The Purple Phone

Our midterm project for Clay Shirky’s Designing Conversational Spaces class was called the Purple Phone. I worked on it with ITP classmates Amelia Hancock and D. I. Shin, as well as Journalism student Ana Maria Benedetti.

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The Purple Phone is actually two purple phones, one on the floor of ITP on Broadway and one on the floor of the NYU Journalism department a few blocks away on Cooper Square. We hoped to address a problem people often discuss at NYU, that people in different departments or schools do not know each other or interact enough. We chose purple because it is NYU’s school color. The phones were plugged into iPads using Skype, with a video call in progress all day long. The idea is that the monitor would serve as a window into the other school. If you saw someone on the other end, talking with them was as easy as picking up the phone.

We chose the Journalism school as our test case, with the thinking that if it worked we could expand to other schools. Also, it worked best within the short development timeline for the project because Clay also teaches over there. He called one the heads of the department and told them that something might go up soon. In fact, we went over there a day later on a Friday and simply velcro’d an iPad to the wall. Unfortunately, we went back on Monday morning and it was gone.

Our first attempt at installing the Purple Phone at the J-school.

Our first attempt at installing the Purple Phone at the J-school.

Even though the head of the program knew we were going to try something, apparently one of the administrators took it down because we had not gotten approval from her beforehand. After meeting with her and a few calls from Clay, we were able to get approval to try a new location. We placed the phone near the J-school’s Equipment Room because this seemed like one of the busiest places in their department.

The second J-school install.

The second J-school install.

On the ITP side, the phone was placed right in the center of the lounge area.We first tried a location in the hallway as you enter, but people didn’t seem to notice it on their way on or off the floor.

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Getting people to show interest was never a problem on the ITP side of this project. People are naturally curious and supportive of each others projects. Lots of people picked up the receiver and tried to get someone to pick up on the J-school end. But there were either no people there or they were all reluctant to chat.

My ITP classmate Robbie finally chatting with someone on the other side.

My ITP classmate Robbie finally chatting with someone on the other side.

So this became the basic dynamic of the project, the asymmetry. The ITP floor is busier than the J-school floor, with more people around all the time. The J-school people didn’t show the same level of curiosity or engagement with the project. As such, we got some amount of communication between the departments, but not as much as we would have liked. It is an interesting design challenge to tackle because you want people to have the freedom to talk about whatever they want, but also give them a little bit of a push to take that first step.

Here is a video that Amelia, my partner in the group produced.

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