Morten Winther

Sensory tangibles

Exploring smart textiles through empathic user research


  • Client

    Lund University · Snoezelen

  • Year

    2011 – 2012

  • My role

    Design researcher

Snoezelen is a non-directive pedagogical practice for people with profound cognitive disabilities. Snoezelen is a method based on the use of multisensory experience rooms designed to awaken people's interests. It offers them the opportunity to discover, explore and experience at their own pace.

The challenge & outcome

The Snoezelen room arouses curiosity, the urge to try and act, and to communicate; but it also can offer a haven of calm and relaxation. The purpose of the project is to find qualities in interactive tangibles that can further develop the Snoezelen practice. By exploring combinations of traditional materials, sensors, and actuators, we explored new technology-enabled potentials for Snoezelen.

My role

I spent a year as an intern in the design research project SID (Sensuousness, Interaction and Participation) at Certec, Lund University. In the project, I explored how smart materials and interactive textiles can be used to create engaging sensory experiences for children in Snoezelen centers.

I did user observations, material experiments, workshop facilitation, concept development, Arduino prototyping, and user evaluations.
Examples of two light and two dark sensory rooms in a Snoezelen center

"Both from having Morten as a student at ITU (2008-9) and from Morten’s PD and interaction design work in the SID-project (2011-2012), I know Morten to be a rare combination of talent and skills. Morten combines people and organization skills with an ability to think creatively and to make theory matter. Morten have shown dedication and working ethics both as team player and individually navigating in a design project."

Henrik Svarrer Larsen, Design researcher, Assistant professor, Malmö University

Main activities in the project

  • Ethnographic, contextual user studies.
  • Material experiments.
  • Arduino Prototyping.
  • User evaluations.
  • Co-creation workshops.

Understanding the Snoezelen context

Ethnographic observations

I used most of the first six months of the internship in a Snoezelen center to get a deep understanding of the context. The children who participated in the research project were school age and had profound cognitive disabilities. Some of the children have reduced eyesight, more than half of them are wheelchair users, and none of them have a conscious language. This means we could not rely on conversation-based methods to understand the children's perspective. Instead, we had to rely solely on observation in combination with the experienced staff at the centers, who knew the children very well.

Experiences the world through the children's bodies

Designing for sensory experiences requires understanding beyond intellectual and cognitive insights. How the body feels in the rooms, the dark, the light, the ball bath, the swings, by the blinkings lights are crucial to grasp to be able to design for the Snoezelen context.

But not only must we experience the rooms and the sensory impressions by ourselves, but also try to get an empathic understanding of how the children could potentially experience the rooms.

The children's' use of the rooms is driven by the interactions between the room and its artifacts, the staff and the child. In our observations of these interactions, we sought to "disappear" and not draw too much attention. Still, if the children sought us, we took part of the interactions to our best abilities.
A few sketches from the insights and analysis of the data material

Material experiments

Tangible sketching

Based on our deep understanding of the context and the children in the project, we began exploring textiles, sensors and actuators that could be used to create interactive experiences.

We combined the materials with technology (in Arduino setups) to begin sketching interactions. For instance, we explored the combination of tulle and light, vibration and touch, as well as heat-sensitive painting and heating elements.
Explorations of the material qualities of tulle. How does it feel on the skin? On the face? How does the material behave when curled? What interactive qualities could be used from it?
Sensory pillow prototypes

Working closely with the staff at the centers and getting to know the children were great experiences. The opportunity of exploring tangible computing from an aesthetic approach to improve the lives of children with special needs was truly unique.

As icing on the cake, my part of the project in collaboration with Nina Mørch Pedersen and Katrine Høvsgaard was nominated for the Talent Award at the 2012 Danish Design Award