A Walkthrough of Pittsburgh Public Art



This UX research project focusing on Pittsburgh’s public art was from CMU HCII’s User-Centered Research and Evaluation class. Students were required to conduct individual research on the subject matter, and then work in teams to tackle one specific problem area or opportunity under the domain.

Spring 2020

Elijah K., Stephanie T., Jinyi Y., Congying Z.

Sketch, Tableau, Mural

Individual        Group

Discovery          Delivery 

Conceptual     Visual

Executive Summary


Measure how public art contributes to the livability of the city, and how the costs on public art can be justified and optimized.


Obtaining insights from qualitative and quantitative research: data visualization, contextual inquiry, interpretation and affinity diagraming, etc. and then ideate the possible solution.

My Role

Conducted individual research on the problem space. Then collaborated with 3 students on problem reframing, primary research, solution ideating and prototyping.

* * *

1. Background

1.1 Problem Space

In collaborating with stakeholders from the civic design department, students from the class were required to conduct UX research on the public art in Pittsburgh: understand the current state, look for space for improvement, and in the long run, help justify the expense on public art.

1.2 The Analysis-Synthesis Bride Model

The semester-long project was divided into 2 parts (“what is” and “what could be”) based on the Analysis-Synthesis Bride Model defined by Hugh Dubberly, Shelley Evenson, and Rick Robinson.

As shown in the picture, the research started in the lower-left quadrant with investigations of the current situation, and then moved to the upper-left quadrant where the collected information was sorted, classified, and distilled into the model of “what is”. Having agreed on a model of “what is”, students then worked in teams and moved to the upper-right quadrant to develop the model of “what could be”. Lastly, students were given the option to move to the bottom-right and realize the “what could be” model through prototyping.

2. “What is”

The first part of the project required students to work individually in understanding “What is” through background research and quantitative data analysis, and then create the model of “what is” through stakeholder diagramming, journey mapping, and data visualization.

2.1 Background Research

To begin with, I explored the subject matter through various methods: I went through online documentation related to public art in Pittsburgh and other cities; went on a field trip to the Cultural District and observed how people interact with the art; watched interview videos with stakeholders and took interpretation notes.

Field Research @Cultural District

2.2 Quantitative Analysis

I was given the data collected from a short pilot in the previous class, which aimed to measure engagement through on-site social media interactions with public art. I cleaned and sorted the data, made hypotheses, and created several data visualizations using Tableau.

Website visits over the day: average visits at different hours of the day (Mar-April 2019)

Word cloud: what were users asked about most frequently?

Where are the visitors from? (Mar-April 2019)

How might the physical location of public art be related to the webpage visiting

2.3 Stakeholder & Customer Journey Mapping

Based on the research findings, I created maps and charts as the model to describe “What is”.

Stakeholder Map

Identify and categorize stakeholders involved, and their connections.

Customer Journey Map

Map out the journey of how a citizen gets in touch and interacts with public art.

3. “What could be”

After establishing a preliminary understanding of “What is”, the second part of the project required students to work in teams and explore “What could be”.

3.1 Ideation

The team compared the findings from our individual research, and then attempted to frame the problem through “Reversed Assumption”

We started with seemingly bad ideas and then zoomed out to recontextualize each one and generate more feasible ideas. “Public art has nothing to do with math” is one example from our reverse assumptions idea session. Math and art have a weak relationship in Pittsburgh, making it a bad idea, but by recontextualizing the problem, we were able to conceptualize data visualizations.

We each listed approximately five assumptions about public art on a whiteboard, then other team members wrote the reverse assumptions. We then discussed how each reversal could be accomplished and deepened our understanding of the scope of each reversal through research. 

This exercise helped us land on a topic of interest: we found that Pittsburgh residents, in general, seemed not to be familiar with the public art in the city, nor did they relate it with the image of the city.

Pittsburgh’s image is still in a transition phase“Many people still see Pittsburgh as sorely a manufacturing hub, which is not accurate anymore.”

The city has done a good job adapting what they are given and transforming into an innovation hub. However, although the city may have transformed, the city’s image is still transitioning.

Citizens do not relate public art with the image of the city

When talking about Pittsburgh, people tend to think about its history as the steel city, sports teams, etc. while public art is absent.

Citizens lack connections with public art and are not motivated to“Nobody has ever informed me about public art in the city…I ran into a few but didn’t stop to take a closer look.”

Reframed Problem

How might we include Public Art as part of the city’s image and delightful lifestyle?

3.2 Semi-Constructed Interview

We expanded our HMW statement into several research topics:

  • Understand people’s definition and interpretation of the city’s image
  • Understand how people’s perceptions of the city were formed and what are the essential components
  • Understand what makes the success in the city that already made public art a part of the city’s image
  • Understand people’s main touchpoints with the city
  • Learn about what makes a city attractive

To seek answers, we conducted 5 semi-constructed interviews with residents of Pittsburgh, New York City, and Miami.

Click to view the full interview plan & script
Zoom Interview

3.3 Interpretation & Affinity Diagraming

We gathered and transcribed our interview notes into a list of interpretations. We arranged and sorted them through affinity diagraming, which led us to a couple of insightful findings.

Affinity Diagram made with MURAL

Summary of Insights


Word of mouth is the most common channel of sharing and learning about public art. Social media is a more common channel in larger cities and people tend to keep their art life and personal life separate on social media.


Public art is capable of connecting with younger kids and creating memorable experiences they bring with them into adulthood that impact the way that they view their city.


Through gentrification, a city can be intentionally designed and public art can play a role in creating a new image of the city. New images have the potential to be heavily favored or disliked by locals.


In more well-known cities, city insiders tend to experience more of negative side effects. However, city insiders from less well-known cities such as Pittsburgh paint it in a very positive light and think that outsiders are not appreciating all that Pittsburgh has to offer.


City insiders have found public art to be placed very strategically within a city such that it paves the way for the exploration of more public art that the city has to offer.


Public art is capable of connecting with younger kids and creating memorable experiences they bring with them into adulthood that impact the way that they view their city.

3.4 Storyboarding & Speed Dating

We envisioned our solution as something that updates and diversifies the city’s image through active citizen engagement with public art. In the brainstorming session, we generated dozens of ideas through crazy 8’s, and then polished them into storyboards.

We determined a couple of underline user needs in the process:

  • Motivations to explore the public art
  • Following the trends within one’s social circle
  • Opportunities to showcase one’s own art creations

To validate these user needs, we recruited 4 Pittsburgh residents to conduct “speed dating” sessions, where we presented all storyboards in a row and collected their feedback/reactions toward each solution. The focus of the speed dating sessions was to understand people’s preference on functional, emotional, and social framings of the issue, rather than technical details. To learn more, check out our Speed Dating Plan and Guide.

Findings from speed dating:

  • Users can be driven by meaningful rewards to explore public art.
  • Users can get sensitive about the prices/efforts they pay to access the art.
  • Users tend to follow the trends inside their social circles.

Thereby, we eventually landed on the idea from which users are able to explore the art in the city through a guided walk tour.

3.5 Experience Prototyping

In the last session, we prototyped our proposed solution using Sketch, from low to high fidelity. We designed a mobile application where users can easily customize a guided city walking tour with public art highlighted along the way. The user gets different rewards after checking in at each public art spot.

Low-Fidelity Prototype

High-Fidelity Prototype