Nettle is both a tea set and a networked communication device. The familiar ritual of making tea blends with conversation to effortlessly weave additional social interactions into existing habits. The objective of Nettle is to add a channel for casual community contact into the life of an older adult who lives alone.
Nettle's interaction maps to the sequence of making tea, imparting out-of-the-box usability. If one can make tea, they know how to use Nettle. Pouring boiling water into the teapot initiates the interaction, indicating the user is available for a chat. As their tea brews, the user waits for another person to signal that they are also ready to connect. When a match is made the chime will sound. The user then places the mug's lid into its affordance on the base connecting the two Nettle sets for a hands-free conversation. When ready to disconnect, the user removes the lid to cut the connection.
Nettle is intended to start a dialogue. Why not think differently about how technology can enable social connection? Why not make smart home devices which are surprising, beautiful, and as intuitive as making tea?
Social connection is at the heart of well being, no matter your age. Yet with retirement, the death of loved ones, and physical changes which impact mobility, the size of social support networks tend to decrease over time. Traditionally, having family and community nearby has mitigated these effects. Today, families have often spread apart and individual community engagement is dwindling. Unsurprisingly, rates of isolation and loneliness are growing. This is problematic, especially in older demographics, because lack of social connection negatively impacts health.
Many products try to address this problem by bridging gaps in communication between adult children and their aging parents. Strengthening family ties is important but it is just as important to keep building new relationships. Nettle makes local connections. Tea drinkers are paired for a conversation with the first available person.
This happens in a way that blends the ease of a speakerphone call with a Chatroulette-esque sense of unpredictability. On the other end of the conversation, it could be a friendly neighbor or it could be someone they've never met. Sharing a day-to-day environment brings context to conversations and allows for the opportunity move beyond the kitchen and build relationships face to face. As an intervention, Nettle fosters a sense of serendipity by bringing unexpected conversations to those who would otherwise have their tea alone.
A Vision for the Smart Home
Both lighthearted interactions and beautiful interfaces are noticeably absent in technology designed for older adults. On one extreme, powerful devices such as smartphones and vocal user interfaces can be hard to understand. Although these devices can do so much, their form suggests little to the uninitiated. The alternative, overly simplified technology, can be insultingly ugly and pandering. There is little middle ground. Nettle deliberately sits between known forms and new technology, representing an alternative vision for smart home interaction that is inclusive of older adults.
Countless people handle tea sets daily, not only for their utility in making a beverage but because they are lovely. Beautiful teapots bring joy to their holders. Even when not in use, teapots aesthetically fit into the home. By leveraging the beauty of a minimal tea set, Nettle transforms a smart home device into a cherished object, repurposing its ritual for new ends.
Making tea is a timeless tradition. Some make tea in the morning, others in the early afternoon or at bedtime. Nettle users naturally gravitate to these timings, increasing the likelihood that another person having their tea is available for a chat. Nettle compliments everyday routines by incorporating the satisfying ritual of making tea.
Interacting with physical objects should feel pleasurable. The smooth turned wooden body of Nettle's teapot insulates hands from heat. Cast ceramics of the cup and teapot are coated with a speckled matte glaze. These traditional materials imbue Nettle with a dignified charm that can be enjoyed by younger and older audiences alike.
Nettle's interaction is accessible because it leverages a traditional ritual and object. Tea making bridges intuition and interaction, all while celebrating a functional form. Nettle uses this history to suggest a stepped interaction. In doing so it celebrates a lifetime of experience.