Since early in my career, I got fascinated with the use of 'entertaining' mechanics in 'serious' software. The most common example would be integrating achievements and leaderboards into fitness apps. I wanted to explore the topic further.
Problem and Role
Preliminary market research and academic literature review helped me identify the following problems with the existing 'gamified' solutions for fitness and running in particular:
- most solutions focus on external rewards, such as points and trophies
- most mixed reality systems require expensive hardware and are inconvenient for running
- running experience in the existing literature is seen as monolith and discussed mostly in terms of skill (amateur or pro) and frequency of exercise
- existing academic literature and commercial solutions mostly focus on the potential health benefits of running rather than enriching the experience
'Zombies, Run!' is an exception to all of the above. Instead of relying on achievement badges, it relies on a fictional story. With only a simple app and a pair of headphones, 'Zombies, Run!' story creates a mixed reality experience for the runner: with the app, they run not just in their regular environment, but in a post-apocalyptic world full of zombies.
The popularity and commercial success of 'Zombies, Run!' suggested that such 'mixed reality stories' (MRS) have potential, yet there was limited understanding of the format. Thus, the research question for the project became:
While it's hard to overvalue the amount of support and guidance I received from my supervisors and peers, ultimately, as a post-graduate researcher, I was solely responsible for
- planning and time-management
- designing and conducting the studies
- recruiting participants and receiving approvals from the ethics committee
- presenting the findings
- bringing the project to completion
Summary of Research Methods
• secondary research and literature review
• market analysis
• heuristic evaluations
• usability testing
• journey mapping
• audio diaries
• card sorting
• running logs analysis
Understanding the runner experience was essential, thus I started with the following research sub-question:
To address the sub-question, I recruited 14 runners and people who want to start running regularly. I asked each of them to use 'Zombies, Run!' during their workouts for at least three weeks. I interviewed them before and after they started using the app. Three participants did not finish the study (hopefully, not due to being caught by the zombies).
As participants were running on their own, at a convenient time and location, it was difficult to capture their thoughts during the workout. To address the issue, I asked the runners to record a short audio-diary entry after each run — that helped to capture participants' thoughts still fresh on their minds.
During this stage, I also joined two Melbourne running clubs myself, to better understand runners, and also find potential participants.
I extensively used DevonThink for data analysis. I chose the app for its flexibility with tagging and colour-labeling, and its ability to work with any files, including audio and video clips.
One of the first findings was a more detailed understanding of the runner journey. This helped to identify some specific gaps in the current runner experience and centre the project on a particular part of the journey: the trajectory of the workout experience.
Jobs to Be Done
The research also helped to identify some non-obvious jobs to be done by mixed reality stories, for instance distractions and a sense of companionship for people too self-conscious to run together with someone else. Distraction in particular turned out to be an important direction for this project.
One of the largest findings was identifying the differences between runner personas and their relationships with mixed reality stories. Interestingly, running experience does not play a big role in regards to attitudes towards MRS. What matters is whether runners are bored or engaged by the workout and whether the engagement is directed inward or outward.
During this stage, I switched perspectives to better understand how storytellers and designers can create new MRS.
I conducted workshops with 6 creative writers and a producer to get insights into their regular process and speculate how it can be adapted for the creation of MRS. The workshop structure was inspired by storytelling workshops I attended in Melbourne.
Two writers and the producer agreed to complete a sample MRS script, all three were interviewed as a group after they completed their scripts.
Prototype and Test
With the help of creative writers, I developed three new MRS prototypes and now needed to test them with actual runners. The final research sub-question was:
This stage introduced a new set of runners to the mixed reality stories created during the second phase. 35 runners were asked to pick a story and (literally) run with it at the Melbourne University campus. Right after the workout, they were interviewed about the experience. Some participants chose to run in pairs, and there was even a group of three runners participating simultaneously. Some participants came back to experience a different MRS and were interviewed again about the differences in their experiences.
Listening back to previous interviews made me realise that I can shorten interview time by repackaging some of the typical questions into a questionnaire. This allowed me to make each interview 10-15 minutes shorter, without sacrificing the amount of data I was collecting.
This project investigated how can the user experience of running with mixed reality stories be supported. In turn, a complex multi-faceted answer to this question strives to provide contributions towards several areas of HCI and UX research and practice.
First and foremost, the thesis defined the format of a 'mixed reality story' and demonstrated how it's different from audiobooks, podcasts and existing 'gamified' solutions for running. The project also provided a detailed description of how mixed reality experiences can be created without expensive hardware or complex software.
Moreover, the project demonstrated in detail how people use voluntary engagement to control their experience and switch between contexts on the run, which provides an important insight into how MRS work and how their design might be improved.
In addition, the findings challenge the 'monolith' view of the running experience, previously defined mainly by the skill or frequency of workouts. The project demonstrated how some runners actively look for distractions while others seek more of a meditative experience and want to focus on their runs. There is also an important distinction between runners focusing inwards, on their thoughts, and runners focusing outwards, on the environment around them. These distinctions were not previously described in the relevant literature, yet play a crucial role in how runners experience different types of MRS.
These findings allowed anticipation of some future trends in academic research and the industry. For instance, in the thesis I speculated how other activities, such as walking, could benefit from an audio-centric mixed reality story. About a year after the publication of the thesis, Apple has done exactly that with 'Time to walk'.
The work is now written about in a way that demonstrates expertise in the theoretical, methodological and practical aspects of the work. I think that this thesis is a brilliant piece of work, for which the student should be hugely proud.
Dr Conor Linehan, thesis examiner