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.

HCI versus Interaction Design

I was working with a masters student in CMU’s Interaction Design program today, and afterward we got into a lively discussion about the distinctions between ID and HCI.

One of the few things we agreed on: HCI and ID use similar methodologies to learn about users, including both qualitative and quantitative studies.

There were many more things that we did not agree on. I found it particularly interesting to hear her perspective because given her background, I had expected her to have a good understanding of what HCI “is all about.” However, she presented several misconceptions which are, if anything, even more prevalent in the greater design and technology communities. Some examples:

  • Misconception 1: Although user research methodologies may be similar, HCI and ID use them for different reasons. ID is all about designing a “complete user experience,” while HCI is completely centered on coming up with technical solutions. My response to that is– how can we come up with a useful, usable, and pleasant technology system without actually looking at the complete user experience? The “solution” might look like a piece of technology, but behind that are serious considerations about our users and their behaviors, values, aspirations, and more. Technology is just a medium through which a better user experience can be achieved– just as in ID, it is the way that people choose to use that technology that really defines their experience.
  • Misconception 2: People who study HCI are simply UI designers for the desktop/mobile/web. Take a walk through the HCI labs at CMU and you will see how absolutely untrue this is. HCI strives to push the limits. The beauty of technology is that it makes anything possible. As HCI practitioners, we are not boxed into using one certain type of media– we can explore any number of new ideas. We can combine virtual and real-world elements into new creations that have all sorts of unique affordances. UI design is just some small part of this, and when there are so many new types of interfaces, even UI design itself can be an incredibly immense area to explore.
  • Misconception 3: ID is about people-to-people interaction. HCI is not because it’s limited to technology. This statement troubles me because it implies that HCI is solely about having people interact with computers. This is a gross misconception– it pains me to know that people think of HCI as just finding ways to redesign the Photoshop UI. HCI is about creating technology that enables. As to what sorts of interactions it enables, well, this could really be anything– how people interact with each other (instant messaging, Facebook, etc.), how they behave within their environment (GPS, wearable computing), how they understand themselves (online identity building, methods of self-recording), and so on– the possibilities are endless. Although I can’t profess to know much about the specifics of ID, I would imagine that they pitch a similar platform of the possibilities that their field encompasses. And I am sure that many ID projects have a strong technology component, simply because technology is so prevalent in every aspect of life. Design someone’s experience as they walk through a museum, and you need to be aware that viewers are probably carrying cell phones with them. How can you completely disregard a potential distractor (or opportunity!) like this if you claim that you are designing a true space of possibility?

All-in-all, it was very interesting to see what sorts of misconceptions are associated with HCI. Why does someone in ID have such a restricted view of HCI, even though the two disciplines have so much overlap? I wonder if some of it has to do from the courses that we take and the deliverables involved. I suspect that if she were to read some HCI research papers or attend and HCI conference, she would realize that the distinction is not quite as strong as she originally thought. Classroom deliverables aside, our goals are the same: to improve the lives of our end users.