Michelle (Xin) Gao
9 min readNov 21, 2020


This is the story of how we started on a journey exploring one facet of the future of HCI: post-humanism. In only 5 days, we learned how to considered agents and systems beyond the human and finally designed Terrari-Tim, exploring a way how human and non-human agents can cohabitate.

Hi, I am Tim, and I am a terrarium designed by team Green Ligament :)

Terrari-Tim is a protected terrarium that can mimic the native elements of the environment in the neighborhood. People can scan the code and get more information about the history of native plants!

Project Details

Before diving into the project, let’s meet the team! We are the master students from the UW MHCI+D program.

Green Ligament Team: Nathan Keyes, Roz Hillenbrand, Xin Michelle Gao

Project Scope: Formative Research, Ideation, Design, and Rapid Prototyping

During a five-day intensive immersion boot camp, we went through the entire design process including, discovering the problem space and generating insights, synthesizing the information from the research and defining our shared values and purposes, brainstorming the potential design solutions, dot voting the best solution and finally, presenting out our best idea to Cohort 8.

What and Why Do We Care?

When our team brainstormed the idea of cohabitation, we all showed interest in exploring the relationship between the environment and urban public infrastructure and utilities. We gathered on the miro board and discussed the concerning problems such as:

  • Environmental restraints in heavily polluted cities when it comes to growing green.
  • Segregation and lack of infrastructure for public transportation in cities.
  • High frequency of infrastructure replacement and short lifespan of utilities.
  • Lack of community knowledge regarding a sustainable and environmental-friendly lifestyle.
Values and purpose as a team

We first individually extracted key aspects from those problems and shared them on the miro board to see if there were overlaps between them.

Sustainable infrastructure, Accessible resources, and Utilizing the “in-between” space between crowded cities are our shared values as a team. Therefore, we decided to focus on the design challenge in sustainable public infrastructure and utilities in urban areas, aiming to bring a non-human living element into the infrastructure of our city and environments.

Formative Research Methods

Observation: We went out and paid attention to the overlooked non-human agents that are crucial to our daily life such as bins, pet waste facilities and etc. We wanted to capture the “unequal power dynamic“ between the human and non-human. For example, in this picture, people are making litter. I don’t understand why people will throw trash on the ground instead of a garbage bin, but I know this action will negatively impact the soil beneath it, the plants surround it, and the animals who can’t always tell it apart from food :(.


Primary Research: We first conducted two semi-structured interviews with two participants both from NYC. Listening to their living experience in a busy city, we learned that the individual willingness to live in an environmental-friendly way is low because it is considered a high commitment for them due to the lack of supporting public infrastructure (ex. poor transportation)and knowledge to start with a new lifestyle. These conversations helped us gain perspectives within this domain and provided a clearer research direction.

Secondary Research: With a clearer direction, we conducted a competitive analysis to see the effectiveness of the existing solutions and a literature review of scholarly sources to dive into the following topics:

  • Infrastructure ecology
  • Civic engagement in environmental-friendly events such as waste management
  • Governmental engagement in planning sustainable cities


After analyzing our data, we were able to find some common frustrations and potentials that appeared in both primary and secondary research.

  1. As you move away from the city center, public utilities and infrastructure are receiving less routine maintenance and care.
  2. Time is running out for infrastructure across the US, disproportionately impacting urban areas, as it reaches the end of its lifespan.
  3. The general public has a limited understanding of sustainability practices due to a lack of education.
  4. Green amenities in urban spaces can offer habitat to 90+ species while improving local ecosystems and air quality.

Key Insights

We synthesized all the data and formed the following 4 key insights:

Our 4 key insights informed by the findings

Informed by insights, we were able to narrow down the problem space and start building How Might We (HMW)statements which would help us further explore potential opportunities for designs. We came out with a bunch of HMW statements and finally down-selected the one that was most relevant to the scope of our problem space.

Refined HMW Statement


30 concepts sketching: To align with research insights and response to our HMW statement, we sketched our 30 design concepts. Some concepts were funny, some were strange, some were whimsical, but some were so strong that finally contributed to our final design solution. For the later critique, we categories and grouped ideas with similar attributes.

30 rapid sketches

30 to 4: From the entire suite of potential concepts, we went through our first round of critique sessions and selected 4 solid concepts, and made a refined version for each concept.

  • Terrari-Tim: A terrarium provides a safe and self-sustained environment for local plants to live and thrive.
  • Gard-in-a-Box: A box of collective tools, seeds, and instruction is offered to people who are interested but new to gardening.
  • Grown-on-the-Go: Utilizing existing infrastructure such as the ground public transportation to provide new habitat for insects and birds by building this kind of vertical community garden.
  • Native Roads: Using a turf-like material that can be used to rehabilitate surfaces near roadways and infrastructure, bringing native species back to the environment as well as strengthening the roadway edges.
30 to 4

4 to 1: From score 1 to 5, we ranked each concept above by asking ourselves and also gained some feedback from classmates on which one was the most exciting, relevant, and achievable. We went through the second round of team critique sessions and finally down-selected to one best design solution that was exciting, well-responded to the challenge, and well-aligned with key insights, and most importantly.

4 to 1 (Yay! Terriari-Tim won!!)

The terrarium idea won! But before landing on this concept, I had a concern that this concept might end up with a piece of art installation with a lack of personal interaction and empowering aspects. With this concern in mind, our team made improvements to the original concepts and built a stronger solution with the following aspects (*new aspects in bold):

  • A physical terrarium
  • Building a physical connection with terrarium — Being able to adopt a terrarium
  • Building a digital connection with terrarium — Being able to monitor the terrarium via digital devices and gain educational insights toward terrarium
  • Promoting community engagement — Holding “Terrarium day” to allow participants of the terrarium to share gardening knowledge and take home some part of the terrarium and propagate the trimming in their backyard garden.

To test out this improved concept, we moved to the prototype stage and hoped to gain some feedback from people.

Rapid Prototype

To seek feedback regarding the improvements we had made, we conducted a rapid prototype session. We began with outlining the scenario of use in a question format and then specified the steps users need to take to complete each scenario. When designing the scenarios, we asked:

Scenario 1: Do we need the digital educational aspect of the terrarium for people to understand the purpose of it?

Corresponding steps the user need to take | Scenario 1

Scenario 2: How does the application of terrarium promote community engagement and What would people need in order to successfully replant a trimming?

Corresponding steps the user need to take | Scenario 2

Following the steps, we drew a storyboard and used it to walk through the entire experience with two participants. During the testing, we didn’t show all the frames at once but walking them through frame by frame with a description of the context. Since we hadn’t made the digital part interactive at this stage, there were some confusions when it came to the relationship between the actual terrarium and the use of the digital app. Overall, the testing experience went well (thank you Roz for leading the testing.) and we gained some valuable feedback that we applied to further define our prototype including information redefine plant species decisions and visual cues. Some of the inspirations we gained from participants were:

  • Having key information displayed on the plaque
  • A shared live feed of the terrarium
  • A customizable box that users can require specific items in the grow box
the Storyboard we used during prototype testing

With that realization and inspirations, we refined our prototype with higher fidelity with voice over, and below is our prototype video.

Terrari-Tim Final Concept Description

Terrari-Tim is a protected terrarium that will contain the native elements of the environment in the neighborhood it occupies while promoting education about the local species. The non-human element is provided with an environment in which it can thrive and redevelop its native land.

Our human users are taught about their local species and what it looks like to peacefully cohabitate while receiving benefits from having dispersed ecosystems such as a decrease in temp and bad air quality.

Terrari-Tims dispersed around a city can be used to educate the public via an AR app that can be accessed through QR code on present and future forms of environmental damage along with the possibility of natural growth in our local eco-systems.

The neighborhood passerby can register to stay informed about how the plant is doing. When the terrarium is finally fully grown, there will be a community held event for those who have been involved in the Terrari-Tims life to trim and propagate the plant in their own personal spaces. This will be called T-Day and they can come and pick up the trimming along with a potting kit. All the events information will be sent out to the participants and the participants can use the community boards for knowledge and skill sharing.

Terrari-Tim Final Design | Physical Terrarium
Terrari-Tim Final Design | Digital App


Moving Forward

  • Building a full-scale physical prototype.
  • Partner with local organizations to really get the idea off the ground.
  • Continue to define our concept and add user testing for the app.

Key Takeaways

  • Rapid sketching helps us get our idea quick and crispy. Spending only two minutes on each idea helped me extract numerous ideas. These ideas might be rough, strange, and dirty, but really helped me formulate the ideas out rapidly.
  • Conceptual prototyping is hard. To fully inform the participant, it requires a clear storyline with rich contextual information. But at the same time, the lack of contextual information might give participants more space for imagination and own interpretation and come out with very insightful recommendations.
  • Learning from each other. Work is enjoyable and productive because everyone was involved and committed to doing their best and learning. I really appreciate my teammates Roz and Nathan because I found myself learning so many new things from them including the productive working style and deep insights on the current persistent social problems.



Michelle (Xin) Gao

UX Research and Design | UW HCDE Alumna | Class of 2021 @ UW MHCI + D