Benchwarmers - promoting conversation between strangers through shared experience.

Nowadays, a designer's most valuable and appreciated tool is active empathy. As it is a common concept and practice in the design world, we wanted explore the following:

How can we promote empathy among strangers?

The person sitting next to you on the bus or the person waiting on line with you for a cup of coffee will surely have different backgrounds, education, perspectives, ideologies, tragedies, goals, etc. from you. However, if we reduce our life experiences and compare them with those of others', common denominators exist simply because we are human. We made an assumption. Human emotions are these common denominators. At some point in our lives, we have all experienced fear, happiness, guilt, sadness, luck etc. Therefore, the challenge of promoting empathy among strangers is not that strangers cannot relate to one another but lies in a combination of many factors including apathy, uncertainty, and fear. 

So where to begin? 

Our team identified public locations to conduct preliminary research: park benches, plazas, bus stops to name a few. Kennedy Plaza located in Downtown Providence was selected for our study where we conversed, shared benches, and interviewed with strangers.  

Observations and photos are listed below.


benchstudy 3

benchstudy 2
Finding common themes from the brainstorming sessions, we found out people avoid sitting next to each other which can be commonly seen in public transportation, avoid direct eye contact, and tend to terminate conversations quickly. In addition, we observed that public benches were positioned in a manner that discouraged conversation (linear alignment or awkwardly facing directly at each other). From these observations, we pitched methods to promote conversations with a tangible form. Quantity was stressed over quality.

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Looking back at the field research, one particular bench stood out to us: a large L shaped bench on Thayer Street. This bench gave enough personal space for strangers to sit together simultaneously. However, small talk was not observed.


Reducing our ideas and using this bench as a starting point, we began to think about methods in which a bench can instigate a conversation between strangers.

The following shows random doodles during engineering lecture, sketches, and low fidelity cardboard prototyping.

doodling during class

*find and add refined sketches*

quick bench

Through sketching and Lo-Fi prototyping we eventually converged to the following perspective. 

A conversation is engaging when both parties have mutual or similar experiences. The key is to design the mutual experience with the following key design parameters:

The design should be subtle, invoke mild confusion, and be pleasant.

Rather than outwardly emphasizing people to talk to each other, the experience should come naturally and gradually. The experience should catch one's attention but be subtle enough for one to question if the experience is happening. Finally, we want the people to leave the experience feeling pleasant, not uncomfortable.

As my project partner describes it in her article, this was the direction we took.

Benches. Butts. Sitting on benches in the winter. Heat. Benchwarmers. Heated seats. Heated Butts.

A bench that gradually warms people's butts if and only if the two are are sitting on the two different sections of the L shaped bench. Who wouldn't be pleased by a surprise heated seated on a cold winter New England day?



Birch Plywood and welded steel plates were used as the main structural elements of the bench. The seating was upholstered with waterproof pleather. Arduinos, two force resistive sensors, a lot of heating pads, and batteries were used to make the magic happen. The final form is shown below.

final form

The bench is structural and provides sufficient heat for the butt warming effect. We have tested the bench with our friends, and it functions extremely well. Our next steps are to place this bench in a public setting, observe how strangers interact with it and each other, and get their input. Stay tuned!

We thought this was particularly an important issue as political ideologies polarize especially near, during, and after elections. As seen in the recent election, meaningful and  engaging conversations do not arise when we go into them thinking the other is wrong. We hope this bench will raise the question of not only how people with opposing political beliefs understand what the other is saying, but understand why the other is saying such things.

Initial brainstorming and research was conducted with Arielle Chapin (Sc.B. Computer Science), Robert Lee (A.B. Urban Studies) , Sofya Zelikman (BFA Furniture Design), and Mandi Cai (Sc.B. Cog-Neuro). The prototype, further research, electronics/coding, and final form was completed with Mandi Cai. Thanks Mandi!