Experimenting with the Phonograph

During our last DTU skills training we experimented with the phonograph as a form of media ethnography. Simulating the learning-by-doing teaching technique that Kirsten Haring introduced we didn’t waste much time reflecting and got hands-on immediately during the second day of the training. The one thing we did reflect on the day before was what we wanted to record. Both Marleen and I were keen on combining our hobbies and work, so we decided on recording live music. I was particularly motivated to try out the violin because Dr. Stefan Krebs mentioned that at the time they couldn’t record the violin with the Edison phonograph because it wasn’t loud enough. Ever the historian I wanted to put that finding to the test (perhaps driven to prove it wrong).

When I got home that evening I got my dusty violin out of its case and started looking through my stack of sheet music for a piece that was easy to play and did not exceed the 2-minute wax cylinder limit. Eventually I decided on the Carnival of Venice because it is such a recognizable tune. I practiced for about an hour the night before the second training day and packed my violin and the sheet music before heading to the skills training. Although we were given a copy of the original user manual the night before, I only took a brief look at it. I generally don’t bother with user manuals too long unless I have to put together IKEA furniture, so this manual didn’t help me much either. That morning the first thing we did was take a long hard look at the Edison Phonograph and figure out what each component did. In order to understand the recording process, we watched a YouTube instruction video and after a presentation on video-reflexive ethnography by professor Jessica Mesman attempted our first recording.


Instead of sticking to the original schedule and having one group observing the other, we all gathered around for the recording. First I had to tune the violin while Marleen was also warming up the flute she brought. Jessica held the sheet music for me, Kaarel announced the title of the music, Stefan started the recording and measured the decibels with his phone, and the others were either recording the first try with their phone or observing the procedure. At the end of the first recording, I stopped the phonograph on time so that there was a part of the cylinder left for Marleen and then she recorded the song she knew by heart.

While listening to the recording afterwards the violin was indeed hard to hear, whereas the sound of the flute was slightly easier to pick up, so we decided to try out a few different techniques. First, we added a piece of carton board around the recording horn in order to capture the sound better. That didn’t work because the carton board absorbed the sound rather than expanding the reach of the horn. Furthermore, the piece of carton made it harder to stand close enough to the recording horn. Next, we heated the wax cylinder right before our final test and that improved the recording much better than the cardboard addition.

In order to listen to the recordings we had to change the horn and the ‘reproducer’, and both of these elements influenced the quality of playback. As I was visiting the Heinz-Nixdorf museumsForum a month later in Paderborn, the Dictaphone caught my attention. This device that otherwise looks very similar to the Phonograph, seemed to use headphones instead of a reproducer-horn.

Dictaphone on display at the Heinz-Nixdorf museumsForum in Paderborn.

The Phonograph was used at home, whereas the Dictaphone was used in the office. While I was looking at the images accompanying the display, two thoughts popped into my head. First, I realised that this constellation of a manager speaking into the Dictaphone and a secretary afterwards transcribing the recording must have inspired Vannevar Bush while he was describing certain features of the ‘memex’ in As We May Think. Second, transcribing speech to text – whether by typewriter or modern day computer – requires absolute concentration and noise-cancelling headphones. The headphones from this Dictaphone must have been inspired by the stethoscope because the metal part that you would expect to go over the head of the secretary hung below her chin. Whether for entertaining or professional purposes, this analogue media has influenced our experience of listening to music profoundly. To the point where modern songs usually only last between 2 and 4 minutes, the maximum length of a recording on a wax cylinder.

Mapping Leuven in 1649 with QGIS

On the 11th and 14th of May, dr. Catherine Jones introduced us to Geographical Information Systems (GIS) with the help of Kerry Schiel and Kaarel Sikk. On the first day we mostly learned how to work with QGIS uploading existing maps and exploring the Bombsight maps. We also started from scratch ‘stitching’ an old map to the open street map or google maps based on points that we could still recognise and overlap. Depending on how recent and/or accurate the historic map was, we had to choose a different transformation type. After wasting time locating buttons during the tutorial because the interface wasn’t entirely intuitive and many of the concepts were new, we got the hang of it. For the assignment, I decided to repeat the process with an historic map from Leuven where I was born and where I spent six years at the university. Since the resolution of the map I tried to use during the tutorial was too low, I found a more recent map (from 1649, rather than 1541) from the Atlas van Loon. Before uploading the historic map, I set the projection to TRS89 / Belgian Lambert 2008. Although Leuven has changed a lot the last four centuries, I could stitch the map mostly based on the locations of churches still in existence today. I have to admit that being a local really helped me locate some of these rather quickly. Once the eleven points were identified on the open street map, I used the Thin Plate Spline which stretches the historic map as if it were made of rubber because that made most sense for this rather old map.

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At the end of the first day and the beginning of the second day we learned how to insert and adapt data points such as locations of bombs that fell on a certain day of the week, or flight paths and areas affected by larger bombs in London. For my own project I decided to locate the original items of the legend and used the number of the location in the original legend as an id and the name of the item in a second field of the data table. At first I tried to find the buildings and locations (mostly churches, colleges and squares) in the order of the original legend, but after a serious struggle to find nr. 11 on the list, I decided to systematically look at areas of the maps and locate the numbers of the legend first before adding a data point. Once I finished locating most of the points, I looked at the data table once more and realised I had made at least two mistakes by identifying the same building twice on different locations. Luckily the points on the map light up if you select a row in the data table which made it easy for me to correct the errors. In the end I made a list of all the legend items I didn’t find and found a list and links to the heritage inventory that were useful in a final attempt to locate them. I managed to find two more buildings, but 11 out of 74 were not to be found (even though for some I knew for sure where they were).

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I can add labels and some more metadata to the dots, for example which type of building it is (university or religious building) and give those a different color. Another option is to outline the original city walls (the ‘binnenring’ and ‘buitenring’) or identify which areas contained housing, where the gardens were, and which plots were used as agricultural areas. In any case I really enjoyed the workshop and learned a lot, only time held me back to add extra data layers. The interface has a learning curve, yet can be very useful.

The User Experience design method

When academics or developers create a website or an application, they usually start from the back end and only then focus on the design or front end. In this blogpost I would like to argue that the design process and user analysis specifically should come first. The methods outlined below were discussed during the workshop on the introduction to user experience design and evaluation methods by dr. Carine Lallemand and dr. Vincent Koenig.

During the introduction to user experience design and evaluation workshop, we dove straight into practice and had to redesign … a kids toothbrush. The purpose of the exercise was not to design the most innovative or gorgeous toothbrush, but to question an existing design based on the misconception that a kids toothbrush is just a smaller version of an adult tooth brush. Did anyone ever truly observe the difficulties kids face when brushing their teeth? Perhaps that is a better starting point for toothbrush manufacturers than their own experience. In order to design a useful toothbrush, or website, we have to understand the audience, describe the target group and study the real users.

Once we define the scope of the project and plan the user experience (UX) design process (phase I), we should start exploring (phase II) user needs through observation, interviews or surveys. The main purpose of observations is to collect qualitative information about the natural behaviour of a user. It allows us to understand the material, cultural, social and organisational context. The researcher should also confront the hypothesis and expectations to the real world, and confirm, reject or revise any assumptions. Observation techniques include tracking, fly on the wall, shadowing, contextual inquiry and undercover agent. For each user test, a designer should follow five steps:

  1. Define the research question and objectives
  2. Choose the method or technique
  3. Design and test the material
  4. Recruit participants
  5. Organise logistics

Observing users does not provide a designer any understanding of the motivations and attitudes of users. In an interview participants can freely express their opinions, while their experiences are easy to communicate to stakeholders and designers to start idea generation. Interviews take different shapes and forms, including a structured, semi-structured, exploratory or contextual format and can take place before, during or after the observation. Observations and interviews are both qualitative and rather time consuming methods, whereas questionnaires can also provide quantitative data and reach a larger number of participants. Digital questionnaires have the added advantage of saving time by automating the analysis. Before conducting questionnaires, the coding scheme and administration should be defined.

For my research on the history of the design and use of computing devices I am interested in the material objects themselves and how people perceive computers from the past. A fly on the wall study of how museum visitors react to these machines can provide insight into their experience. I would need an observation sheet and an audio recorder but I do not want to scare visitors by taking unauthorised photographs or filming them without consent. Such a user test requires permission from the Ethics Review Panel and the museum itself. If people notice that I am observing them, I should give them my contact information should they have questions or wish to be excluded.

Once the initial user analysis is finished, the ideation process (phase III) can start. For example, experience maps can describe the dynamics of a user experience before during and after usage and is based on aggregated or raw data from the previous analysis. Furthermore, designers can add both positive and negative emotions of users to an experience map or a customer journey map. During the course we used two typologies to identify both positive (Desmet, 2012) and negative emotions (Fokkinga). Besides card-based ideation, designers often rely on storyboards to visually display a scenario of use.

In the final stages of the UX design process (phase IV and V), several prototypes will be discussed and tested before the development of the website or application. Prototypes can be categorised as low or high fidelity, where low fidelity prototypes could be simple wireframe drawings and high fidelity prototypes might be simulated digitally and include more functionalities. During the workshop we brainstormed about a paper prototype for a single ‘screen’ or function and had to come up with six alternative layouts within ten minutes. Afterwards we presented our ideas to the group and received positive and negative feedback and created a final paper prototype including the best features. After every design iteration, prototypes should be tested by users either via observation of a think aloud exercise, or contextual interviews followed by tried and tested questionnaires. The workshop hosted its very own user test in the usability lab so that we could practice observing a user evaluation. The exercise demonstrated why we have to pre-test our material and practice.

The workshop provided us with several tools and practical guidelines for conducting user tests. We also touched upon the ethical aspects of user testing, which I did not outline here. The new General Data Protection Regulation from the European Union means designers and researchers have to reconsider which data they collect and ensure informed consent from participants. Nevertheless, user testing remains important if we want our designs to be usable, relevant and exciting.

This post originally appeared on the C2DH website.