As we use our smartphone apps or browse the web, we all make our own contribution to an ever-growing mountain of digital data. Every step we take, every click we make and every like we give can be recorded, stored and processed day after day to track our individual or collective digital stories.
At the crossroads between social science research and design, our work focuses on ways of making this varied array of traces  perceptible, so as to reveal our usage practices and take stock of how they are changing in the digital era. This article looks at four examples of how, using design tools, we are seeking to make this data tangible so that users can feel, act or react in response to this new material.
A different way of representing data?
The digital traces we produce can be used to measure our usage habits. By formatting them, we make them perceptible and can analyse and give them meaning so as to understand our habits and describe how we move around, consume or communicate, for example. This formatting is a way of understanding the impact of digital technology on our usage practices. Most researchers working with data convert “raw” data into graphical representations such as data visualizations. As the material collected is often – due to its form or its quantity – illegible, it is processed, then computed by algorithms  so that it can be presented visually in the form of graphs or maps (diagram a) that transform traces into accessible, intelligible information. However, while infographics, maps and histograms are so common today that we see them as universal tools, does that mean they are always understandable? Are they really representative of the usage practices they seek to illustrate?
Different approaches to turning data into information (a and b)
Moving beyond these schematic visual representations to formats more immediately accessible to the general public would appear to be an important step in user empowerment. Data physicalization  is an initial exploration of the possible links between the world perceptible to our senses (sight, hearing, touch, etc.) and the digital world, in which visual representations of data are turned into volumes and materials.
Data physicalization proposal by Yvonne Jansen, 2013 (© Jansen)
However, to give greater substance to digital traces, we suggest going further by materializing data even before it is computed using algorithms, or representing it in the form of histograms (diagram b). This data design approach  opens up a new field of research and exploration in which objects are created from data so that that data can be perceived and conceptualized by all. This approach departs from conventional information visualization in two ways, not only doing the formatting before the data is converted, but also using representations that are not purely visual and computer-generated.
Using usage data as a raw material, just like wood or metal, is a way of making it intelligible, using tangible representations to make the data perceptible or create an experience that generates a feeling or emotion.
Materializing to foster understanding
The objects created by designers provide us with ways of acting on our environment. As in the Design probes , which use objects as tools to carry out qualitative surveys on the habits or usage practices of different groups, we are considering the place of design in a research process. We posit the hypothesis that putting object design at the heart of research fields could offer a different way of revealing, observing and measuring the way in which a user perceives their digital traces.
Empreinte de mouvement [movement footprint], one of the first objects produced, provides a materialization of individual geolocation data. The 3D maps created are the product of a system that records the times spent in different geographical locations by volunteers throughout the day and night. Collected over several days, the traces make up a movement footprint which enables users to see – and touch – their geographical movements in the form of a series of strata. These strata show the time spent in a given place: the places the user has visited appear as protuberances of varying sizes, while areas they have visited little or not at all can be identified by a lack of relief.
Movement footprint, seen from above (© Mit)Movement footprint, cross-section (© Mit)
In addition to producing new way of representing data, this project revealed that such an object could provoke an emotion. When presented with their footprints, the participants in the experiment were surprised or moved to be able to see, touch and perceive specific moments in their lives. This representation method has since inspired other researchers to build new interfaces that are now used by Orange Business Services .
To further develop this reflection on data objects, we have created a second exploratory tool, the Valise à data [data suitcase], a mobile “materials library” that can be used to run workshops in which participants are invited to associate concepts linked to digital usage practices – web browsing, calls, SMS, data, etc. –– with materials. The suitcase contains shapes and materials with which participants are invited to ask themselves questions such as: How can I represent my web browsing over a day? And my mobile communications? Or my relationship with my phone? In so doing, they think about the shapes, textures, smells and sounds they would give to their usage practices. The associations thus generated are then used to produce a catalogue of portraits revealing the unique and recurring features of each individual’s mental representations.
The suitcase set up for a workshop (© Dumesny)
Portraits by Lucas, June 2015 (© Beauvisage)
The aim of these workshops is to investigate the universality of representations and the role of materials in a user’s appropriation of their digital environment. The workshops revealed that using materials from the suitcase gave participants the opportunity to move directly from abstract concepts to tangible materials, physically immersing themselves in the data.
Screenographie, the third experiment combining data and material, highlights mobile phone usage practices. By making the movements of the user’s fingers across the screen visible, it provides «X-rays» of their digital gestures. These representations show the gestures and body movements associated with the various applications a person uses on a daily basis and prompts the user to reflect on their physical relationship with their phone.
The initial black screen is progressively erased by the successive movements of the user’s fingers. These records enable us to identify different types of apps based on the gestures associated with them. Social networks, for instance, encourage infinite scrolling from top to bottom, while instant messaging requires users to type on virtual keyboards.
Screenographie, setup and recording (© Dumesny)
This project provides a visual and graphical analysis, revealing singular patterns specific to each app as well as collective patterns showing how everyone uses the same gestures. This analysis, based on the apps and not on the users, shows how the fresh perspective offered by the design approach can lead to the emergence of new research findings on how interfaces encourage certain gestures and influence usage practices.
The fourth and final example is the TicBot, a data object which reflects another facet of digital activity. It reproduces the user’s level of dependency – be it conscious or unconscious – on their phone, by using an app to record the number of times the screen is unlocked over the course of the day. Our mobile phones, always within reach, put us in constant contact with the web, our emails and other apps, all sources of incessant distractions that keep demanding our attention. We feel this, but there is no indicator that quantifies or reports these tics, which reflect the place our phones occupy in our daily lives.
When the user rarely unlocks their screen, the robot oscillates at a slow, gentle pace, but if the number of unlocking operations increases, its pace accelerates to a frenetic speed, at which point its hair may stand on end and its eyes may go red.
A calm TicBot (© Kim)
An agitated TicBot (© Kim)
The TicBot is a connected object that you can make yourself using plans available online . It provides an animated materialization of your relationship with your mobile. It is a witness which makes users aware of their practices and may cause them to change their view of the data phones collect.
Perceive its own usage habits
This research shows us how using design to turn digital data on usage habits into tangible representations can result in a different perception of behaviours. The four projects described here offer a more direct path from “raw” data to a meaningful, tangible representation of users’ usage practices.
At this stage of the project, we are now looking to study the different levels of engagement a user may have with data object systems. To what extent do these systems allow users to take control of their own data? Does creating data objects make it possible to offer experiences that make the user an active player in a digital world?
A thesis currently being written on these issues is seeking to understand the role of converting data into such tangible representations in the perception of digital usage practices . Building on the fields and projects mentioned above, the aim now is to investigate the ways in which materializing users’ data reinforces user empowerment, enabling them to use their data in accordance with their wants and needs. For Orange, it is an opportunity to put the user at the centre of everything, assuaging their fears and creating useful, relevant services.