CHI'09: Mobile Interaction Design Class

Thoughts from the CHI 2009: Digital Life New World conference in Boston, MA.

Since my capstone project involves working with mobile devices for Nokia, my team enrolled in the “Mobile Interaction Design” class at CHI. It was led by Matt Jones from the University of Wales, who developed it in conjunction with Gary Marsden. Although much of the material was not new to me, Matt had some interesting thoughts and fun anecdotes to share.

The class began with a discussion of “cool things we can do with mobile technology.” For example, people use camera phones to capture transient images, share them, and then allow them to essentially disappear. People also appropriate technology in new and unexpected ways—for example, when Matt’s daughter heard the new TomTom GPS system say, “Bear to the left,” she asked, “Daddy, where are the bears?” This turned into a new game between the two, demonstrating a completely unexpected appropriation of this piece of technology.

There was discussion of the Digitial Divide, and Frohlich’s Storybank project which tackles the question, “How do we design for people who can’t read?” Also, discussion of Don Norman’s question, “are we designing things to fill unnecessary needs?” For example, if there were a coffee cup that automatically signals a waitress to come over and refill it, this removes some of the satisfaction of the interpersonal interaction that had previously existed. In a world where everything is being indexed and mapped to other things, what happens to chance encounters? What are the impacts of turning the “fuzziness” into something that is clearly defined?

Some other technologies discussed included implantable computers, RFID tags, and wearable mobile devices. Matt described a story in which he ran into a famous scientist at a conference and tried to introduce himself. As he said hello, the scientist used a device that he was wearing to look up Matt’s personal webpage. The scientist explained, “I’m trying to decide whether you’re an interesting person.” Talk about streamlining interpersonal interactions!

The discussion then turned towards what mobile devices are really for. Are they for everything? Communication versus information? Mobile allows for rethinking of relationships. Voice, context awareness, SMS, email, local web pages, blogging, communities, and pico-blogging (quick interactions like a “poke” on Facebook) have all helped to redefine our relationships with others.

There is a bit of an “appliance attitude” towards mobiles. They’ve started to become a lot like Swiss Army knives—they have lots of features, but individually none of them work well. Matt questions whether this appliance attitude is really correct—although it seems handy to only need to carry one device, “People do carry lots of stuff… we like clutter!” That is, as long as that clutter is useful and attractive. An interesting thing to note is that the iPhone, unlike some other devices, only allows you to have one application open at a time. When that application is open, the device becomes that application. Thus, adding new applications doesn’t feel like it’s detracting from the device. The App store also keeps everything in one place to build trust; people see buying iTunes songs as a “little reward” for themselves, much like buying a latte from Starbucks.

The course touched on some alternative interactions for mobile devices which extend beyond the keyboard and the screen. For example, Schwesig (2005) introduced Gummi: UI for Deformable Computers. There are also auditory (icons, which are natural sounds, and earcons, which are synthetic sounds), haptic (Sony’s Touch Engine), gestural (pointing, micro, mini, macro), and multimodality. Mobile devices represent a fluent mix of life and technology, in which there are not two realities, but rather one: the next time you’re walking down the street, watch kids talking and showing their cell phones to each other while their headphones are in.

Interaction design is important for mobile devices. Poor interaction design results in frustration, wasted time, physical harm, and environmental damage. Can we design things that people won’t want to upgrade, or will want to keep in a sustainable fashion after the technology becomes obsolete? Not only that, but how can we use interaction design to bring experiences from outside the home into the home? Good interactions include visibility and a transparency of process, with a bit of organic clutter thrown in there. When we design, we need to understand the value that people have in certain things. For example, “people would walk across broken glass to send a text.” The UI for text messaging could definitely be improved, so what is it about the system that people find to be so valuable?

The class discussed “Upside down usability,” a movement which seeks to turn the traditional view of usability on its head. This favors the palliative over the generative; it celebrates the inefficient and the ineffective. This is part of the Slow Technology movement (Hallnas & Redstrom 2001), which has “a design agenda for technology aimed at reflection and moments of mental rest rather than efficiency in performance.” In a fully indexed world where everything is known, how do we make our own meaning of it? How do we explore it and find the “hidden gems”? There are benefits and consequences of mobile devices driving you towards certain things. Perhaps the solution is to introduce randomness for “serendipitous” experiences—for example, the randomize feature of the iPod shuffle. What about a running map that is randomly generated as you go? Or a randomly generated pub crawl that suggests new locations to visit and people to meet?

There are dangers of “technologizing away” childhood. Several systems have been developed to relay bedtime stories or teach children how to brush their teeth. However, these remove important opportunities for family bonding time. Are we designing technology to prey on our most important moments?

Some other cool tools that we discussed:

  • The “clutter bowl” – you drop your mobile phone into it and it extracts and projects photos, making the unseen seen (“Clutter in the home” – Taylor & Harper 2007).
  • iCandy – a tangible UI for iTunes that has cards with barcodes that you can share and swap to play music.
  • Pico-projectors – tiny projectors that can project anywhere, allowing for mobile offices, temporary graffiti (, art shows, classroom pranks, navigation, collaboration, and more.

In short, we need to design things that have strong identity (Amazon and eBay), use interaction as a brand (iPod, iPhone, Nokia NaviKey), develop an editorial voice or distinct point of view, and deliver interaction as a package. For a full reference list for the class, as collected by Matt, see:

Again, I’m not sure that I learned many new or revolutionary things from the class; I guess that’s a testament to my training and interests. However, Matt was a good speaker, and it was interesting to see some of the “aha!” moments that other members of the class experienced. Also, I was surprised by how many people in the room said that they owned Nokia phones! I had expected an overwhelming majority of iPhones. Maybe it’s because of a non-US crowd, or developers have traditionally gone for Nokia phones?

Regardless, I enjoyed the class, and have turned to some of the other work that was mentioned for my own inspiration.