Plants That Talk

A Pervasive Interaction Design project leveraging UX research and design practices to design a system for amateur gardeners

“Trees and plants always look like the people they live with, somehow.”
— Zora Neale Hurston

Plants That Talk was a semester-long project for Pervasive Interaction Design where my team prototyped and designed a system for communicating crop health, anthropomorphizing the health of a user’s garden and informing the user what steps they need to take to have an optimally healthy garden while engineering ownership, promoting self-sustainability and strengthening a connection to nature.

This system would not be used for commercial or large-scale purposes and is not intended to scale up to that level and instead is aimed at amateur gardeners with small plots of land (community gardens, front/back yard, office or patio gardens).


Our primary motivation through the design process was to create something usable and useful aligned with the values, goals, and motivations or our users. Through synthesizing information from an exhaustive formative study (see below), we galvanized around the following design motivations:

  • reinforce user values
  • reassure unsure gardeners
  • inspire and empower gardeners
  • reduce the learning curve for first-time gardeners
  • create technology that feels like gardening

To expand, we wanted to design with empathy and ensure that our design would help strengthen user values rather than detract from them, especially with respect to users’ sense of ownership (e.g., the joy of taking care of something), connection to nature, developing expertise and aesthetics.

In addition to our motivations, we also established the following design goals:

  • useful and usable – people want to spend their time gardening, not setting up overly complicated systems
  • have a system that talks to the user. As multiple interviewees expressed, “I wish my plants could talk to me to tell me what they need”
  • empower the user and help them transition from amateur to expert gardeners

Making the data physical while using the saturate-and-group method to make sense of qualitative interviews


  1. Population and scope definition
  2. Initial formative research study featuring:
    • qualitative one-on-one interviews
    • guerrilla interviews with experts at the Ann Arbor farmers market in Kerry Town
    • gardener photo study
    • secondary research through online gardening communities
  3. Leverage Stanford’s saturate-and-group method to synthesize findings
  4. Refine scope and ideation (brainstorming, sketching, and selection)
  5. Conduct user enactments to test the boundaries of design features (e.g., level of automation, frequency of notifications, anthropomorphic representations of a garden, etc.)
  6. Refine system concept
  7. Construct digital and physical prototypes (sensor using Particle, database management using Firebase, wireframes using Axure and the application in Framer)
  8. Test and demonstrate prototype
  9. Refine concept with learnings from the prototype process and outline a path to market

An interviewee going through a user enactment aimed at testing the boundaries of information overload

Early sketch detailing how planted sensors could relay information about a garden to the user via a smartphone application


Project Website

Explore the design steps in detail