Modus Cube | enhancing productivity at work
MHCI+D prototype course at UW
Open work environments are great for sharing ideas, but can be challenging when it comes to maintaining productivity. To address this issue, we set out to create a non-verbal communication tool for teams in order to address the cost of interruption and ensure collaboration happens effectively and efficiently.
Modus Cube is a 2-1/2 inch frosted cube that changes color upon rotation to signal a status. It allows people to visually display their working status in an effort to increase focused work time and foster intentional collaboration. By explicitly displaying this information in a fun and non-invasive way, an individual’s availability is mediated through the cube thus leading to a better working environment. Rather than create a prototype that would attempt to replace or change the way communication occurs in collaborative workspaces, we felt that a prototype that augments the current interactions would be more valuable.
How it Works
Users can rotate the cube to let others know their current status.
We conducted research that included topics such as mediating communication, supporting teamwork through robots, and current processes for displaying status in a work setting.
We saw immense value in exploring ways of mediating communication, and were reminded that “mediating communication requires a social context” . Rather than focus on the computational aspect of interfaces, we wanted to explore the “sociocultural” aspects of software. For example, the effects that software can play on current behavior, especially in areas where it could improve interaction between people. We looked into social computing which is the “study of user interfaces that mediate human communication” .
Malte Jung is a Human-Robot interaction researcher who studies the profound impact robots have on building and fostering teamwork between people. We found this concept relevant and transferable to non-robot form factors. Malte found that “robots impact teamwork not only through the task-specific functions they have been developed to serve but also by changing the social dynamics of the team.”  His focus is around perceived conflict, which is essentially the moment before real conflict or frustration exhilarates. Malte found correlation between how a team manages conflict to how effective the team is in their work.
Displaying a Status
Slack, a communication tool that is rapidly integrating into many offices and collaborative studios, added a new feature that integrates a person’s status as part of their display. This feature “offers five default statuses for situations like “in a meeting” or “out sick,” but of course you can also set a custom status with more personal detail.”  Using status allows clearer communication between team members, however we discovered that doing this online might add unwanted distractions. We became interested in finding a way to display status offline, in a physical form that could be displayed in a public space. The downsides to the added slack feature was that it requires widespread buy-in.  When people don’t stick to the status options that everyone understands and chose to display “wacky emojis, it scrambles the meaning of status-update system.” With over “four million daily users on Slack” wearing “their status on their sleeves,” it is easy to scan for social cues. There was mention of how “the statuses could be a useful signal when someone doesn’t want to be bothered,” such as a “focus mode.”
 Ko, Andy. What interfaces mediate. User Interface Software and Technology. http://faculty.washington.edu/ajko/books/uist/mediation.html
 Jung, M. F., Martelaro, N., & Hinds, P. J. (2015). Using robots to moderate team conflict: the case of repairing violations. In Proceedings of HRI 2015 (pp. 229-236). ACM
 “Slack adds status messages, a feature it should have had on day one.” Engadget. https://www.engadget.com/2017/04/13/slack-adds-status-updates-away-messages/
 “The Dark Side of Slack’s New Emoji Statuses.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/04/the-dark-side-of-slacks-new-emoji-statuses/523314/
We generated a comprehensive ideation suite. From our ideation suite, six ideas were selected and tested for desirability. We narrowed down to two ideas and through comparative analysis landed on a concept that would become Modus Cube. The original concept was meant to showcase ones mood in a collaborative work space. However, after testing our paper prototype and talking to participants we realized that this direction was too intrusive, so we we pivoted to broadcasting one’s status in their work flow.
What we learned
We learned that we can accomplish a lot in two short weeks when we are all passionate about an idea. There is a steep challenge in turning any idea into a physical artifact, but having a supportive and passionate team makes this challenge worthwhile. In assessing what parts were needed to bring Modus Cube to life, we realized that we would be taking a risk in trying out new parts that were very dissimilar to hardware that we had not used before. This was especially true with the hardware, as we encountered many obstacles initially trying to get everything to work.