500 Meter Winter Lighting Installation  —  UX Case Study

Role: Project Owner & Designer
Position: Manager of Campus Experience, UBC

Context

University of British Columbia , Campus Experience Portfolio
UBC ranks as a top academic university but census data reports low sense of belonging and school pride, metrics that are inversely correlated to academic success and likeliness to recommend UBC to peers and prospective students. I was hired onto new project for the UBC president. The ask was to understand, and communicate and then design and implement strategies to improve the non academic student experience on campus.

Challenge

One of the opportunity areas we identified was a significant drop in outdoor activity and a perceived drop in mood across campus throughout the winter months. We set out to learn from users and existing research if this perceived dip was real and if so to understand it and design a potential intervention that might address it and contribute to an overall improvement in sense of belonging and campus pride. The budget was $10k.

Scale — A major challenge was coming up with a project that would scale large enough to have significant impact on the 55,000 students at UBC. Most programming initiatives often only reach hundreds to thousands of students.

Research

Customer Journey Mapping

We referenced a customer journey map to identify the key events and moments of the school year to visually identify the highest stress moments along the journey as well as specific dates of interest.

User Interviews

We interviewed 14 students, being especially mindful of leading questions to understand their experience and to specifically address the following

  • a — Assumption: Is there actually a drop in mood in winter months?
  • b — If the assumption is true, what are the contributing factors?
  • c — Better understand the overall student experience during winter months on campus.

Subject Matter Experts: Student Events

We learned from staff and student event organizers on campus to better understand what does and doesn’t work in terms of winter programming. They confirmed that rainy cold and dark winter weather is a significant barrier to large scale winter programming. Nobody wants to spend more time outside in the cold and rain than they have too. We needed to come up with a project that works within these winter constraints.

Subject Matter Experts: Mood

In efforts to be efficient we didn’t contact a doctor or psychologist directly but did reference articles authored by doctors and psychologists that explain and outline tips to understand and manage low mood associated with winter months known as ‘winter blues’.

Light is a natural mood booster, and exposure is the established way to beat winter depression. ‘For many people simple measures, such as getting 15 minutes of morning sunlight or switching to daylight bulbs, will be enough to beat it,’ says — Victoria Revell, at the University of Surrey.

Learning From Super Users

One of my favourite research strategies is learning from experienced experts, in this context we considered people and cultures from extremely cold and dark climates. What strategies have they developed to counteract the harsh dark and cold conditions.

During cold, dark days, the Danish have found ways to cope with winter. They call it hygge (pronounced hoo-gah). Loosely translated as coziness, hygge means creating a warm environment with people you enjoy.
— IntermountainHealthcare.org

In the United Kingdom, the winter weather always seems to be easier to cope with before Christmas and New Year because we have all of the festivities and seasonal cheer, however, when January greets us, this soon becomes a distant memory. Norway combats this feeling with ‘koselig’, a concept which is all about keeping all of the best parts of Christmas even when the festivities are over. — housebeautiful.com/uk

Competitive Comparative Analysis

Considering the scale of the impact we were hoping to make we turned to other campuses efforts but also looked to other famous interventions in major cities.

  • The first set of images showcase the Ste-Catherine Street summer pride installation in Montreal that adds joy and colour to the streets. It also creates the feeling of a ceiling which creates a sense of intimacy and safety which contribute to improving sense of belonging.
  • The next set of images showcase the elaborate Christmas lighting installations in downtown London. The initiations are famous, loved and hugely anticipated each year by Londoners, tourists, and media.
  • The last set showcase the Umbrella lined streets of Agueda, Portugal installed annually as part of Ágitagueda art festival.

Pulling The Research Together

What we learned from our users

  • Most students did mention a general drop in mood and social activity in the winter months, as well as a significant increase in school related stress.
  • But while there is a large dip social events and excitement this time of year, many students welcome it as a time when they can settle down and focus on the final stretch of school, finally catch up on work or start prepping for finals.
  • It seems that our users are unlikely to attend an outdoor event in the cold winter unless it provides incredible value and excitement, especially if it’s raining.
  • Almost everyone mentioned the dread of the dark gloomy weather specifically detailing the loathed experiences of stepping out of their last lecture at 5pm into complete darkness as they make the wet and cold walk to the bus loop.

Divergent to Convergent Ideation

Starting with blue skies and magic wand, we then narrowed the best ideas to a shortlist of feasible high impact options.

  • Winter festival event
  • Welcome the rain event
  • Giant Puppy Meet & Greet — destress activation tent in the middle of campus
  • Winter lighting installation
  • Coloured Umbrella Installation — Activating and adding colour to the main drag of campus, welcoming and embracing winter.
  • Wellness Education Installation + Activation Tent — A walking gallery of attractive 8×4 vertical billboards with youthful blog-style wellness tips, anchored to an activations tent where patrons pledge their favourite tip in exchange for giveaways.

Testing & Comparing Ideas

We conducted impromptu surveys with students on campus to gauge interest in the short list of ideas. Puppies and Winter lights were the clear favourites with the students we spoke with.

A proven history of success
We also considered that some of the ideas already have a proven track record of success. Winter Lighting, Coloured Umbrellas and Puppy Meet & Greets all have a track record of being very well received as shown by our research abroad and in the case of Puppies, previous events at UBC.

Design Strategy

Weighing the options and deciding on lights

Scale

An outdoor installation or event on the main drag of campus existing high traffic is an ideal way to reach a large enough audience for the project to be impactful.

Rather than a single day event, a semi-permanent intervention has the potential to reach exponentially more people day after day, affording hundreds of impressions for each unique user over the course of the project.

Efficiency

Rather than spending resources to attract people to give up their time to an event or intervention, what if we instead bring the intervention to them, improving their existing day to day experience.

Opportunity

The dreaded dark walk home seemed like the most significant opportunity to address with an intervention:reducing a major pain point experienced by our users day after day.

Reality Filters

10k isn’t really enough to pull off a major outdoor festival that would create enough interest and value to attract thousands of students.

Impact

Considering Traffic Patterns — 10k would afford enough lights to span 500 metres of the main drag of campus. Increasing the daily number of impressions for students that cross main mall at various points along their commute. An effective umbrella installation would be focused within 50 to 100 metres near the main pedestrian intersection and wouldn’t be visible for students who cross at other locations.

[Insert map]

Winter Lighting Installation — Design Considerations

Missing Out on the Holidays

One of the realities of transitioning into student life is the significantly reduced excitement around the holidays. Most young students don’t have the resources and initiative to set up lights, trees and other holiday delights that would normally light up the transition to winter darkness. The timing of exams also means most students are studying and writing finals right up until days before Christmas when they finally travel home. As a result the exciting lead-up to the holidays which largely offsets the transition to darker colder days is replaced only with stress and homework. The lighting installation acts upon the strategies of the northern cultures we researched and provides a brilliant way for students to participate in the holiday spirit they were previously largely missing out on.

Intentional Timing

Based on the information we visualized in the customer journey map, the lights are intentionally scheduled to be installed on the Sunday of daylight savings. Appearing on Monday to light the way home for students as they step into darkness after their last class of the day. This date also concludes the excitement of Halloween festivities across campus, the completion of the last round of midterms and the looming reality of finals. The wet, cold and dark walk home from students’ last class was mentioned in several of the interviews. The buzz of back to school energy is long gone, spirits have been beaten down by midterms and the reality of winter is inescapable. Pulling from the research of nordic cultures, we scheduled the lights to continue to light campus throughout the dark months until March Reading Break. For students, reading break bookmarks the end of winter, the start of warmer weather and the exciting leadup to summer. The lights seamlessly and magically disappear while students are away on break.

Lighting Decisions

While the lights we selected are LEDs we specifically made sure we got the warmest golden variant available. LEDs are fantastic at saving power but often feel cold and the colours feel closer to a forest rave than a cozy holiday. In order to add more dynamism to the overall experience without feeling noisy or off putting, every 7th bulb was replaced with a slow twinker. This dramatically enhances the overall experience and effect, asserting a cozy feeling of magical beauty bringing the entire installation to life.

Outcome

  • Designed, pitched and approved 500 meter long lighting installation
  • Worked through layers of bureaucratic red tape to approve the physical install, including tracking down the lead engineer of the lighting pole manufacturer to calculate and sign-off on the added wind-load the lights would create.
  • Tested as a pilot in 2017 and approved to be renewed annually

80,000+ Walks To Lecture Improved Daily

Estimating 75% of UBC’s 55,000 students cross main mall 2 times per school day

4,000,000+ Walks to Lecture Improved Yearly

Estimating 75% of UBC’s 55,000 students cross main mall 2 times per school day throughout the 10 weeks the installation is up, while class is in session

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