Dirty Nails

This project explored how speculative design can further findings from an ethnographic participant observation study of urban community farmers. The speculative designs point to possible futures, that each highlight different needs, values, norms, behaviors and attitudes of urban community farmers. Three approaches to cultivation are highlighted with a corresponding design (1) the approach of “Controlling” through the Green Thumbs design (2)  the approach of “Sensibility” through the Dirty Nails design and (3) The approach of “Appreciating” through the BeeNoculars design. All three speculative designs focus on the possibilities of sensing technologies to support the noticing of environmental conditions. This project is discussed in more detail in the NordiCHI paper"Noticing the Environment – A Design Ethnography of Urban Farming".

A “sensibility” aproach to gardneing

The ‘sensibility’ approach emerged through analysis of the ethnographic data and refers to gardeners who focus on developing tacit and embodied knowledge, skills, and sensibilities over time. The ethnographic findings show that it was central for many urban farmers to develop gardening knowledge through practical work year after year. This created a sensibility towards the local environment. Urban framers oriented towards a ‘sensibility’ approach were driven by the same will to increase crop yield as those oriented towards ‘control’. However, the sensibility approach was more intuitive and driven by practices of trial and error. Further, the pure enjoyment of sensory engagement with the cultivations was a considerable motivation in this approach. For example, many urban farmers preferred to garden and touch soil without gloves, since this created a richer sensory experience of the cultivation. Other urban farmers used smell to notice the environment. For example, smelling fermented leaves that were identified as rich with anaerobic bacteria “most people think it smells good. Like a wet field. These bacteria are not beneficial neither harmful, but it’s an indication that the soil is running out of oxygen because it’s too compact” (W1). Lastly, there are practical challenges for interacting with apps on touchscreens with soiled and wet fingers. Touch interfaces on smartphones are simply not practical in a garden environment. Such interfaces were additionally often experienced as obstructing the aesthetics of gardening. There is thus a need for alternative forms of interaction. Given these ethnographic findings, the intention of designing Dirty Nails was to focus on situated, embodied and multisensory approaches to noticing the environment.

Design Description

When the rings of Dirty Nails are stuck in soil, they sense phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium, pH and oxygen, all vital for plant health and the soils microbial life. The rings connect to the users’ smartphone through Bluetooth so exact measurements can be retrieved. If the mode ‘play with soil’ is activated the smartphone generates a soundscape representing the sensed data. 

The Dirty Nails speculative design poster, as shown to the participants.

Participant responses

Opinions on the Dirty Nails warried. Some were “delighted” (W2) by the approach oriented towards sensory experiences of cultivation, while more critical comments regarded the practicalities of the design and presentation of data. The participants were ambivalent towards the ambiguous representation of data through sound. They highlighted the value of “being able to learn to think in a new way, experiencing things in new ways” (W1) while simultaneously showing caution that it might be “a little more impractical” (M2) to represent data as sound. One cultivator related this ambivalence to the overall challenges of expressing personal and bodily experiences and knowledge “I think that cultivation can be allowed to be something that you do guided by intuition, but it can be hard to communicate that to others” (M1).

The urban farmers agreed that the design seemed to be oriented towards particularly interested or expert growers. For example, one urban farmer was not personally interested in using the soundscape for presentation of data although she highlighted its potential benefit for more “established” (W2) urban farmers particularly in terms of speeding up the practice “I think that when you become more established in cultivation and you want things to go faster, then the soundscape seems to have a function /…/ There is potential in this, that you will learn to assess things through sound. It will be like learning a new language and that can really have a value, but it feels quite far away in the future” (W2).

One urban farmer highlighted very practical challenges of the Dirty Nails design such as cleaning the rings “I would rather use Green Thumbs, this [Dirty Nails] seems flashy and a bit more impractical. Because it will… if you permeate the soil, the sensor rings will get dirty and you have to clean them individually, I guess (M1). He further developed a more personal and experience-centered reason for not wanting to stick his bare fingers in soil “I get phobia when my hands get like soil dry” (M1). Notably, he was not concerned about harmful bacteria in soil, but rather the bodily sensations of touching it. Another cultivator reflected on the character of the sounds “What would it sound like? Would it be harmonic and synchronized or would it be chaotic? Would it be more chaotic if the soil nutrients were not balanced?” (W1).

Sensory rich and situated data collection

The Dirty Nails design shifts focus from reading data on a screen to the experience of data collection. By using the design, the imagined user would literally be in touch with soil since the rings with a nail shape, instead of for example a glove or a shovel, affords a more direct contact with soil (see also the hand substrate interface in related research on mushroom foraging). While one participant expressed that such sensory experiences were uncomfortable or overwhelming, the other participants appreciated the idea of “being part of the environment” (M2) though sticking fingers in soil. Further, the sonification of data in the Dirty Nails design can be conceptualized as both literal and metaphorical polyphony. Polyphony is a type of musical texture consisting of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody. Polyphonic representation of data would force users to pick out separate, simultaneous melodies and listen for the moments of harmony and dissonance they created together. The design thus acts as a very literal example of Anna Tsings observation that polyphonic noticing “is needed to appreciate the multiple temporal rhythms and trajectories of the [environmental] assemblage”. Nevertheless, a polyphonic representation of data would require that the users develop a skillful sensibility towards the interactive context and the modes in which data about the environment is made perceptible. As expressed by the participants, this kind of sensibility is not necessarily easy to learn or share with others. As such, the design mirrors the engagement and hard work needed to develop the sensibility of an experienced gardener. In sum, Dirty Nails forefronts an idea of a sensory rich experience including sound, touch, and vision where environmental data is perceived with the senses rather than read from a screen.

Comparing the relations to the environment that the speculative designs illustrate.

Anton Poikolainen Rosen:  anton.poikolainen.rosen@sh.se @Anton_P_R