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.

CHI'09: alt.chi - Feel the Love, Love the Feel

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

One of the most enjoyable sessions that I attended at CHI was one of the alt.chi sessions entitled, “Feel the love, love the feel.” The session included several “nontraditional” talks that were intended to spark discussion and create a new flow of ideas.

Interactive Slide: an Interactive Playground to Promote Physical Activity and Socialization of Children

This paper described an interactive children’s game in which children play on a slide in order to build a robot. An interesting discussion point emerged when the speaker talked about how in her experiment, there had been a technical flaw which caused the game to break, and the children to play in an unexpected way. When the speaker explained, “we had to throw out the data,” this sparked debate because, as an audience member pointed out, play is a very freeform thing. Was the researcher suggesting that research is not creative? Why was she putting blinders on, rather than using the “bad” data for new design ideas?

The poor researcher seemed somewhat floored and unable to answer. I felt bad for her, because it was obvious that she comes from a academic research background where well-run experiments are essential for testing your hypotheses and getting your work published. In contrast, it seemed that her interrogator was from a much more flexible background that welcomes new ideas. I could almost see the researcher thinking to herself, “sure, if I had 6 more months, maybe I could’ve done that!” But deadlines loom, and sometimes you just need to make those experiments work!

Since my view of academia is somewhat limited, I’m actually curious about what sorts of limitations one must impose in order to come up with something that can stand up to peer review. Is the need for review a very limiting thing? In industry, it seems like “quick-and-dirty” tests are often the norm; when it comes to designing great interfaces, this might be all you need. But for a research field like HCI, which is not quite as concrete as say chemistry or cognitive psychology, how do you mediate the desire to try new things with the limitations of having to back up everything that you say? This concern of having new ideas being limited by others is one of the things that stops me from pursuing a career in academia. Strange, when so many people say that they go into academia specifically so that they can pursue their interests.

Opportunities for Actuated Tangible Interfaces to Improve Protein Study

Ashlie Brown, the researcher who gave this talk, is actually a grad student with a chemistry background. Her focus is on teaching people about proteins, which are much easier to understand when shown in 3D, rather than 2D. She gave a variety of ideas, such as animations, virtual reality, tangible models, and augmented reality using haptic systems (like Phantom or Posey). Students would greatly benefit from the ability to compare structures and track how to get from one protein to another.

As someone who was completely boggled in my Intro to Biology class, I wish Ashlie the best in creating new ways for students to learn about cell-level interactions. It would be really neat to see if this sort of technology would be helpful for non-students as well: in the lab, could scientists working with proteins somehow magnify them and work with them on a haptic level?

soft(n): Toward a Somaesthetics of Touch

Thecla Schiphorst is a Canadian artist who is also a “computer media artist, computer systems designer, choreographer, and dancer.“ I certainly did not expect to meet someone like her at CHI! Her session was about bringing dance and somatics to HCI.

“Somatics” is defined as, “The art and science of the interrelational process between awareness, biological function and environment, all three factors being understood as a synergistic whole” (thanks, Wikipedia). Thecla talked about this in terms of the motion of the self, attention to creation of a state, experience and interconnectedness (empathy), the opportunity to add value through attenuation, and the acceptance of experience as a skill. She defines touch to be both subjective and objective, because we can feel ourselves touching, even as we touch. Based on these principles, she created “soft(n),” which are 10 soft physical objects that communicate with people through vibration (creates a sense of intimacy), light (creates a sense of distance), and sound (when tossed, an object emits a “whee!” sound). The objects are life-size to evoke the idea of play and past-lives. In order to create the objects, she used a variety of unique materials, such as conductive foam and conductive silks.

This talk was much more “artsy” than I had anticipated, but I enjoyed hearing Thecla talk about interaction design in a new way. Although I personally thought the 10 objects were a little creepy (do I really want a stuffed cube screaming when I toss it in the air?) I suppose that this is what she was aiming for in creating them. Perhaps the reason that I was so “creeped out” was because the objects were more intimate and human than I would have liked them to be. This reminds me of a discussion we had in my Computer Mediated Communication class—do we really want to create anthropomorphic robots? Do people actually want to interact with “almost-humans”, or would they prefer to interact with things that are physically nothing like themselves? That concern aside, I thought that Thecla’s view of HCI was quite beautiful. Many elements of her talk, such as using physical sensations to create emotional product attachment, are worth further exploration.

Stress OutSourced: A Haptic Social Network via Crowdsourcing

The last speaker at the alt.chi session described a set of wearable devices that enabled crowd therapy via touch. A user would send an outgoing “SOS” call by making a frustrated gesture with her device. Others would receive the call, then gently press on their own gadgets to send calming signals back. The number of calming signals that the original user receives would indicate the number of responses, and each would be felt from a different point on her device. There are opportunities for making this a locality-based system, and for having a web component that breaks down responses at a city level. It could be scalable by not having a one-to-one mapping to a person. There are also additional opportunities that take advantage of the beauty of simple signals: for example, sending messages via nudges, or sending a tangible Facebook “poke.”

The idea of haptic social networks is rather unique. However, I am curious about the impacts of impersonal touch. What does it mean to rely on strangers instead of close friends for the coveted sensation of touch? This is a similar question to that of, “what are the impacts of replacing face-to-face conversation with computer mediate communication?” It is a difficult question to answer, but certainly one that should be considered, as there are pros and cons for both.

I found the alt.chi session to be very fun and insightful. It had what was, in my opinion, the most unique and controversial discussion topics; also, I found the crowd to be much more energized and involved than in other sessions. I would highly suggest that in future years, attendees attend at least one of the alt.chi sessions to see what they’re all about.

CHI'09: Moving UX into a position of Strategic Relevance

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

This panel session explored many of the issues which I’ve discussed with people in UX (user experience) teams at large corporations. The panel focused on 5 key strategies for “moving UX into a position of strategic relevance.” The strategies were:

  1. UX evangelism and documentation
  2. Ownership of UX
  3. Organizational positioning
  4. Calculating ROI
  5. Conducting “ethnographic” research

The panel had 5 members (one was absent, and her viewpoint was represented by another member). They included Killian Evers (a PM at PayPal), Richard Anderson (Riander), Jim Nieters (UX team at Yahoo), Craig Peters (Founder of Awasu Design), and Laurie Pattison (UX team at Oracle). Each panel member was given a few minutes to share their thoughts, and then the group discussed a series of scenarios. The panel ended with a brief Q&A session.

Panel Discussion:

How do we make ourselves strategically important to an organization? We need to find the 1 big thing that makes us important and stress that. We need to show that we understand the business, and the fact that business goals surround making money. This could be accomplished by partnering with business teams to identify the most significant problems facing the company, then working together to solve that.

It’s important to deliver results quickly. We only get one chance to make a first impression, which in business terms usually means that we have one calendar quarter to make a significant impact and prove our worth. In order to prove your value, choose to do something that the rest of the company can’t do themselves. For example, when creating deliverables like prototypes and wireframes, create something really nice that others can’t produce themselves. If you are just starting a UX movement at your company, try to pick projects that matter most to the bottom line, such as those that will be demoed to the customers the most, or those that impact market share and sell the most. Also, make sure that the first few projects that you choose are projects that you can really succeed on, because if you fail, it will follow you forever.

For example, at Laurie’s company, they were having a problem with online help—even though there was an online help document, people continued to call the call center and ask the same questions. After conducting a series of user studies, she found that when users were frustrated, they just called the call center instead of trying to use the online help. She decided to address this by moving answers to key questions into the system itself. After making this change, the number of calls that went to the call center dropped, thus saving time and money. This made the value of Laurie’s contribution more apparent to those in charge.

Common Scenarios

Scenario I: You’re on a good UX team, but the sales team sells from a tech-focused point of view. The UX team is “too busy” to teach the sales team about the nuances of a user-centered point of view.

Solution: You may need to find the time to do important things like teaching user-centered point of view to the rest of the company. For example, you could give them a “crash course” about what the UX team does at a high level. This could also be accomplished through “brown bag” sessions, formal training, or answering RFPs.

Scenario II: The CEO of your company “gets” UX, but middle management doesn’t. Without middle management support, user centered design is not recognized as a real science, and is not seen as necessary for executing the CEO’s vision.

Solution: Gain buy-in from people from other groups, such as project managers, software engineers, and other tech and hardware folks. One of the panelists described a story in which he helped the hardware team to reduce a 5-hour cable setup process into a 20 minute procedure by color-coding the wires, getting rid of the big instruction manual, and introducing clear GUIs. Although the UX team didn’t do all of this by themselves, the project never would have gotten done without them. This was an example of how UX expertise was used to optimize beyond just the UX team, which leads to increased buy-in and trust from other teams. That being said, the UX team may need to reposition itself so that it owns the important and relevant pieces of projects, such as owning the UI specifications for an engineering team.

Scenario III: A large enterprise software company has branches in many different countries. The UX team has trouble understanding what matters to a project’s success because they have limited domain knowledge and are less likely than others to be invited to strategic meetings. This makes it harder for them to make intelligent compromises.

Solution: Educate the team members to fill in gaps in domain knowledge, perhaps starting with new hire training. Have weekly meetings for the team in which you invite people from other parts of the company to speak and share their knowledge, thus increasing respect given by the rest of the company. It’s important not to seem like a liability because you don’t understand the product or the business; ask questions. Also, the team needs to learn how to compromise because no one wants to work with someone who is not willing to compromise. However, there is the danger to compromise yourself out of anything useful, which might cause you to lose the respect of others. As with anything, it’s important to find common ground, rather than arguing.

Q&A Session

Q: This talk seems to assume that UX is not in a position of relevance. What if you haven’t been “invited” to take on a position of relevance at your company?

A: You might need to invite yourself. Figure out where you could be useful and go knocking. Where could you have the greatest impact? Take on that project and do your best work to make sure that the project gets noticed.

Q: What if you are an internal supplier of UX whose job it is to make others’ jobs easier?

A: Being an internal supplier of UX is much like any other type of UX practitioner, except your end users are internal. Testimonials go a long way for this sort of position—for example, you might want to work with QA and share success stories with the rest of the company.

Q: Is UX moving towards the role of a specialist, such as a lawyer? For example, does a farmer need a biotechnician in his employ?

A: Instead of worrying about being a specialist versus a technician, what about just being a team player? This sort of middle ground does exist. The key is to know your value proposition, and have a team that has a mix of different skills.

My Thoughts

Having spoken with many UX professionals and attended a variety of HCI talks & events, I’m aware that these are common discussion points in the HCI community. During the talk, someone asked, “How long will we be able to keep making excuses because HCI is a ‘young field’?” It does seem a little strange that this many decades in, HCI is still struggling to find its “place in the world.”

It’s a valid concern, though. Last summer, I attended a brown-bag where my mentor led a discussion about how UX can be integrated into the company’s Agile software development cycle. Clearly this methodology, which is becoming more popular in large tech firms, was not designed with the user experience in mind. It will be interesting to see if new methodologies will be able to bridge the gap between user-centered design and the software development cycle. I suspect that this “gap” is really not quite so large as it would initially seem, and I remain optimistic that if we continue to share the lessons we learn, soon we won’t need to make any “excuses” whatsoever.

CHI'09: PrintMarmoset

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

Although I try to be as green as possible, sometimes I just need to print something to read it offline. I really hate printing web pages straight from my browser because I always feel like I’m wasting paper on advertising, strange page aspect ratios, and excessively-large or too-light text. To get around this, I usually copy-and-paste relevant text and images into a MS Word document, format the text the way that I want it, and print from there. Although this is a viable workaround, it can be a bit of a pain because Word never applies formatting quite the way I want it. As a result, I don’t always print “cleanly” as much as I’d like to. The good news: Jun Xiao and Jian Fan, researchers at HP Lab, have come up with an idea to combat wasteful print jobs which they call “PrintMarmoset.”

PrintMarmoset’s self-proclaimed goal is to improve the experience of printing web content “while simultaneously addressing user needs and environmental responsibility.” Its creators hope to help people save paper when printing web pages by allowing them to specify print areas, called “printer masks.” These allow people to highlight important content and images, which cutting out headers, footnotes, and advertising. In addition to making printouts more useful and relevant, they reduce excess pages from printing.

At the time of the conference, it seemed that the researchers focused primarily on how one might set a printer mask using a browser plug in. After a user successfully sets a printer mask, the mask is saved to that web page, so the next time that she visits the web page, she can see the printer mask that she already set. The researchers also explained a potential social component, in which users could see each others’ printer masks. Another idea is to include a counter widget that shows PrintMarmoset users how much paper has been saved thanks to the plug in. This could increase user commitment to the tool and encourage additional prosocial behavior.

Although PrintMarmoset is a very cool concept, there are still many challenges that need to be addressed. Several audience members asked the researchers about the impacts that the tool would have on web design. In particular, how would this impact online advertising? Are there best-practices that web designers would want to adopt to comply with PrintMarmoset’s outputting?

The details of how a printer mask would be actually print out also need further exploration. When an audience member asked what a printout might look like, the researchers admitted to not having focused on this element much, but offered some suggestions, such as using templates. This is one of the more interesting aspects, as I can think of several potential solutions that could involve different levels of customizability, such as drag-and-drop or the ability to apply a personalized CSS template based on HTML tags. Either of these would be an obvious improvement over the current copy-and-paste method that I use in Word. If they could solve formatting issues without requiring one to open another application, this would be ideal. Also, a “Print Preview” feature could be incredibly useful, as this is currently lacking from browser print jobs.

I really like the concept of PrintMarmoset—it seems like a potentially simple and lightweight solution to a common problem. It seems like a simple and convenient enough tool that everyday users could adopt it. The actual interactions surrounding the tool are critically important, though, and I would encourage the researchers to give more attention to detailing the actual printout process since this could determine the success of the product. If the plug-in launches as a Firefox extension, I might give it a try, but unless it provides an obvious benefit of convenience, speed, and performance, it’s back to copy-and-pasting into Word for me.