Chapter I: Introduction

This thesis combines two areas of research as well as everyday life experiences whose interconnection has rarely been addressed in an adequate manner: On the one hand, new mobile technologies enable us to be constantly connected. On the other hand, public space as a phenomenon is an important basis of all Western societies. Thus, this thesis wants to determine how digital mobile media influence people’s behaviour in and perception of public spaces. Though digital mobile media are older than we commonly think, the existing research in this field largely employs a theoretical approach with little practical relevance for the designers. Attempts to re-connect users of mobile applications with the public spaces they inhabit in everyday life are practically missing. These spatial impacts of smartphone applications are the main area of interest in this work.

Several authors have argued that physical space looses its importance as everyday interactions are increasingly transferred to the digital sphere (e.g., Luscombe 2010; Batty quoted in Graham 1998). Personally, I fundamentally oppose this point of view: Space as a phenomenon cannot loose its importance to humankind as our bodies occupy space; essentially humans are space. Turning further to this work’s emphasis on public spaces I want to argue that the phenomenon should be a more important area of research interest: Public space is the place where society constitutes itself (Arendt 2002, 68) and where we are, as in Richard Sennett’s famous city definition, likely to meet strangers (1986, 264). Public space is where urbanity unfolds (Klamt 2007, 79, 83) and where we are confronted with the diversity of city life (Häussermann quoted in Lehtovuori 2005, 15). In other words, public space is the common basis of all Western societies.

This leads to one of the underlying assumptions of this work. I believe in what Martijn de Waal has called the “republican city ideal”: City dwellers are free to choose from a variety of lifestyles but they “share responsibility for the city as a whole.” (2014, 10) Thus, urban inhabitants are most importantly citizens who have to engage with urban society to a certain extent. This foundation highlights public space as one of the most crucial places where urban society constitutes and city dwellers relate to each other. Thus, encouraging people to spend time in public spaces is a crucial part of this ideology.

Hence, this thesis aims to enhance the understanding of the influences of mobile digital media onto public space. To fulfill this goal the work employs a practice-based research approach, utilizing a case study to answer the main research question. The smartphone application Urban Alphabets was developed as part of this research in order to examine the influences one particular case has onto people’s spatial experiences.

Urban Alphabets is a freely available smartphone application (iOS and Android) enabling users to design their own alphabets. By photographing and cropping individual letters users capture their own Urban Alphabet, which they can re-use to write short messages, called Urban Postcards. To evaluate how this application alters users’ perception of and behaviour in public spaces 17 workshops have been conducted. These workshops employed participant observation in the field, as well as interviews and surveys.

The main findings of the case study show that Urban Alphabets changes public space for the user in many aspects. These characteristics include their perception of, actions in and representation of space. Furthermore the app alienated1 the users from the boringness of everyday life. They re-experienced familiar public spaces in an uncommon way. These differences remained even when the participants did not use the Urban Alphabets apps any more. This thesis contributes recommendations to provide guidance for other designers on the aspects to consider when starting the design process of a smartphone app aiming to re-connect users with the physical spaces they inhabit.

This introduction chapter presents my personal background and motivation to work in the field between urban studies and media design research. It then introduces the research questions of this work, which are divided into two main areas: While the first area is concerned with smartphone applications’ relation to public space in general, the second area of interest is in the future artistic and commercial development of the case study object.

The second chapter describes the methodology employed in this work. To approach the research questions in this practice-based research the smartphone application Urban Alphabets has been developed. Workshops are utilized as a frame to accommodate three research methods: The study employs participant observation in public spaces, group interviews and two surveys in order to systematically collect material for qualitative as well as quantitative research interests.

The third chapter presents related research as well as artistic reference projects. The analysis of the related literature shows the lack of practically oriented research on the interconnection of public space and digital mobile media. The artistic and design projects presented are of inspirational nature for the case study.

The fourth chapter establishes a theoretical understanding of the main concepts of this work: The definition of public space includes physical as well as socially produced aspects. The chapter also relates the importance of spatial experiences to the human body and introduces a definition of everyday life as simultaneously boring and stimulating. It follows that the development of tools to alienate city dwellers from the everyday is fruitful. Lastly the chapter introduces terms of behavioural science, such as involvement shield, and proper and improper behaviour, which are used during the discussion in chapter six.

The fifth chapter consists of a documentation of the case study, Urban Alphabets. It presents the interfaces functionalities, means of presentation, and artistic ideas behind the project.

The sixth chapter answers the research questions in regards to the case study: It discusses the changes taking place in public space from the users’ perspective, the user types and interests and introduces two additional issues the public presentation of Urban Alphabets has raised.

The final, seventh chapter summarizes the process and learning outcomes of the project and generalizes the results of the case study for the entire research field. The section presents recommendations for the development of smartphone apps aiming to re-connect users and the physical public spaces they inhabit, one of the practical contributions of this work. It also looks at the future development opportunities for Urban Alphabets and lastly recommends a number of topics for further research.

I.1 Note to the reader

This work includes references to several websites and digital appendices, which are essential to understand the thesis and access all its material. Consequently following the digital mobile media content of the work, the links are not presented in a human-readable form but as QR codes. Using a mobile device with a video camera and Internet access the reader can easily open the given URLs. To scan the QR-codes please use a common QR reader, e.g.,

In order to guarantee one common design principle throughout this work and to make it easier for the (human) reader, the links mentioned in this work link to a webpage made especially for this work. From this website all the thesis content can be accessed. Its common link is:

The digital appendices indicated throughout this thesis can also be accessed at:[NUMBER].html

The links referred to in this work can also be accessed at:[NUMBER].html

The original link sources are also stated in the references of this written thesis ‣1.‣1 See References - Web links

I.2 Personal background and motivation

While studying architecture at Bauhaus-Universität Weimar in Germany I2 personally discovered that architecture studies commonly focus on the physical aspect of our built surroundings. By contrast, to me it was important that architecture does not only concentrate on the physical but that architects actually think about the use of their plans, be it building or urban designs. Space, for me, is much more than merely corporeal. It can feel completely different depending on many aspects such as time of the day or of the year, user groups, its history, its future, to mention just a few. This and my interest in social relations were the reasons that during my Master studies in Weimar I focused on public space.

Over time I increasingly realized the negative connotation with which the use of new technologies in public spaces is often discussed (e.g., Luscombe 2010). But especially after I came to Medialab as an exchange student in 2010/11, I personally understood that there is more potential that has not been realized. By choice realized here refers to two meanings: On the one hand people do not realize in the sense of missing imagination, and on the other hand the potential has not been realized meaning that the field has not been explored satisfactory detail.

In contrast to some other authors who argue that New Media decrease areas of social contact (e.g., Kraut et al. 1998; Luscombe 2010), I believe that New Media can influence public space in a positive way: With the help of New Media city dwellers can reclaim public space for public life.

This position brought me to focus on the topic of New Media’s influence on public space for my Master’s thesis at Bauhaus-Universität Weimar. In the work “Interacting in Public Space – How New Media influence our behaviour in Public Space” (Miessner 2012) I established a theoretical framework of interconnections between media, technology, society and space ‣2‣2 Figure 1, arguing that changes in one domain are always reflected in all other domains as well.

Figure 1: Interrelationship of technology, media, society and public space

In the second part of the work, I chose three forms of New Media3 and tried to analyze the influence they could have on the user’s behaviour in public spaces. However, as space is subjectively experienced ‣3 ‣3 See chapter IV.1.1it appeared hardly possible to reach any definite results from the analysis of video documentations of different artworks. Thus, the main conclusion of the thesis was the suggestion to conduct a series of case studies in order to investigate the field more closely. Several case studies could enable to generalize the results.

This current thesis can therefore be understood as the first of a series of case studies, where I will investigate different forms of New Media (e.g., installations, urban screens4, mobile media).

This work focuses on mobile media, a topic I became increasingly interested in since 2011. This is certainly influenced by the rapidly increasing use of smartphones in the recent years, a trend some authors already call a historic moment (e.g., Jurgenson 2012). Secondly, the focus on mobile media is related to another personal experience: When I started to use Foursquare, I often wondered what people defined as places in the digital sphere. Foursquare (now: Swarm) is a mobile application allowing users to check in to a place and earn badges, for example based on how many of the same types of places the user has already visited before. Sharing these check ins with ones network enables to coordinate meeting with friends in real-time. In her paper “Location, location, location: Collecting space and place in mobile media” Alison Gazzard points out that the definition of place in this application becomes interesting: The user’s are left to define a place - a place is identified by the users recognition as meaningful enough to check in (Gazzard 2011, 408). As Foursquare only stresses places, not the routes between them, Gazzard argues that such applications “distort our experiences of the spaces around us as checking in takes precedence over movement.” (2011, 416) Gazzard’s article has brought up similar questions to my own: How do users define place in the Foursquare application? This further raised my interest in the field. As we will see in Chapter III there is little other research discussing mobile media’s influences on definition of or behaviour in public spaces.

I.3 Research questions

This thesis aims to find answers in two main areas. The first is concerned with digital mobile media’s relation to public space. The second area dealt with in this thesis focuses on the artistic and commercial future development of the Urban Alphabets project, the tool developed to answer the main research question.

The first main area of research questions examines the relationship of digital mobile media and public space: Whereas my previous Master’s thesis dealt simultaneously with different forms of New Media (e.g., urban screens, mobile media, installations), this work narrows this topic down to focus on digital mobile media in order to answer the research question: How do digital mobile media, particularly smartphone applications, affect public space for the user? In particular, I am interested in the users’ perception of space, behaviour in space and user’s picture of that certain space (representation of space). Here, the work refers to Henri Lefebvre’s three aspects of space, which he outlined in his influential book “The production of space” (2011 [1974]). These features are perceived space (spatial practices), conceived space (representations of space), and lived space (spaces of representation) (Lefebvre 2011). I will later argue that Lefebvre’s space concept mainly focuses on the passive perception of space ‣4.‣4 See chapter IV.1.2 Thus, the approach lacks the emphasis on active space making. This active aspect I describe as behaviour in space.

In order to answer this main research question, the mobile application Urban Alphabets has been developed. Urban Alphabets is a multiplatform project aiming to raise awareness for our everyday physical surroundings. The main part of the project is a smartphone application allowing users to capture their own alphabet. The individually photographed and cropped letters can be used to write short messages, called Urban Postcards.

This thesis can be considered practice-based research, which aims “to gain new knowledge by means of practice and the outcomes of that practice” (Candy 2006, 3).

Tightly connected to the space definition the thesis attempts to determine whether users realize that they spend more attention to their physical surroundings while they use the applications. A third question is to ascertain the length of this effect.

Since the Urban Alphabets project is continuous, the use scenarios for the application have not been determined exhaustively from the beginning. Thus, this work also aims to find answers to two secondary research questions:

Firstly, the thesis intends to document use scenarios, which evolved during the project’s development phase. Urban Alphabets must be understood as a tool, which can be used to different ends. As the designer, I had a main use case in mind when designing the application: The idea was to re-connect users to their physical surroundings using their smartphones. However, users have a different approach and thus they could contribute other ideas how they could personally use Urban Alphabets.

Secondly, this work explores which user types enjoy using the applications most. It hypothesizes there could be a correlation with the user’s interest in the topics of graphic design/fonts, writing systems, shopping, cities, modes of transportation, advertising and smartphone applications. The goal is to examine which interests, if any, correlate strongest with the user’s reported future use expectancy of the Urban Alphabets application.

The research questions clearly show my personal, positive approach to New Media in general and digital mobile media in particular. The uniting hypothesis is that smartphone applications potentially have the ability to re-connect users with their physical surroundings, if we, as designers, think about it from an early stage onwards. Thus, the work aims to propose recommendations, which can be used for developing smartphone applications with the users’ physical surroundings in mind.

1 While the term alienation frequently has a negative connotation, I use it in this work to describe a positive situation: When a user is alienated from the everyday she can realize its beauty.

2 When I use the first person-account in this work it is to show my own contribution, hypothesis or opinion. In this sense it is not a manifestation of un-scientificity but on the contrary it expresses a transparent and reflected scientific description of these peculiarities.

3 New Media can be understood as media whose production is enabled through new technologies (see Manovitch 2001 for a more detailed definition).

4 When I use the term urban screens in this work I refer to all fixed screens in public spaces. Thus, the term includes media facades, classical urban screens as well as projections in public spaces.

>> next: chapter II: Methodology