. When browsing through the thesaurus, I discovered that there was a single shared antonym for many of these negative sounding words. That antonym? Playful 

Now that’s interesting, and it reminds me of a quote from, Daniella Bertol: “Playful activity inspires awareness of our bodies and forces us to focus on our movements. This kind of awareness and focus becomes meditative and distracts us from our emotional and physical pain.” Play is not something you need to convince yourself to do, as a matter of fact we all crave play. Yet, as adults we find less and less time to play.

As Jill Vialet, CEO of Playworks stated in her 2014 TEDmed talk, “Play matters because it gives us a brief respite from the tyranny of apparent purpose. We were built to play. Play is pleasurable. And the opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is depression. 

I would like to present you with 3 design interventions that tackle the two major issues with traditional gym culture: Motivation and Engagement. And if we are lucky, we might find a space that feels like play.

During my academic explorations of play, I discovered Physical Education curriculum for early childhood education that involved physical play and game invention. However, I wanted to push this idea further, and started breaking down the elements of a game into its core components: Boundaries, scoring, and penalties. I wondered if it’s possible to create a game using these core game components, even when traditional game objects like balls, nets, racquets and bats are not available? 

With these constraints, I developed Trashy Games: a generative physical game creation workshop. Participants pair up, and develop their game by rolling a six sided die which determines the mechanic for each bucket. The mashed-up mechanics act as a scaffold to hang the narrative of a new game from, and the participants choose game objects to bring it all to life.

 But as fun and awesome as the experience was, all of my workshop participants joined because they felt a sense of responsibility, and personal obligation towards me. Friendship was their motivator, both intrinsically, and extrinsically, and without that motivation, it is likely that many of them would not have been willing to leave the house on a cold, wet, rainy Saturday morning to get active and play.

So what if they didn’t have to leave the house? What if they could do Tai Chi on a mountain top, or hit a Zumba class on the beach without ever leaving the house. Leveraging mobile VR technology, I started to examine a UI that allows the wearer to select traditional fitness activities offered at a gym. However, instead of the traditional gym environment, the app offers a variety of locations to choose from.

This led to the development of NewDimensions: customizable, immersive, mobile VR exercise experience that acts as a platform for brand placement and celebrity-sponsored content. With a low monthly price point and no physical barriers to overcome. That project goes a long way in reducing the friction. But does it provide sufficient motivation? Would I still rather just netflix and chill?

I started thinking about Dr James Levine and his now famous quote about sedentary lifestyles: “Sitting is the new smoking.” We live in a culture that makes it impossible to get away from sitting for long periods of time. This is especially true during the work week.

I started sketching out a typical workday and found that between transit, the desk at work, and your couch at home, it is nearly impossible to avoid sitting. Or, if Dr Levin is correct, we are all heavy smokers.

Many Fortune 500 companies, in order to increase productivity, decrease insurance premiums, and add a perk for recruitment have been building office gyms. NYC has 53 Fortune 500 companies, and with an average of 4,000 sq ft for gym space, and a price of approximately $73 per square foot for a midtown office. That means each company is spending over $292,000 a month, or $3.5 million per year. That is a combined total 1.85 billion dollars between all 53 companies.

And as we already know, 67% of people will probably not go. That’s not sustainable for the business or the environment. Going forward into next semester, I plan to continue on the path of level up, and create delightful, fun, and inter-ACTIVE play.

-Michael Lee Kenney