Case Study: Technologies of Human Waste 

July 13, 2020

Karey Helms creates a speculative space to explore designing with intimate and somatic data.

Technologies of Human Waste is an ongoing project investigating the implications of data-driven technologies within intimate practices of bodily care through the design of speculative “pee-ometers”, or devices that predict when and how badly a person needs to urinate. This project is motivated by concerns for how intimate and somatic data can be responsibly used and shaped by interaction designers. It draws upon tensions within the management of bodily excretion as a universal process for humans, yet also a highly individual and culturally taboo practice, to foreground ethical and political challenges while also providing practical considerations for designers working in this space.

Annotated sketch of a fictional “pee-ometer” that resulted from a critique of market products.

The speculative design of “pee-ometers” fits within a broader design space that consisted of three methods: a critique of market products used to manage urination, the conceptual design of the three provocations, and autobiographical data-tracking of urinary routines. The critique of market products opened this design space as a deliberate search for embedded societal values, and from which three themes emerged: a scheduled procedure, a gendered performance, and a dirty behavior. A scheduled procedure refers to underlying messages that urination occurs on command and technology can replace the recognition of internal bodily sensations. A gendered performance refers to marketing that accentuates portability and discreetness while idealizing speed, convenience, and comfort in standing. A dirty behavior refers to bathrooms as dangerous due to contamination, conflict, and suffering.

The themes were then used to ground the design of three “pee-ometers” through fictional product sketching, annotated data-driven interactions, and detailed scenarios. Each was playfully visualized to include interactional components and potential social frictions, and though not directly used to solicit feedback, this was important in working through practical considerations while balancing the intention to provocatively surface implicit values previously gathered.

The first provocation is Truth and Dial, which is a watch that explores a scheduled procedure and is helpful in thinking about the interpersonal relationship between a carer and the cared-for. The watch is designed to be worn by a guardian to manage the urinary urge of a child. The yellow sections of the interface gradually fill up as a predicted urge to urinate increases. A black dial on the interface is used to set an “urgency threshold” to notify the guardian via an audio alarm when the urge reaches a particular level. The alarm is turned off by pushing a “peed” button, which indicates to the system that the child has urinated. The watch is meant to be provocative by highlighting interpersonal power imbalances and the social exposure of care-taking.

Truth and Dial is a speculative watch designed to be worn by a guardian to manage the urinary urge of a child, and uses an audio alarm to force the guardian to respond urgently to the urges of another.

The second provocation is Clip and Snip, which is a garment clip that explores a gendered performance and is helpful in thinking about how agency can be displaced between a person and technology through data-driven actuation. The clip is designed to be attached to the bottom of a hem. Magnetic wheels secure it to the fabric and sensors form a representation of the urinary urge of the wearer. As the detected urge increases, the magnetic wheels gradually move up the garment, causing the hem to rise and thus making it easier to urinate. If the hem is pulled down to correct the prediction too many times or if an urge is not addressed in a healthy timeframe, the system uses a fabric razor to clip off the bottom of the garment. The clip is meant to be provocative by foregrounding experiential dilemmas and challenges of agency with technology that is meant to assist vulnerable users.

Clip and Snip is a speculative clip that raises the hem of a garment based on the wearer’s predicted urge to urinate, and if the urge isn’t handled in an appropriate time frame, the clip uses an emergency razor to cut off the bottom of the garment.

The third provocation is Survey and Shoot, which is a camera network that explores a “dirty” behaviour and is helpful in thinking beyond a predetermined number of participants and instead to strangers interacting with a public system. The camera network uses computer vision to form representations of urinary urges of people in a public space to democratically grant facility access. When a toilet stall is available, the system notifies the chosen person by shooting them with an air haptic, also known as a “poof”. The amount of time an individual has in a stall is dependent upon their detected urge. The camera network is meant to be provocative regarding the use of data-driven technology at scale to govern access in the prevention of deviant behavior.

Survey and Shoot, a speculative camera network that uses computer vision to form representations of urinary urges of people in a public space, and grants facility access through the shooting of an air haptic or “poof”.

The final method within the broader design space was the use of six months of autobiographical tracking and labeling of my urinary routines, including when and how badly I needed to urinate. While autobiographical data-gathering was initially chosen to defamiliarize myself with the automated perceptions of “going to the toilet”, it was also used as a tool to reframe my own design work, from which I was able to divergently reflect upon relationships between technology and people that were previous obscured. This resulted in considerations for interaction designers on the labeling of somatic data, the actuating of bodily experiences, and the scaling of intimate interactions; and also resulted in broader reflections regarding changes in my own Western, privileged perspective on how the provocations are meant to be provocative, indicative of a fluidity in the interpretation of speculative designs.

The next steps within this project are the continued development of Survey and Shoot in physical form to investigate and invite other perspectives. This design was chosen for its proposed deployment in public space, which aims to explore broader networks and ethico-political frictions of data-driven services within intimate practices of bodily care.


Karey Helms is an interaction designer exploring the implications of implicit interactions – those that are unnoticed or concealed yet are proactively operating on our behalf – by designing within activities of care that are often considered taboo. She draws upon autobiographic and Speculative Design methods to implicate herself and unsettle others in care. She completed her MFA from Umeå Institute of Design in 2014, and began a PhD at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in 2017.

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