Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Children’s technology- where the wild things are

Maurice Sendak’s critically acclaimed children’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are quickly become a classic and was widely popular as soon as it was published in 1963. It’s a story written with heart and a keen insight to the experience of childhood and, perhaps, what adults find uncomfortable about it. What’s so compelling about the story is that it seems to be written to challenge the way adults might prefer to imagine children and childhood. Similarly, this week’s readings in Children and Technology remind us that children think, act, and process very differently than we do as adults. More importantly, they act and think very different than we would like to believe they do. In The Role of Children in the Design of New Technology (Druin, 2002) Druin challenges designers not to discard incorrect or inappropriate assumptions about children:
In designing for children it is crucial to become aware of one’s own assumptions about the nature of childhood. Designers should be able to articulate their assumptions and be ready to revise them based on empirical evidence.
Druin argues that designers must study children and involve them in the design process, and outlines a number of methods to do so. Beyond understanding and including children we must challenge and our assumptions about how children should experience technology and study the impact of the technology we design on their development. [1]

Alyx’s hurt feelings
In Nathan Frier’s 2008 paper Children Distinguish Conventional from Moral Violations in Interactions with a Personified Agent he raises interesting questions about personified agents that children are spending more and more time with. Often these agents are designed to be helpful and subservient. If children view interactions with these technologies as social interactions that lack moral features this may diminish children’s understanding of “the relationship that exists between social reciprocity and morality”. [2]

Freier’s study involves 8 and 9 year old children observing a researcher play a game of tic tac toe with a personified agent. The agent was constructed from the source engine for a videogame character from Half-Life 2 named Alyx and displayed on a computer monitor. In the experiment, subjects witnessed the researcher committing two violations. One of the violations was against a rule of the game (cheating) and the other violation involved insulting Alyx (the agent).

In the experimental condition the subject witnessed Alyx expressing hurt feelings and advocating for the right to be treated with respect as a response to the insult. In the control condition Alyx appeared to be unaffected by the insult. The results suggested that when Alyx appeared to advocate for itself, children were much more likely to view the insult as a moral violation against the Alyx. In discussing design recommendations, Freier suggests that it may be better for children to interact with personified technologies that respond to possible harms and make claims to their own rights than those that do not. [2]

Carol’s temper
My five year old child, is a big fan of games on my iphone and has been playing them since he was . Recently we downloaded an application that was used to promote the October 2009 premiere of Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are.

The application is well designed and usable. In addition to featuring promotional material for the movie the movie, the game hosts a personified agent based on the main monster of the movie, Carol. There are a number of ways to interact with Carol. Tap Carol with a soft tickle and he will laugh, play music from your itunes collection and Carol will dance, you can select one of your personal pictures to give to Carol and he might point at the picture with a smile and laugh, throw it on the ground and stomp on it, or tilt his head back and chomp and swallow the picture. If you shake your phone, carol will fall down and look hurt and confused, poke him and he will grimace, you can even throw rocks at him… ouch. If you do any of these things Carol might throw a rock back or get right in your face and throw a punch that vibrates the phone violently and appears to crack the screen.

Here are some video demonstrations of the app:

My son had played similar games where, for example, you could stretch, squeeze, shake, and tickle sponge bob. With these games the response of the agent was clowny and cartoonish. What was different about this game was that when you hurt Carol he would respond with anger, frustration, a threatening glare, or a measured and moderately violent response. Showing him a picture could just as easily make him point at the picture & smile as throw the picture to the ground and stomp on it. It is rare in games to have agents advocate for themselves or communicate frustration or disappointment, it’s even more rare for a game like this to utilize an interface that a two year old can use.

The Where the Wild Things Are game has over 5,000 ratings on the iphone app store and many of the reviewers report that their children were highly interested in the game. I was surprised that my son was so interested in the game and went back to it time after time when I thought the novelty would have worn off. He shared with his friends and they were just as interested. It seems that an agent that advocates for itself and expresses is very compelling to young children and it would be interesting to study this further.

Many of the reviewers recommend the application as being great for 3 – 12 year olds. While others say things like “not for little ones… Fun app for adults but it scared my five-year-old when he saw Carol eat a picture of his little brother. Then he told me it’s not nice to throw rocks at people”

Personally, I felt a little uncomfortable that my son enjoyed this game so much. He was participating in an emotionally complicated relationship with the agent where they could play, laugh, and enjoy the interactions and just as easily be throwing rocks and hitting each other. In HCI for Kids, Bruckman et al site Carolyn Miller’s seven mistakes commonly made by people designing games for kids. Miller explains that designers assume children want their games to be sweet and safe (with no dramatic tension), wholesome characters, and a little preachy. It seems I have made many of those same assumptions about the kinds of games my child should be playing. So many of us must make similar assumptions about what children should have in games that may or may not be true. [3]

So, in thinking about my child and this application it’s interesting to consider Freier’s recommendation that personified agents be designed to respond to possible harms and make claims to their own rights. If so, should personified agents respond with the same diverse range of emotion and behavior (from looking hurt to throwing rocks) that people do? Do submissive and accommodating personified agents teach children to take advantage of others? Are we doing children a disservice by making these agents not human enough or is the problem that these agents are becoming too human? As young children who are beginning to develop morals and learn social behavior are being exposed to this technology, these are important questions to ask and could benefit from further research.


1. Freier, N. G. (2008).
Children attribute moral standing to a personified agent. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing (CHI 2008). (pp. 343-352). Florence, Italy.

2. Druin, A. (2002). The role of children in the design of new technology. Behaviour and Information Technology, 21(1) 1-25.

3. Bruckman, A., Bandlow, A., & Forte, A. (2007). HCI for kids.
In Sears, A. & Jacko, J. (Eds.). The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications, 2nd Edition. (pp. 793-810). Lawrence Erlbaum.

Cereal Box as Interface
UPDATE: I discovered this video that I thought I'd add to my response paper.

In HCI for Kids by Bruckman et. al review specially designed interfaces that are suitable for children who cannot manipulate a mouse or keyboard [3]. Along those lines, I wanted to share this video to document the advances in inexpensive interfaces for children. In the video below... cereal box as interface:

Children of the internet

Ben Casbon

Response paper covering material from:

Livingstone, S. (2003). Children’s use of the internet: Reflections on the emerging research agenda. New Media & Society, 5(2), 147-166.

A relevant question for any child nowadays is “Do you know your way around the internet?” As ambiguous a question as that is, the underlying meaning is unmistakable. The internet is practically inescapable in an adult’s life, with more and more organizations choosing to communicate through that medium. What is often overlooked, however, is that children have a much stronger connection with the internet. Sonia Livingstone quotes a UK survey amount 7-16 year olds. 75 percent of the children surveyed have used the internet, which is a stark contrast to adult statistic of 38 percent.

Children’s exposure to information and computer technology is almost inevitable, yet it has not been studied in any way commensurate with its level of adoption by the younger echelons of society. First among many questions that the author asks is ‘How to children use computers’? Computers are neither inherently serious nor are they frivolous, but they can become either in the hands of a child. A researcher cannot merely survey the content generated on the internet for children and assume that they are viewing it or interacting with it, nor do they have a ready stash of information about what children view online.

The internet can be a dangerous place, as the author acknowledges. Much of the research into how children use computers has been driven by policy imperatives, which attempt to prescribe a formula for ingesting the good parts of the web and passing over the bad.

“Do you use the internet to communicate with other people?” is another relevant question that researchers ask. Are technophobic fears of isolated pale-skinned social networking homebodies justified, or are they merely insisting on tin cans in the age of phones? Again, few researchers have illuminated this informational void. While little can be said authoritatively, it seems that children are adept at synthesizing their real life and their virtual existence. It seems that the children of the internet do use the internet to keep tabs on their local comrades more than establishing friendships with people at a distance.

An interesting consequence of this internet age is the ability for children to form their identity in an a-physical way. Little is known about the potential consequences of the ready available of anonymity of the internet or access to a wealth of inexpert enthusiasts.

Parents hook up the internet for their kids. The grand notion in many parents minds doubtless is, that their action of providing internet access to their kids will greatly further their education. Does it? Do children use the internet at home to self educate, or do they use it entertain themselves. It may be reasonably asked at some points if there is a difference. Should the free-form learning on the internet in a home environment spread to the school environment, or should the rigors and strict oversight flow from the school to the home? At this point, it is still a valid question if the internet actually DOES enhance a child’s education.

Because it is a ‘free’ environment, ICT access at home can often be inhibited by people with less than pure motives at heart. Parents may feel threatened and restrict access, or sisters and brothers may cut each other out. The effect of NOT being on the internet has not yet been quantified, yet it seems without doubt that such a thing would be harmful to a developing child. I

As previously mentioned, the internet can be a dangerous place. While this article explores many unknowns in the research, it is clear that children have access to pornography over the internet. While exposure to pornography at a young age is perhaps harmful, the potential for sexual harm is much greater. An alarming increase in the number of sexual predators online has led to even greater concern about who children contact and communicate with over the internet. But, the author questions if merely the potential for harm exist, or if these result in actual severe damage down the road.

How do you even begin to study children’s use of the internet? Do you ask their parents, or do you observe them directly? Do you do quantitative research or qualitative? The author cites three broad assumptions to guide further research:

1. Children set patterns on the internet. They figure out their own path and then follow it, thus it makes sense to make your study child-centric, as opposed to obsessing about the media itself.

2. Children interact with the internet “in day’s work.” Internet use occurs within the child’s everyday life and should be studied as such. If the researcher were to study the children’s interaction with the internet as a fascinating adventure in wonderland, that would neither do justice to the experience nor would it produce an accurate understanding.

3. Do not assume that new technology/media will replace old media. While old media may be replaced, often it will be transformed or integrated with the already existing world that the child lives in. Radio stations have web sites, and web sites have radio stations.

HCI for Kids (and My Daughter)

The article presents the design challenges related to the development of software for children. The authors detail some of characteristics that differentiate a child user type and offer techniques for including children in the design process. The authors also examine the various child-focused technologies and the role technology plays in the learning process.

The article does a good job at providing a general overview of these challenges and offers many options for the inclusion of children in the design process. It also explores some of the pitfalls that a designer may encounter in dealing with children. They used a breakdown of children’s cognitive abilities by age, developed by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, to frame some of their research which I believe is a valuable takeaway from this article.

Throughout the program here at Rensselaer I often look to apply our topics to real world situations. As I reviewed this article I often placed my six-year old first grade daughter in the situations the authors discussed. Of course, my daughter is often the unwitting subject of observation from a dad who designs interfaces for a living. I’ve watched her interact with a computer, my iPhone™, TV remotes, her Leapster™ and our XBOX 360™. I’m always amazed at her ability to quickly learn something new in any of these mediums, but I suppose I shouldn’t it should come as no surprise since most were carefully designed, though not all were designed for children. For the purposes of this article, I thought I’d review some of the author’s discussion points and offer some perspective on how I’ve observed my daughters interactions within this context.

Lindsey *

My daughter is six and attends an all girls school in suburban Philadelphia. In first grade, computers are seldom used as part of her in-school curriculum, but their use will increase as she progresses through school. Each classroom is equipped with a SMART™ board that the teachers make use of for lessons, such as math games, that often include the children’s interaction. Moodle, a popular, open-source, course management system, is used as a portal for parents and students to get assignments and other school-related information. Students in later grades can use this site on their own to keep track of coursework and communicate with the teacher and other students. The Moodle page for my daughter’s class links to online tools for her reading and math homework. Lindsey typically spends 10-20 minutes a night working on the computer. Most of the applications are mouse-driven and require very little keyboard input.

Outside of the home, her first in-school experience with computers came when she was a three year old in pre-school. The computer was considered a play “station” and not used as part of the curriculum. The students did have a weekly visit from the “computer lady” who introduced the children to the computer and mouse through simplistic games.

Cognition at Lindsey’s Age

To this point, Lindsey’s exposure to computers has occurred wholly in the second stage of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, the preoperational stage (ages 2-7). Role playing, use of substitutes for real objects in play, and the inability to view a situation from another’s perspective (egocentrism) are hallmarks of this stage. Obviously, if you’ve spent any time around children in this age group, you see huge gains from year-to-year in their ability to interact with people and objects. The initial substage of the preoperational period is the symbolic function substage that typically occurs between the ages of 2 and 4. One of the examples Piaget labels as animism is where a child can view an inanimate object having human-like traits or emotions. Most television programming for children this age exploit this connection. Thomas the Train has a cast of characters that exhibit human-like emotions through facial expressions. Veggie Tales offered talking vegetables and Toy Story was complete with an entire cast of toys who only animate when people are not around. Much of the software that I observed Lindsey using at the time cast animated characters as narrator or actor. Even in cases where a person was the main character, such as a Disney Princess, the cast was rounded out with talking candlesticks, sewing mice or flying carpets. The software itself, though, tended to focus on equipping them for their next stage (letters, numbers, colors, shapes), as would be expected if the goal of the software is to educate. I think its safe to say that all software geared toward this age group is educational – most parents wouldn’t introduce a computer to a child in this stage of development for purely entertainment purposes.

The Intuitive Thought Substage typically occurs between the ages of 4-7 and involves a child exhibiting more curiosity in understanding the world around them. At this point they have a wealth of knowledge and are beginning to see how things interrelate. Some of the software that my daughter uses now tends utilize these new cognitions. Though not necessarily deemed an educational website, Disney’s Club Penguin is an introduction to the world of massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). In it, the player creates a penguin avatar that interacts and plays games with other penguin avatars. The games are not math or reading based, they are instead logic based and some are simply chance – the equivalent of rock-paper-scissors. Coins are earned as a result of taking on jobs (such as DJing or shoveling snow) that allows players to purchase “accessories” for their penguin.

Club Penguin gives children the opportunity to interact with others, teaches them the idea that work equals money, and allows them to use their developing reasoning cognitions to play the various games.

Lindsey and Me

While the cognitive abilities progress through the early stages of adolescence, by the age of eleven, Piaget believes they reach a formal operational stage where their thinking, while not the same, is similar to an adult. Cognitive abilities aside, other factors affect the use of technology and its design. The authors point out that speech, dexterity, reading, background knowledge and interaction style are all factors to consider when designing software for multiple age groups. Since Lindsey and I use very different software when we’re on the computer, it’s difficult to determine a true apple-to-apples comparison of the role these factors play in our use. In general terms we both use the operating system (MacOS X) and a browser (Firefox or Safari) and some differences can be seen there:

· Dexterity: Lindsey has progressively improved in her use of the mouse over the years. At one time it seemed huge in her hand. Apple’s MightyMouse and MagicMouse do not use buttons, instead depressing the mouse in the approximate location of a left or right button triggers the function. This was somewhat of an obstacle for her at first and often times the context-menu would pop up when she pressed down on the mouse – which occurs when you right-click. Tracking speed usually has to be set slower for her as well as it takes her longer to zero-in on her clickable target. Many software designers for children have always made targets much larger to accommodate this issue. Though I have seen many sites, Apple among them, who have moved to larger form elements and buttons during some functions to make it easier for everyone

· Reading and Speech: Communication issues are always a challenge and I always find myself explaining to her what she has to do in order to perform a certain task in her online homework assignments. I’ve observed that many of the educational software tools out there for her age group have little in the way of instructions and when they are provided, they are typically textual. Given that she is just learning to read, this can prove problematic. While its expected that an adult will supervise some of this work, they should really do a better job of providing brief tutorials to explain how the software works – this would make it easier for both the adults and children using the product.

· Background Knowledge: There are obvious gaps here, but in a general sense I’ve found that I usually have to only explain computer-use concepts once or twice and she’ll typically “get it”. The Doodle application on my iPhone has a limited functionality set that lets you select colors, pen types, etc. There’s also a new and save function. When she uses a similar flash-based drawing application in a browser, she understands the concepts of pen and background color. Seeing some of those cognitions develop is a lot of fun from a parent’s perspective, but it also points to knowledge transference between two mediums. In Club Penguin, the concepts of earning coins and being able to spend them in an online catalog was easier for her to understand with her having chores that earns her an allowance. Though, admittedly, I feel that Club Penguin may put a little too much emphasis on consumerism that may affect her thinking down the road.

· Interaction Style: Some efforts have been made in the past to create a kid-friendly version of operating system’s user interface, but I think this has led to some confusion – the kid-friendly operating system they use at home varies from the standard operating system interface they use at school. Simple things like decreasing the screen resolution to make buttons and type larger, but remaining true to the overall interface would probably serve children better. For Lindsey, if there are certain websites she likes to visit, I will add a shortcut to the desktop to make it easier for her. Once she becomes more literate, she will be able to type in the address of the sites she wishes to visit on her own.

Lindsey in a Lab

The authors devoted a good portion of the article on effective methods for testing software with children and some of the challenges involved. Much of their discussion centered on research performed in a lab environment with use of recording technologies. Emphasis was placed on making the environment as natural as possible for children using the product; hiding cameras and other distractions. For the development of some software, this would be great. But the realities of budgets and timelines, especially for some of the simple flash-based software that Lindsey and her classmates use would prove cost prohibitive.

I believe testing should be performed and I’d be interested in seeing some alternative, low cost ideas for testing with children. I think a loose framework for recording sessions in a home session followed up by some self-report by the parents would be helpful – though, self-report is risky if a parent perceives it as a test of their children’s (and not the software’s) abilities. I just feel that the lab setting, beyond the obvious cost implications, may not give you the kind of results you’d get from a more comfortable environment for a child such as home or a classroom. Any parent knows that their children act differently depending on their setting – whether it be a classroom, doctor’s office, barber or relative’s house.

* I didn’t want to use my daughter’s real name for this, so I let her pick one.


Bruckman, Amy, Alisa Bandlow, and Andrea Forte. "HCI for Kids." The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies, and Emerging Applications, Second Edition (Human Factors and Ergonomics). Boca Raton: CRC, 2007. 793-810. Print.

"Theory of cognitive development - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2009. .

Children and the Internet

Many of today’s young adults used the internet on a regular basis in their youth, I certainly did. The internet made its way into my home in the mid 1990’s, when my brother and I were in our mid-teens. By this time, the personal computer had become a standard appliance or entertainment device in households, and the internet was quickly becoming a standard utility much like cable TV. Interesting enough, my family subscribed to cable just one year before subscribing to AOL. Needless to say, the Secore household quickly flooded with media.

I feel that the early internet experiences of my brother and myself were much like what Sonia Livingstone describes in her article, we preferred online activities that were centered around media that we were already familiar [1] with, (from that new cable TV and radio) predominantly music. My brother and I felt these activities were normal, because most of our peers were online at home too. Just like Livingstone describes, we become the family computer and internet experts. Our parents were always looking for ways to police and limit our activity. This was the dynamic in play in my household over a decade ago, and according to Pew Internet about two-thirds of parents with teen internet users have rules regarding how long their children can use the internet today [2]. According to my parents, their parents treated TV much like they treated the internet- it was a privilege and not a right, and there were time limits and rules in place.

In many ways, the internet to my generation is what the TV was to theirs.

This statement has a great deal of truth to it if you are just look at the internet on the surface. But in so many ways, the internet is a much more powerful media than the TV was and is, because it is so very interactive and there is a greater variety and amount of content available. There is a large amount of objectionable content that children can see on the internet, and it is all available on demand. While sexual and violent content can be found on cable TV, it is more available and accessible to children online. It’s obvious that not just the visual content (such as pornographic images) that we must be aware of, it is the space of chat rooms, instant messaging and social networking that parents and those interested in protecting children must be aware of. That said, the internet has the potential to be more dangerous for children than TV. Children cannot have an interactive conversation with TV, while they can have dialogue with strangers via the internet. Livingstone points out that children are more likely to trust online information than adults are. This trust is what allows online pedophiles or predators to prey on children online. Pew informs us that nearly a third of teens on the internet (mostly girls) have been contacted by a complete stranger online [3]. Not all of these contacts result in behavior that is considered objectionable, but unfortunately some do. Some of these “relationships” go from internet space into “the real world” and children are hurt and exploited.

Children’s internet use also raises many questions about children’s privacy. Some of today’s teens are more willing to share very personal information on the internet such as some photographs, cell phone numbers and even addresses. From my own experience, I believe that this is because they have new mediums in which to share the info (ex. Facebook or MySpace) and because it is more socially acceptable/normal to do so. There are privacy features available on social networking sites, and according to a Pew report 59% of teens have their online profiles set to “friends only.” I also assumed that teens restricted access to their profiles because they did not want their parents to view them. I assume this because I was a teenager using the internet once, and I’m surrounded by teenage family members who use the internet. My assumption is a correct one, since the same Pew report says that nearly two-thirds of teens who know their parents are aware of their online profiles set them to “friends only.” [4] We’re also confronted with the question: how private can your information/images be when if your online community so large? In same cases teens (and other populations) partake in “Friend collecting” also known in online social networking communities as “friend whoring” - adding “friends” just for the sake of growing your network [5]. Maintaining a large network of “friends” my help a child feel more popular and accepted. Pew reports that most teens take steps to protect their privacy in the areas “most obvious areas of risk” [6] and “friend collecting” is not practiced by all teens. It should still be noted that sharing any information or personal images online does create a risk. Features like “tagging” on social networking helps create a large “web” in which undesirable parties may view photos or information. Furthermore, photos can also be saved to one’s hard drive, and distributed by unauthorized individuals via alternative means.

The internet is collection of spaces that children can find many opportunities within. Livingstone points out the children perform different types of tasks on the internet at home and at school [1]. There are educational websites that children can visit and gain a lot from. When children are outside of the walls of school, they’re more likely to partake in other activities online such as social networking and chatting. The internet can break down walls and allow children (and all people) to communicate with people to have similar interests whether it is a particular band, sports figure, type of art or video game. Livingstone also points out in her paper that children mostly use their online communication to supplement their real world social circles and suggests that most contacts that children make online are local [1]. In some respect, online communication is to today’s youth is what phone calls were to previous generation.

The way in which our culture obtains information has changed, and is still changing. A number of different literacies have emerged in recent years; it’s not just about reading text anymore. Livingstone points out on page 154 that literacy is a source of social power. More activities are being performed online, such as filling out unemployment forms and filing income taxes. Today’s children will have a substantial disadvantage if they are not allowed to develop essential technology-related skills.

Children’s internet use aids them in developing identity, allows them to participate in different forums and grow their communication skills [1]. I believe that these are all important skills in one’s development; I feel that internet use helped me as an individual develop these areas to some degree. While certain aspects of the internet are “dark,” (such as the potential of isolated children becoming more isolated [1], possible exploitation and contact by strangers) children’s use of the internet and internet literacy are vital to them growing and gaining power in our society. I feel that not every child who uses the internet will become an internet addict, pornography addict, or engage in illicit or illegal activities, but some may. It’s important to remember that children got into trouble long before the internet was created.


[1] Livingstone, Sonia. Children’s use of the internet: reflections on the emerging research agenda.

[2] Parents also use non-tech solutions to protect children. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2005/Protecting-Teens-Online/How-families-navigate-the-potential-challenges-of-being-online/06-Parents-also-use-non-tech-solutions-to-protect-children.aspx?r=1

[3] Friendship, Strangers and Safety in Online Social Networks. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2007/Teens-Privacy-and-Online-Social-Networks/6-Friendship-Strangers-and-Safety-in-Online-Social-Networks/02-32-percent-of-online-teens-have-been-contacted-online-by-a-complete-stranger.aspx?r=1

[4] Online Privacy: What Teens Share and Restrict in an Online Environment. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2007/Teens-Privacy-and-Online-Social-Networks/5-Online-Privacy--What-Teens-Share-and-Restrict-in-an-Online-Environment/05-Teens-walk-the-line-between-openness-and-privacy.aspx?r=1

[5] Community Portal Survey.

[6] Teens, Privacy and Social Networks. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2007/Teens-Privacy-and-Online-Social-Networks/1-Summary-of-Findings.aspx?r=1

Kids as Design Partners

Being someone who, on many occasions, has been teased for her awkwardness around children, I was very intrigued by the concept of using "kids as design partners." I would keep a calm demeanor when asked to watch a child for ten minutes or so, but apparently not outwardly so as the request to have me watch them would be quickly followed by "You don't have to be afraid," or "Do you think you'll be okay?" So the idea of spending not just a single half-hour test session with them, but being engaged in a research project that will likely span many months is more than a bit daunting to me. Of course, others are much more skilled around children. And these are likely the researchers that would choose--and be chosen--to play the adult role in this design partnership.

In a research and design process that involves children as partners, they are considered "equal stakeholders in the design of new technologies throughout the entire experience," within an "Intergenerational Design Team" (Druin, 2002). Children are engaged from the outset of the project throughout, with the exception of more refined report writing. Together with the adults, they build upon ideas in a process called "Idea Elaboration," help to create and provide feedback on prototypes, serve as observers and notetakers throughout, and design the final product. It is the only one of the four roles that kids may have in designing new technologies in which they are elevated nearly to the status of adults and treated as equals. Although in each of the other roles in which children may assume (User, Tester, Informant) there exists a great deal of respect for the opinions of children, these other roles are only called in as needed. Furthermore, the power structure is very different, even for informants who may be summoned multiple times during a project.

There are many challenges in working with children in this capacity--not just for people who are afraid of kids. For one thing, these projects would require much lengthier timescales as bringing children into a design process slows everything down. With their limited availability and attention spans, they can only be engaged for short periods at a time. Scheduling often revolves around the children, such as accommodating them via an after-school program or incorporating the experience into a class curriculum. With children involved in everything from brainstorming to prototyping, observation, and analysis, there is an abundance of data to capture, which can easily lead to disarray. To combat this, multiple ways of capturing data are used, including videotaping. Children being videotaped are self-conscious in their own way, though this can be overcome by having other children do the videotaping.

Though children are invaluable for their insights and unique perspective, they lack the communication and cognitive skills to discuss their thoughts as adults would. Kid speech and adult speech differ, both in terms of vocabulary and conceptual framework. They might simply fabricate things. And even when they are earnest in what they say, perhaps they offer fanciful ideas that are simply outrageous. So there is a need for vetting of what is said, what is considered valid for impacting design decisions. Kids are encouraged to draw as well as write out their thoughts. They work on low-grade prototyping for conveying their thoughts, using this as a basis for discussions.

The primary challenge seems to be the cultivation of children and adult partnerships so that they are able to form a fruitful working alliance. A "power struggle" is negotiated so that adults do not dominate and thus avoid the usual parent vs. child or teacher vs. student relationships. To promote the sense of equality across generations, certain rules have to be followed: no hand-raising, everyone uses first names, informal dress is essential, and everyone gets paid. According to "contact theory," socializing leads to better working relationships. To encourage informal socializing, every session begins with 15 minutes of "snack time." During this time they can talk about anything that interests them, but at least relevant to the children. To minimize the effects of typical adult/child roles, there must be at least two adults and at least two kids present within each team. At the end of the day, "team reflections" sessions occur for synthesizing the day's learnings within and among the various subgroups.

Still, what is offered is only a vague sense of the actual ins and outs of the interactions between kids and adults. Also, there is little discussed about how children adapt from playing freely in standard roles as kids and students to their new roles as paid designers, usability specialists, and researchers. It is mentioned that 7 to 10 year olds are the most effective prototyping partners in that they are old enough to be verbally equipped and self-reflective while being young enough to avoid preconceived notions of how things should be (Bruckman, et al, 2008). Other than that, the effect of age is not addressed in these articles in regards to suitability as design partners.

The questions that come to my mind are: How are these children kept engaged? Is discipline ever necessary? The activities must be fun, but there is also the need to generate motivation that persists beyond a single day's work (or perceived play). With the proper motivation, one would imagine that the need for discipline would be kept to a minimum. But if necessary, what form would the discipline take? Or if children were to disengage in a disruptive manner, are there techniques for channeling their energies positively so that they can be brought back in when they are ready to do so? Druin states that it may take six months for adults and kids to develop a true partnership for optimal collaboration. How many of the kids initially invited to participate are ever asked to leave? Insofar as it occurs, it must be rather devastating. Or is the continuinty in participants less important than the fact that they have lost a member that they had already spent time developing camaraderie and a working relationship with? Mostly, what is discussed in these articles is the need for preventing and handling boredom, with a nod to feelings of frustration and disappointment.

With the aim towards producing more kid-centric designs that are high on enjoyment and usability, using kids as design partners is an unparalleled approach. As an offshoot of participatory design which believes in the importance of engaging the user throughout the design process, the adapted methodology of "Cooperative Inquiry" combines both contextual inquiry and technology immersion. It is a very time and energy-intensive approach, but with strong cross-generational working relationships formed, designs can result that are inconceivable otherwise. Kids have unlimited energy once they are engaged, and by default think outside of the box, more often asking "why not" than its reverse. "I found that the more I worked closely with children, the more I came to expect the unexpected when it came to ideas, technology directions and honest feedback from children." (Druin, 2002). For those who are unafraid, and given the proper environment, children can make great research and design partners.

~ Jenny Wang


Bruckman, A., Bandlow A., Forte A. (2008) HCI For Kids. The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook, 793-809.

Druin A. (2002) The role of children in the design of new technology. Behaviour & Information Technology, 21(1), 1-25.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ubiquitous Computing

Ubiquitous computing has changed the way that we interact with computers, as they become an integral part of how we negotiate the world around us. This is a shift in the previous, more traditional, paradigm of our computer interaction. Computers are now embedded in most every aspect of our lives well beyond our use of desktop or laptop machines we use for work and recreation.

In Mark Weiser’s article, The Computer for the 21st Century, he states, “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” As we move to smaller and more pervasive devices and integrated technologies, this statement has certainly been proven to be true, particularly where computers are concerned.

The Abowd-Mynatt article, Charting Past, Present, and Future Research in Ubiquitous Computing, references Weiser’s original project at Xerox PARC, and brings the ideas current and beyond. They note that Weiser’s vision included:

  • People and environments augmented with computational resources that provide information and services when and where desired, and that,
  • New applications would emerge and leverage off these devices and infrastructure.

They address three themes around ubiquitous computing: natural interfaces, contextual awareness, and the ability to automate the capture of live experiences and provide late access to those experiences. The dimensions of time and space play critical roles, as the goal of ubicomp must consider both environment and people. Time is another dimension that provides a challenge as the demand is for these systems to be available at all times.

Ubiquitous computing has become increasing more pervasive within the context of human daily life. It is no longer confined to the way we work, but is embedded in how we live, relate and communicate. The Internet provides a broad platform that is contextually rich in our current existence. It allows us to transcend time and space and connect and interact with one another in ways never possible before its inception. Information, even esoteric information, is available on demand via various search engines, which allows us to expand our knowledge base with immediacy. Social networking has changed the way we view human connections and made these connections more (or less) rich depending on one’s individual definition of “human connection.”

The desire for natural interfaces is becoming more of a reality as the use of metaphors is helping to drive design in that direction. The development of multi-touch devices, portability of technology, and on-demand computing also demonstrate the proliferation of computing technology that is designed to be integrated into daily life.

My concern, however, is at what cost to traditional, organic human development and cognition is this proliferation happening? What happens to us if the infrastructure fails? Is our reliance on technology dangerous to our ability to survive? At the very least, is our reliance on technology dangerous to our development?

Even in a time where much research is being conducted in the areas of virtual reality and artificial intelligence, they are both still artificial and have no organic basis as we do. In that sense, current technologies are still distinguishable from the fabric of our lives. Ubiquitous computing, therefore, in my mind, has value to us in terms of both simplifying and augmenting the human experience, but we should never become completely reliant on it because errors do occur. “In fact, it is endemic to the design of computer systems that attempt to mimic human abilities (Abowd-Mynatt, 34).”


Abowd, G. & Mynatt, E. (2000). Charting Past, Present, and Future Research in Ubiquitous Computing. ACM Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction, 7(1), 29-58.

Weiser, M. (1991). The Computer for the 21st Century. Scientific American, 265(3), 94-104.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

On Ubiquitous Computing

by David F. Bello

Earlier in this semester, I researched augmented reality applications for the purpose of comparing their use to the Plato's Allegory of the Cave. I found that one of the crucial requirements in developing an AR system was to enable interaction in realtime (Azuma). Being context-aware implies that the user has the ability to change that context, and the system must react accordingly. If there is delay, the illusion that this system is actually "augmenting" reality fails. This would qualify as a breakdown, and the suspension of disbelief that what the computer is displaying is actually a part of the real world is gone. The implication of time in context-aware systems conflicts with the statement Abowd and Mynatt make about time in these context-aware systems:

With the exception of using time as an index into a captured record or summarizing how long a person has been at a particular location, most context-driven applications are unaware of the passage of time. Of particular interest is understanding relative changes in time as an aid for interpreting human activity. For example, brief visits at an exhibit could be indicative of a general lack of interest. Additionally, when a baseline of behavior can be established, action that violates a perceived pattern would be of particular interest. For example, a context- aware home might notice when an elderly person deviated from a typically active morning routine (abowd and Mynatt 37).

These examples consider Time to be that abstract construction of the human mind which chunks activity into seconds, minutes, and hours. In all practical considerations of time, it must be considered at a deeper level: the system must take time to process information and power on and off, and the user always takes an unpredictable amount of time to actually perform tasks. The idea that a context-aware system is not directly impacted by the realtime aspect of its circumstance and context is false. If an existing structure, perhaps an RFID-tagged piece of clothing, burns up in a fire, is torn to shreds by rabid dogs, or disappears for any reason, the context-aware system, if it is to be considered truly "context-aware," must recognize this and shift its internal information structure to reflect this reality. If there is delay, its use breaks down.

However, Ubiquity doesn't necessarily imply augmenting and representing the existing environment, but often by creating new environmental elements, such as the whiteboard, are "ubiquitous" systems created. Though the "whiteboard" is simply software which is projected (and therefore directly augmenting an existing technology and physical surface), the physical infrastructure to support this technology, whether that be the visually coded boards themselves, the immense prospect of precisely maneuvering projectors and/or mirrors, and even architecting rooms based on the implementation of a whiteboard system, is going to alter the foundation of the environment. Mobile phones, on the other hand, rely on the invisible infrastructure of the wireless network. They fit into the pockets of pants that can just as easily hold keys or money. The ubiquity of the mobile phone is fundamentally different from that of the whiteboard and other shared technologies.

This is not to say that the infrastructure of wireless networks is wholly intangible. As Wendy Chun argues throughout her work, the fiber optic networks which underly all communicative computing determine much of that computing in and of itself. The cell phone towers in the wilderness can be stumbled upon by the outdoorsman, and the radiation of carrier coverage could longitudinally manifest in congruently invisible, yet efficiently malignant, cancer cells. More bars in more places could metaphorically call to their incredible reliance on the notion of place.

The mobile phone is an actor in the invisible technology of wide networked space. The whiteboard becomes the space itself. It is important to consider this element of context when considering the scale of these ubiquitous devices. The whiteboard is, in effect, a small, centralized and immovable object which must be approached by users; a wireless network allows the mobile phone to be used in any physical location within a range. It is the portability that allows the phone to be studied with the function of time, and relegates the whiteboard to unified space.

The goal of the natural interface, according to Abowd and Mynatt, is to more "off the desktop" (32). If this is the case, why would it seem that much more different to replace the desktop with simply another fixed point? The static altars of the terminal, whiteboard, and wall-embedded appliance are ubiquitous if and only if the user has entered that specific physical space; ubiquity to a much smaller degree: tantamount to just creating a huge desk and a huge desktop PC that the user pretends fills his entire environment. Real ubicomp comes from the entrance of computing technology into everyday life unbound by any locality: ubiquity on a global/personal scale. All bars in all places.

Shouldn't this then be expanded to all bars in all places at all times? That would be truly ubiquitous at the personal scale. I believe that is what Abowd and Mynatt propose. Not necessarily to inundate the user with constant attention requests and immutable ringtones, but to provide constant availability and, I believe they do use the word, "companionship." The question then becomes, do we want more ubiquity in the design of our computing devices?

"We" can be considered in terms of scale to be any number of individual groups or populations. I've created a bulleted list to pose a series of questions that range along this variable of user population:

  • Would the medical community benefit from the constant availability to databases of treatment references?
  • Would the suicidal teenager be served better with a constant connection to loved ones and congenial authority figures?
  • Would the parents of children benefit from the perpetual surveillance of GPS tracked pedophiles?
  • Would the child like constant streaming of entertainment and/or educational material which may contain dubious amounts of advertising?
  • Would the traveler prefer to have his or her movement tracked across the planet in order to receive notifications of delayed airplanes and awareness of baggage?
  • Would the IRS benefit from RFID tagging of all purchased items?
  • Would a single government benefit from having its military coordinate attacks based on Twitter data?
  • Would society as a whole benefit from any of the situations mentioned?
  • Would large corporations be able to capitalize on them?
  • Would the individual business-owner suffer from the standardization of scaled applications such as these?

Cloud-based computing already offers the ubiquity of information. The capability of devices to be mobile and attain continuous access to that information is already in existence. This is the stuff of science fiction, yet we live in this world. The flying car and other crushed dreams of cyberpunk have been outmoded by true ubiquitous computing in the form of Google Docs, the iPhone, and 3G data plans.


Abowd, G. & Mynatt, E. (2000). Charting past, present, and future research in ubiquitous computing. ACM Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction, 7(1), 29-58. (pdf)

Azuma, Ronald T. A Survey of Augmented Reality. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 6, 4 (August 1997), 355 - 385. pdf)

Chun, W., (2006). Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics. Cambridge: MIT Press. (book site)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Communication Breakdown: Activity Theory On the Road

Groupware has had many definitions since its existence. The controversy of definitions is due to the multiple levels of networking in which it exists. My present research has been in the field of social software, specifically in computer-mediated communication (CMC). Popular CMC applications include social communities like Myspace, Facebook, Blogs, forums, and peer-peer applications like instant messaging. I am currently interested in how these social mediums can effect communication in travel with comparison to recent observations in the CMC field, and also what kinds of communities can be established through this new medium.

I would like to provide a brief overview of how social networking in travel would function. Projected design of such an application seems to be most easily imagined as an iPhone app. After successful retrieval of the app, one would be prompted to make a user profile (similar to Facebook). The object of the profile is to lure other users into a conversation with you. Users with similar profiles will be matched via connection server. Imagine each user with a data bubble around their vehicle projecting their profile to nearby users. When two profiles of similar interest are matched, both parties are notified with some kind of audio signal to avoid distraction from the road. By letting users know about surrounding “like interests,” possibilities are created for an ad-hoc communication environment. If the parties decide to connect, they are now free to chat through a voice call and discuss their similar interests.

The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook points out a list of issues that might occur when dealing with groupware applications. I would like to address a couple of them in context of a mobile-CMC (Andrew Sears & Julie A. Jacko, 2008).

2. Critical mass and Prisoner’s dilemma problems. Groupware may not enlist the “critical mass” of users required to be useful, or can fail because it is never in any one individual’s advantage to use it.

Critical mass would have direct correlation with whether or not a mobile-CMC is sustainable. For a social network to exist on the highway there would need to be a mass amount of users, or else not enough “similar interest matches” would be made to hold the user’s interest. Taking a look at Facebook in comparison, its online culture has changed dramatically since its creation. When Facebook was created it was limited to the culture of college students. Once it expanded to allow all sectors of society, online cultures started forming infinite new relations. Not only did new bonds form online, but through virtual activities real-world connection also are affected.

3. Disruption of social processes. Groupware can lead to activity that violates social taboos, threatens existing political structures, or otherwise de-motivates users crucial to its success.

I think this issue is related to similar issues in value sensitive design. With Facebook, the most common VSD issue is that of privacy. In the evolution of Facebook’s growing capabilities, multiple social taboos arose including privacy. The issue of privacy arose as an ethical issue and threatened the growth of Facebook’s culture. With people afraid to share content and develop deeper profiles, creations of new virtual subcultures seemed to come to a standstill. It is not hard to believe that comparable situations could arise in the mobile-CMC scenario. However, I think there is another value that has higher importance in mobile-CMC design. Human welfare is always the first topic brought up when discussing new entertainment for travel. Entertainment while travel provides a stimulus for the mind to keep alert while driving. It can also induce distractions that have negative effects on welfare. Obvious precautions can be designed to keep the mobile-CMC “hands free” or semi auto-mated, reducing distraction.

I would like to refer to a theory pulled from Kari Kuutti’s research on Activity Theory in response to welfare and distraction while driving. Kuutti explains that, “A good example of action-operation dynamics is learning to use a manual gearbox when driving a car.” Kuutti describes how actions like using the clutch, brake, gas, and shifter all require planning, sequencing and decisions. However, after a while the actions become part of a bigger equation, which is called an “operation” (Kuutti, 1995). I believe after a prolonged use of social networking applications in travel, users will acquire a more “operational view” to communication while driving. I believe communication while driving will become part of the operation of driving as is shifting, thereby eliminating communication from the list of distractions.

It is important to identify the type of social software exhibited by this system to properly predict issues it might have with information flow. I mostly imagine this system as a Peer-Peer application. However, most instant messaging applications are not necessarily designed for social networking. Facebook, on the other hand, is specifically used to provide friends or acquaintances with status information about you. Through this method, a chain reaction of finding users with similar interests can occur. Consequentially groups are formed, activities are scheduled and knowledge is traded. In essence, the traveling social network takes on the “hive mind” characteristics and abilities of Facebook, while harnessing the more privatized communication of instant messaging.

Judging from the progression of communities that have formed on Facebook, blogs, and forums, it seems that a mobile-CMC would develop a related social structure. Looking at the chart taken from Jonathan Grudin’s article one “Computer-Supported Cooperative Work,” I will compare today’s common Social applications to my theoretical mobile-CMC (Grudin, 1994).Facebook interactions occur generally in the middle time row. If a message is posted on Facebook, one can expect a person to receive it in an average amount of time. I believe this to be true for the mobile-CMC situation. If both users are aware of each other, a conversation should be expected to start within an average time. The two types of communication differ when it come to place. Since users are connected from distance through Facebook, it is appropriate to say that they are in different locations. It is also appropriate to say that it is predictable that the user being messaged will get on Facebook to receive said message. This would place Facebook somewhere in range of electronic mail. With the mobile-CMC situations, users are technically in the same location (the highway) since they have to be within short range of each other to communicate. This places the mobile-CMC more in range of tele/video conferences (real-time conferencing).

It has taken a good four years for Facebook to yield so many virtual subcultures. Building from that existent framework and placing social communication in a real-time medium could increase the rate for social development of mobile-CMC. Coherent and familiar interfaces will allow users to quickly adapt to the new form of entertainment/communication. Given that critical mass is met users will be able to new cultures specifically based on highway travel. For example, maybe “user 1” travels at the same time during rush hour as “user 2,” after multiple connections “user 1” is informed by “user 2” that there is a shortcut that cuts 20 minutes off the trip. In turn “user 1” shares this information with “user 3” which met on the way to the mall. Not only does this create opportunity for collective intelligence and problem solving, but it also creates superior chances for marketing.

Today “user 1” is traveling down the highway thinking about the broken toilet that sits at home. In the upcoming stretch he notices that “user 2” (a plumber/contractor). “User 1” is granted a connection and asks “user 2” if the company services his area. “User 2” regretfully replies no, but provides the suggestion that his mother company resides in “user 1’s” town. The first user efficiently got useful information (that was allocated out of a set schedule of time wasted driving) from the second user who just brought in a possible client for his company (on his way to another client). These real-time efficiencies make this social networking system a great benefit to the travel experience.

Computer-mediated communication has come a long way since the 1980’s. Building from past frameworks and HCI studies can prove to be very beneficial to design. Grudin and Kuutti have found logical ways to organize the data gathered about HCI statistics. Although at this point in time social networking while driving may seem to project negative effects on human welfare through distraction, I believe the product of social activity and collaboration weigh out positively.

Works Cited
Andrew Sears & Julie A. Jacko. (2008). The Human–Computer. New York: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates.
Grudin, J. (1994). Computer-Supported CooperativeWork : History and Focus. Irvine: University of California.
Kuutti, K. (1995). Activity Theory as a potential framework for HCI Research. Boston: Cambridge: MIT Press.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Participatory Design

As a usability/user experience professional working for the e-commerce team of a telecommunications company, I had heard of participatory design, but never knew much about it or worked with anyone who had experience in it. It sounded logical to me to involve end-users in the software design process. However, I had heard that it more specifically meant involving users in the design process directly, something that seemed problematic to me.

I guess it’s natural to me that involving end-users in the design process is essential. Doing so will help you to better define your requirements, to understand your end-users’ goals, needs and environmental contexts and to verify that what you are creating is on track. However, it was clearly noted in my mind that end-users (in our markets) are rarely software/website designers and thus do not have the training or advanced techniques/understanding that these professionals have.

For example, end-users may struggle with something and not have the words or knowledge to specify what the problem is exactly. However, a designer can observe their struggle and understand that a subtle fix can make a significant improvement. Still, it seems reasonable that obstacles like that can be challenged and domains can be bridged.

In fact, Michael Muller discussed the idea of a third space, a “hybrid of space between software professionals and end-users”. In this space where the two groups come together, assumptions can be questioned, knowledge can be exchanged, and a common language can be established to the betterment of both groups. He described Participatory Design as creating this third space which in turn can benefit the field of Human Computer Interaction. He then examined a variety of Participatory Design methods to see how well each contributed to the goals of hybridity.

Within his Participatory Design chapter, Muller summarizes the claims of third spaces, which include, among other attributes:
  • Questioning and challenging of assumptions
  • Mutual learning
  • Synthesis of new ideas
  • Negotiation and (co-)creation of Identities, working language, working assumptions and dynamics, understandings, relationships
  • Dialogue across and within differences
The elements of Participatory Design are intriguing – a dialogue between people from separate domains facilitated by hands-on activities. Issues that come to my mind as I consider how I might apply this to my work are practical ones such as, how many Participatory Design sessions in a design process, where in the lifecycle does this fit, how many end-users, how to recruit/screen, how to analyze results and turn them into actionable outcomes, how could I make a case for this at my company. Muller identifies a few as well, one of which is the concern for universal usability. He points out that nearly all of the Participatory Design methods that he examined are “highly visual and require hands-on manipulation of materials”, making them not accessible to many people with limited visual or motor skill abilities.

A recent paper by Loebbecke and Powell (2009) discusses Distributed Participatory Design and the need for it to evolve by learning from other collaborative design methods. They point out that Participatory Design was initially developed for groups of software professionals and end-users to meet physically in the same location, which was appropriate for the time. With the common practice today of virtual teams who may be in separate countries and time zones, Distributed Participatory Design has developed. The authors compared Distributed Participatory Design with other collaborative design methods (Distributed Action Research and Distributed Design Science) to discover similarities between approaches that might be beneficial to all.

They identified several issues that practitioners have with Distributed Participatory Design, physical distribution (separation of people and resources), organizational distribution (work structure, differences in skill levels, knowledge levels) and temporal distribution (limited time teams can meet virtually given differences in time zones).

Loebbecke and Powell describe the Action Research method as one in which some change is introduced to complex social processes followed by observation of those processes and any effect(s) of the change. The steps are part of an iterative process and involve (1) Understanding and diagnosis of the situation and its underlying dynamics, (2) action planning, (3) intervention, (4) evaluation, and (5) reflection.

The authors then describe the Design Science method as concerned with creating something new and innovative to enhance HCI often to solve a business problem/need. They present seven principles suggested by Hevner et al (2004): (1) ‘Design as an artifact’, i.e., producing a viable artifact (construct, model, method, instantiation), (2) ‘problem relevance’, i.e., searching for important solutions for the business world, (3) ‘design evaluation’, i.e. assuring quality and utility of an artifact, (4) ‘research contributions’, i.e., reflecting upon the design (how did she/he contribute to the body of knowledge he used?), (5) ‘research rigor’, i.e., rigorously applying methods along the process, (6) ‘design as a search process’, i.e. stressing the dual imperative between solutions and environmental constraints, and finally (7) ‘communication of the research’ underlining the double audience of stakeholders and research community.

After conducting a textual analysis of the three approaches looking at publications and projects, Loebbeck and Powell found many commonalities (research focus, outcomes, and research process) and differences (terminology, references, and audiences). They were concerned with the separation of these areas, referring to them as “walled gardens”.

They suggest that these approaches may be better considered as paradigms than methods. They also recommend that researchers of Distributed Participatory Design would benefit from looking to Distributed Action Research and Distributed Design Research for inspiration.
“This research suggests that there is a lack of cross-fertilization from approach to approach, and that walled gardens exist or are starting to emerge. Thus, there is a need for the walled gardens of different methods to at least have windows so that knowledge can be exchanged and ultimately the walls need to be removed. However, as demonstrated by this research, the walls are high at present and, though there is some evidence of cracks in the windows, distributed PD may miss potential sources of enrichment”.

Although I find that I still have many unanswered questions about this approach or paradigm, I am inspired by the potential that it and other collaborative methods have to offer.

Muller, M. J. (2007). Participatory design: The third space in HCI. In Sears, A. & Jacko, J. (Eds.). The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications, 2nd Edition. (pp. 1061-1082). Lawrence Erlbaum.

Loebbecke, C. & Powell, P. (2009). Furthering Distributed Participative Design. In Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems, 21:1 (pp. 77-106).

Virtual Environments for Computer-Supported Coopertive Work: Too Quickly Dismissed, or a Waste of Time? (and a little summary of Olson and Olson)

This week’s reading included a chapter in The Human Computer Interaction Handbook, called “Groupware and Computer-Supported Cooperative Work,” written by Gary and Judith Olson from the University of Michigan. In this chapter, they recount the history of various computer-based tools designed to facilitate cooperative work. They refer to this technology as “groupware.” References are made to many of the HCI pioneers that we have already studied this semester, such as Vanever Bush and Doug Englebart. Email is pointed to as the first truly successful groupware application, and the increasing use of instant messaging in the workplace is discussed as being a big development in computer-supported cooperative work. I found these sections to be of interest, because I work in a corporate culture where even email is viewed as a new technology and is not widely accepted. Although reluctance by coworkers to accept such a basic technology as email can be extremely frustrating, it has also provided me with an opportunity to watch the shift in communication paradigms as those things are adopted in our office. It is interesting to watch people begin to map their very laborious communication tasks (like walking across the building to speak to someone, or hand-writing notes to people) to more efficient, computer-mediated media. Instant messaging was also introduced during the past year, and while I am still one of the few who use this tool, I have found the “status” feature to be extremely useful. Our internal IM tool automatically determines a person’s status, based on computer activity, unless the person manually changes their status. This means that I can generally tell if someone is in their office, before I attempt to contact them, which saves me a great deal of time. Our change control system is still entirely manual, which means that when I revise an instruction manual (which happens on a daily basis), I have to complete a multi-page form, and actually walk it around the building to get various people (10-15 people) to review the revisions and manually sign the approval form. This little activity constitutes the biggest waste of my time that I have ever experienced, and knowing whether people are in their office is a big time saver for me.

The authors of this paper go on to discuss various online meeting tools (we use Live Meeting at work), workflow tools (we have no such thing, unfortunately), and group calendars. I could relate and understand most of what they said, as we use many of these tools where I work. As with other tools, use of some of these tools is frustrated by hesitation by the aging population of the office to accept new technology. Group calendars and specifically the ability to schedule meetings and reserve conference rooms via Microsoft Outlook is a particularly neglected tool. I often schedule a meeting via Outlook, and arrive at the reserved conference room at the appointed time, to find another meeting taking place. When I inform the squatters that I have reserved the room, I have been told on more than one occasion they they had also reserved the the room…by posting a note on the door, or telling the receptionist that they would be using it. So, while these technologies are extremely useful, I’ve had the opportunity to see first hand the challenges faced during the transitional phases of technology adoption.

Of greater interest to me is the authors’ discussion of “integrated spaces” for computer-supported collaboration. The authors give us a brief description of “media spaces,” which are persistent, bi-directional audio/video streams between two geographically distant locations. It is suggested that research has shown these to be ineffective for distributed collaboration. The authors then touch very briefly on collaboration in virtual environments.

My primary research focus this semester (both in this class and in another) has been the use of 3-D immersive virtual environments to perform various communication tasks. The authors of this paper suggest that virtual environments are ineffective for distributed collaboration, because “in use, it is difficult to establish mutual awareness or orientation in such spaces” (Olson). However, I think this finding could be a bit outdated at this point. Having reviewed the sources indicated by the Olsons, I find that only Hindmarsh, et al. suggests that virtual environments are ineffective as distributed collaboration tools, and that study is quite old (11 years old), and was performed using technology that doesn’t even exist anymore (Hindmarsh, et al., 1998). I believe that modern virtual environments and the hardware used to interact within them are advanced far beyond what Hindmarsh et al. used in their study, and that the difficulties they experienced (primarily due to a limited field of view) have now been overcome. The other sources cited by the Olsons are nearly as old, use the CAVE virtual environment (which uses a vastly different interface than typical modern virtual environments), and fail to suggest that virtual environments are ineffective for distributed collaboration (Park, et al., 2000; Yang, 2002). My research indicates that virtual environments are more effective for distributed communication than other forms of electronic media (Bricken, 1992; Bronack, 2008; Franceschi, 2008; Martinez, 2008), primarily due to the enhanced set of communication tools that are available to users of virtual worlds. Studies have also suggested that one of the key benefits of collaboration in a virtual environment is the user’s sense of physical proximity to other users, which results in enhanced feelings of trust between users. In general, I believe that virtual environments have the potential to increase productivity in the workplace exponentially. In addition to the ease of collaboration between geographically distributed users, virtual environments can isolate users from the sensory distraction factors that exist in a typical open office environment, which will dramatically enhance focus and productivity (but that’s the topic of another paper…coming soon). The Olsons have given us a strong foundation in CSW technology, and while I believe they misjudged virtual environments (which I think have the potential to solve virtually all of the problems mentioned in their paper/chapter), they have definitely provided food for thought, and inspiration for future research and development. 


Banbury, Simon P., et al. “Auditory Distraction and Short-Term Memory: Phenomena and Practical Implications.” Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 43.1 (2001): 12-29.

Bricken, Meredith. “Virtual worlds: No interface to design.” Ed. M. Benedikt. Cyberspace: First steps. Cambridge: MIT Press, (1992).

Bronack, Stephen C., et al. “Designing Virtual Worlds to Facilitate Meaningful Communication: Issues, Considerations, and Lessons Learned” Technical Communication 55.3 (2008): 261-267.

Bronack, Stephen C., et al. “Presence Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning in a 3D Virtual Immersive World” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 20.1 (2008): 59-69.

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