The makeover was completed in September 2010. The following May we went back to talk with the administration, staff and students who run and use the lab. Here’s a few of the things highlighted during the conversations.
Lab as Social Space:
The original lab space was considered a great example of a clean and efficient computing space. But after the makeover it was realized that with a linear arrangement of computers and desks facing the outside walls of the room an overly formal and individualized environment was created. One respondent described young people using the lab as “like little robot drones, just clicking away…they wouldn’t be interacting with each other.” The original arrangement of the room led to a lab culture where young people became less social than in other parts of the center, and more fixated on their private uses of the computer.
These observations were echoed by the director who was also familiar with the adult population’s use of the computers outside of after-school hours. The director noted that adult users of the lab were typically engaged in a job search, and were entering the lab in a “somber” mood. In the administrator’s judgment, the previous arrangement of the lab increased this tendency and created an inadvertently “unfriendly” environment.
Changing to a more flexible design utilizing hexagonal clusters of desks dramatically altered these perceptions. One staff member commented, “it has to be social because of how it’s arranged. They [young people] are more willing to talk to you about what they are doing.” She also noted “the kids are more willing to talk to each other…they can work as a group better, because it’s more set up as a group environment… you’re not just facing the wall by yourself. You’re consciously recognizing everyone around you.” . Interestingly, the lab staff also found that overall disruptive behavior during after-school hours has decreased since the redesign.
Adult users of the lab benefited similarly; the director of programming noted that the vibrancy of the colors and the more social layout resulted in a friendly and dynamic environment. In her experience, these changes translated directly into a better mentality of users of the lab, including job seekers and in spite of a continued economic downturn in the region.
The redesign had direct implications for the maintenance and reliability of the computers in the lab. A staff member directly involved in responding to computer problems explained that the previous design of the lab permitted her to stand in one central place and observe the lab users. Although she was able to observe all of the lab users at once, she was only superficially aware of what each person was doing. After the redesign, she was forced to adopt a “patrol” pattern, walking through the lab and briefly interacting with each person. This change led to a greater sense of connection, availability and intimacy in encounters with lab users. Consequentially, users were more comfortable reporting problems and engaging in collaborative problem-solving.
The patrolling staff person made the following observation:
Now, we’re more accessible for any problems that are going on. We know when a problem is happening, because before if a kid had a problem and they just left the computer lab. Well, their problem would be on the computer, it could be a virus, it could be something actually broke[sic] and we wouldn’t know about that. We would have no idea until days later when some kid would be like ‘this computer is not working.’ But now if we see a computer not turning on or if something is flashing up, we can address the problem right away. I find that very helpful, actually.
This statement demonstrates two important consequences of the design change. The first is a likely measurable decrease in response time to technical problems. The other is a change in the subjective experience of young people encountering problems; in the new arrangement, young people feel less frustrated in asking for help.
Perception of Personal Space:
One young person noted that crowding was the most serious problem in the old lab configuration. This observation was particularly interesting because the previous lab actually contained twelve fewer computers. As a result of having a perception of more personal space in the new designed configuration, the participant noted feeling simultaneously more comfortable in private activities, and more ready to participate socially.
Redesign as an Institutional Process:
The theme of unrealized potential was common throughout participant’s reflections on the overall importance of the redesign project. The director commented:
It’s almost like it was an unpolished gem that was kind of in the back cabinet. You knew it was there…it was like a reawakening, almost… once it was complete, we realized how much more we can be doing. Even though it was being used for all these different things before, there could be so many more uses of it. That’s what we realized. We were not using the lab to it’s fullest potential.
The “reawakening,” described above impacted more than just programming in the lab. The director also reflected that:
Once the computer lab was formed, and we saw how everything was working…it made us change our approach to what we provide to the community. We changed our support system. We looked at it and said, you know what, we could be doing just a little bit more.
Especially interesting was that the widespread changes motivated by the redesign in the computer lab were largely independent of the inclusion of more and better computers. Indeed, increased use of the purely technical resources included in the redesign have only happened slowly, and some of the more advanced hardware such as MIDI keyboards and camcorders and software such as that to do video editing and green screen remain unused to date.
The lab staff noted that since the redesign, other staff members have been making greater use of the lab. She commented:
We use the computer lab more, as in the staff using it for the kids rather than just the kids being on the computer… the computer has so much more to offer to the kids now than before, because we use it. As a staff we’re more comfortable in there.
The director of programming has also noted a change in the way staff interact within the lab space during staff training sessions. They are now more likely to provide over the shoulder support to each other as they learn new skills.
A recurring theme throughout the interviews suggested that the redesign played a clear role in challenging and changing expectations about the use of the computer lab. The language of the respondents consistently indicated that redesign shifted basic perspectives about the role of the center in the community. The redesign project served as a joint institutional-community laboratory, where experimenting with the computer lab space appears to have triggered broader change.
The role of redesign as an institutional process of experimentation in space is perhaps subtle, but it is central to the administration’s view of the future of the community center. Physical transformation through design of the computer lab allowed the center to reflect (and enhance) the inherently social goals of the entire organization.