In 2015, I had the chance to collaborate with fellow design student Marya Smirnova for an experience design course. We were asked to select a local community group and design an experience that would enrich the life of the group. We decided to approach Axé Capoeira, a local capoeira academy, and design an enriching experience for them.
In addition to the research that Marya and I conducted in tandem, I was primarily responsible for designing slides to track our findings each week, as well as designing the prototype of our final design solution.
I entered this project knowing absolutely nothing about capoeira. My lack of knowledge on the subject was a blessing in disguise - without any biases to guide my thinking, I was able to study the academy and the capoeira students (or capoeiristas with a fresh mind.
For about 2 months, Marya and I studied the group utilizing various design ethnography techniques. We observed and examined the movements, words, actions, schedules, routines, skills, and hobbies of the people in the group, trying to gain an understanding of the life of these capoeiristas.
For the first few weeks, we simply attended the capoeira classes and made as many observations as we could. One of our key observations was that the style of capoeira taught at Axé Capoeira was unique to the academy's master (or mestre). Another find was that to be a true capoeirista required a holistic understanding of the martial art: capoeiristas needed to be proficient and knowledgeable not only in the athletic side of capoeira, but also in the Afro-Brazilian culture that birthed the sport, as well as an understanding of the Portuguese language, capoeira songs, and Brazilian musical instruments used to drive matches.
As we engaged with the academy, we also engaged with the people in the group. Marya and I created cultural probes, interactive objects meant to be used by the capoeiristas and returned to us, so that we might glean some understanding of why these people love capoeira so much. Through this activity and the responses we received, we learned that capoeira was a valuable tool for self-improvement and pushing past failure.
Our interactions with the capoeiristas gave way to personas, invented characters that represent the types of people in our group, and those for which we are designing. These personas give us an understanding of our design audience without chaining us to specific people in the real world.
Our research led us to an interesting point: music. The music of capoeira is tied heavily to the Brazilian culture, is entirely in Portuguese, and is unique to each academy. Capoeiristas at Axé Capoeira learned songs uniquely composed by the mestre, and needed to be confident musically in order to "play" Capoeira correctly. Learning this music was one way that capoeiristas could challenge themselves and find self-improvement.
We began to design an app that could help capoeiristas learn Axé Capoeira's unique songs, and thus develop confidence in the sport and in life.
Iterating on this design idea finally gave us Axé Sings, a karaoke app that allows capoeiristas to learn Axé Capoeira's songs by listening to and singing along to recorded versions of the songs, listening to line-by-line pronounciations of the Portuguese lyrics, and learning about the meaning behind the songs through native language translations and historical facts.
After Marya and I co-designed the interface for the app, I designed the visual aesthetic and created the prototype in proto.io. Although I'm more familiar with Axure's prototyping software, I opted to learn proto.io, which allowed for greater media functionality, and allowed me to play video and sound within the prototype.View Prototype
The project was a success in the classroom, but it was also a hit at the academy. We talked to multiple students who appreciated our design intervention and said they would use the app if it moved from design to development. We were even approached by a developer in the community who tantalized us with the hope of turning Axé Sings into a full-fledged digital app. Fingers crossed!
The project was also a fantastic learning experience for me. It's often so easy to jump straight into designing things that we forget who we're designing for or what the underlying issues truly are. By spending so much time studying this capoeira academy and its participants, we came away with a unique and thoughtful design solution that we never could have even imagined on day one. I mean, really, who talks about capoeira and karaoke in the same breath?
This project was presented at the SFU Surrey Campus Open House for the university's 50th Anniversary Celebration.