Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sustainablilty in Good HCI

Sustainability is a simple concept to understand. It is easy to realize that we cannot continue the trends that have been established in the past century regarding manufacturing, consumption and waste. On this, I think everyone agrees. The role that interface design plays in sustainability, however, is more ambiguous. In his paper, Eli Blevis defines design as “an act of choosing among or informing choices of future ways of being”. This definition is quite different than what most would think of when asked to define the word. Yet, it blends the traditional definition with the new trend of sustainable and forward thinking. Tom Fischer, Dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, adds to this idea: “good design involves exhaustive research into the repercussions of our actions”. Without a doubt, this is a very accurate assessment. However, in practice this often fails; many designs do not look at repercussions or consider the future.

At first, the entire notion that interaction design affected sustainability in any way struck me as odd. Indeed, the interface is a largely abstract (though crucial) part of any design, and many other aspects of besides it play a role in how effective and sustainable a design is. As I was thinking about this for a bit, I realized that a great example of this is the iPhone. The interface on it when it was introduced was, and still is to an extent, revolutionary. Nearly three years later, it is still as usable as it was the first day, and has spawned dozens of imitators. The iPhone has gone through two slight hardware changes, though there is little practical difference between the three generations; yes improvements have been made, but each generation can do nearly the same things. This leads to users hanging on their devices longer, and once they feel the need to upgrade, selling their device to someone looking to get into the iPhone ecosystem. This is largely because the underlying OS interface has not changed much, and users get (nearly) the same experience regardless of the hardware. In turn, Apple’s interface design has hit several of Blevis’ ‘heuristics’ on sustainability, primarily reuse as is, achieving longevity of use, finding wholesome alternatives to use and perhaps to some, achieving heirloom status.

That last ‘heuristic’, achieving heirloom status, is a very interesting one. Some categories of things are just ill suited for such a stature. For example, I feel that it is nearly impossible for computers achieve this standing. No matter how classy or unique the design (take the iMac as an example), the long lived appeal for computers is rather slim compared to other things. Cars on the other hand, have a much easier time being classified as heirlooms, and often times it is due to unique and elegant design.

Software, and more specifically interaction design, fits in very differently within the rubric proposed by Blevis, and is even harder to place than technology in general. The above iPhone example shows how a good interface meets some of rubric criteria, but only through the vessel of the innovative hardware that backs it. Blevis suggests to look at software (and the corresponding interaction that it creates) a little differently than we normally would. While it’s true that bits and bytes don’t have physical properties, the hardware that runs it is directly tied to it. Thus, thinking of hardware as the physical representation of software is one way to look at it from an interaction perspective: the software we design, with its different capabilities, directs hardware design. Therefore, the forward thinking that happens needs to analyze not just present needs, but also address future possibilities and anticipate them with hardware design.

Following this process though, one might conclude that in order to be future proof, a device must have many capabilities so that it is not quickly outdated. This, in turn, would likely drive the price of the hardware up, as more and more technology is crammed into one device. On the one hand, that may be true. To bring up the iPhone again, it debuted with an astronomically (for the time) high price. It packed many things into one, however, and people overlooked the price and bought it by the millions. To me, this shows that people will pay for good design, especially when you consider that free phones offer many of the same functionality albeit with shoddy hardware and software. There is more to this than just a pretty interface though. What the iPhone did that truly helped it succeed, I believe, was the seamless combination of several gadgets into one. This promotes sustainability enormously, as now instead of needing a phone, GPS, MP3 player, and laptop on you, you now can combine these four devices into one that does the functions of all well. This trend will only continue, as phones get more and more powerful (they are set to break the 1GHz barrier by years end) the consumer will be able to get more done on them, eliminating the need of further gadgets.

The backbone of why cell phones are able to provide all this power is also what’s driving sustainability in many other areas. The high speed networks that have been developed, both wireless and wired, are driving innovation in every aspect of our lives. Solid media will see a great decrease in use as nearly everything spawns an option for digital delivery. A good example of this is Steam, a computer game ecosystem. Instead of buying games at stores and having a CD of the game, you can download the game straight from the internet. The system works beautifully and removes the need to have disks and paper manuals. As an added benefit, the system knows what games you’ve bought so you no longer worry about lost disks. An even better example is Netflix. Their first innovation of delivering DVDs straight to your home over preexisting mail routes surely saved the environment the damage from millions of people driving to their Blockbusters. They took it to the next level however, when they introduced high quality movie streaming over the internet. This is another step to decreasing the need for physical media and who knows how many tons of Netflix’s distinctive red envelopes. These are just two examples of interaction design creating a more sustainable environment. These developments, and the overall idea will surely be receiving more attention in the near future as the world seeks ways to increase the sustainability of our ways. I suspect many will be surprised at the improvements that can be made from careful interaction design and HCI.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Value Sensitive Design and Information Systems

Friedman, B., Kahn, P. H., Jr., & Borning, A. (2006). Value Sensitive Design and information systems. In P. Zhang & D. Galletta (eds.), Human-Computer Interaction in Management Information Systems: Foundations, (pp. 348-372). Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe. [pdf]

This is a chapter about value sensitive design and information systems taken from the book: Human-Computer Interaction and Management Information Systems. Management Information Systems focus on the systems that enable organizations, primarily businesses to be more efficient in their routine tasks. The five component model of an information system suggests that a Management Information System is comprised of five major components including: hardware, software, data, processes and users. This book focuses on the user experience and this chapter in particular extends that focus to value sensitive design.

This chapter draws 10 conclusions on three case studies. The first case study examined web browser cookies and how the use of cookies may violate the value of informed consent. The second study looked at virtual office windows, and studied the trade-off between the value of physical and psychological well-being verses perceived privacy in public spaces. The third case predicted patterns of urban development for periods of 20+ years using different scenarios employing decision making methods to promote fairness, accountability and democracy in the decision making process.

The three case studies:

Cookies and Informed Consent
This case study explored the use of web browser cookies. This case explored the three central ideas or values related to browser cookies; voluntariness, comprehension and agreement. The authors use the term voluntariness to represent that a particular action is not coerced or controlled in anyway. Comprehension is viewed as the ability of the user to understand the implications of their actions. For example, if they accept a cookie do they fully understand what this means and the potential implications to privacy, etc. of this action? Agreement assumes that there has been an opportunity for the user to either accept or decline the action. Many systems assume agreement by the default of an automatically opted-in system. Users of such systems never have an opportunity to accept or reject the action, nor do they often even have the knowledge of this opportunity. In the end, consent should encompass the aforementioned values.

The authors found through this study that there was a balance between providing too many prompts for agreement or acceptance of a cookie and none at all. With too many prompts, users would become annoyed, desensitized and viewed the prompts as a nuisance. For the study, the group redesigned Mozilla’s open source web browser (Netscape) to develop a proof of process web browser interface. In the prototype they created a side window, similar to bookmarks, to provide peripheral awareness of cookies being downloaded. The cookies were color coded indicating where the cookie was coming from (third party, etc.). The system provided “just-in-time” information and helped with the management of cookies.

The authors argue “this project illustrates the iterative and integrative nature of Value Sensitive Design, and provides a proof-of-concept for Value Sensitive Design in the context of mainstream Internet software.” While I agree with this conclusion, it raises several questions for me. First, while this proof of process seemed to be successful and makes a lot of sense, why wasn’t it widely adopted? Why hasn’t awareness of our privacy or lack of, been brought to the forefront of our consciousness? It appears to me that we continue to be a society of automatic opt-ins without informed consent. This is a major social compromise many of us aren’t aware we are making.

Face book is an example. As a default our profiles are open to everyone in our network. While we “voluntarily” post our profile, pictures, and personal information on face book, I’d argue that many do not comprehend the social significance and potential implications of this. In a quick survey of 25 junior and senior college students, I found that over 40% had profiles without any privacy settings. I suspect and plan to follow this up, that when I speak with them that they will not be aware of having an open profile nor the implications that could result.

Room with a view
This case study used plasma screens displaying scenes from outside the building installed on internal office walls (offices without windows). The views of outside were found to decrease stress and have other positive physical and psychological benefits. What the case brought to light is that often we only look at the primary or direct stakeholders. In this case they were the “watchers.’ While the “watchers” enjoyed numerous benefits, the researchers found that the “watched” or indirect stakeholders had some real significant issues concerning their privacy once they learned they were being video typed. The concerns were more pronounced with women than men. This study demonstrated that if the focus is only on the direct stakeholders, a solution may look good and appear to meet the needs of the direct stakeholders. However, once the scope is expanded to include indirect stakeholders a more holistic understanding of the implications may be evaluated.

This program was used to help predict and shape the patterns of urban development as far into the future as twenty years. This program was applied to several major metropolitan regions. The process of developing UrbanSim the group was committed to fostering moral values by promoting fairness, accountability and democracy in the decision making process. Fairness was incorporated by ensuring that the simulations did not discriminate unfairly against any groups of stakeholders, essentially providing freedom from bias. Accountability was assumed by confirmation that the values were reflected into the design of the simulations. The project supported a democratic planning process where all stakeholders had a fair say in the process. Agile software development as well as open source clear coding and rigorous testing made the incorporation of the moral values into the system possible.

This article concluded with ten practical suggestions. The suggestions start by looking at the value, technology or context of use. Once this has been identified future exploration of direct and indirect stakeholders may be considered along with the benefits and harms to each stakeholder group. Potential value conflicts as well as value implications should be considered. The authors also suggest heuristics for interviewing stakeholders and for tech investigations.

Reaction: Game Design Methodology to Incorporate Social Activist Themes

Submitted by Mark Galik for COMM-6480 Theory and Research in HCI

October 6, 2009


The authors propose a best practice methodology (VAP, or Values at Play) for the incorporation of social activist themes in a gaming environment. The approach is not geared towards measuring and critiquing existing games; rather they hope to offer these guidelines for incorporation in future entertainment and educational games.


The authors frame their research through an experiment utilizing a game named RAPUNSEL where children learn basic computer programming while creating a character. Their primary focus in creating RAPUNSEL was to promote social and gender equity (the game was created for underprivileged girls), it also demonstrated other activist themes.

I’ll look at how some of the VAP concepts may exist in current entertainment games. I’ll also explore how some players may intentionally react counter to accepted social values as a means of escape in a gaming environment. Finally, I’ll offer a suggestion on how VAP can be marketed through a ratings system.

VAP themes in current games

What the authors propose is interesting, but I’m not sure to what degree the themes could be applied in a viable consumer product. The authors admit as much, but see many opportunities to incorporate VAP in entertainment games. I believe some already incorporate VAP, without being overtly obvious about it.


In Infiniti Ward’s first person, military shooter, Call of Duty, a player will lose their life if they kill one of their allies. A message is displayed: “Friendly fire will not be tolerated.” (the Russian campaign, it even says “You are a traitor to the Motherland”). Given the main plot of the games in this series is a battle against the “evil” enemy, having targets that are deemed off-limits seems reasonable. Like other games in the military genre, teamwork, cooperation toward a common goal is a predominant theme.

If we evaluate Call of Duty against the author’s “values checklist”, it actually manages to address diversity in putting the player in the role of a Russian, Polish, French or British soldier. Gender equity is addressed in casting female characters as soldiers (a French Resistance fighter). Liberty and justice are common themes in most military campaigns and they translate into the plot of most games in the series. Defeating a common enemy – Nazi, Imperial Japan, middle-east terrorists – requires cooperation and inclusion with other computer controlled characters – if you don’t listen, it may get you killed. The online, multi-player mode of most of these games adds another dimension in bringing players from diverse age groups, skill sets and socio-economic backgrounds together in a common goal.

So, while Call of Duty is violent, it can also teach many of the VAP themes while it entertains and does so without spoon-feeding it in an obvious manner.

The shooter genre doesn’t typically embody the VAP principles by its very nature – though most put the shooter in the role of a person out for justice. The Grand Theft Auto franchise is rife with gender and ethnic stereotyping where running down pedestrians and carjacking is encouraged. Yet it is one of the most profitable entertainment games in history. Another game, “Saints Row 2”, develops its own set of skewed value system:

Respect can only be earned in Stilwater, and that requires a lifestyle that reflects your unique personality. Your crib, your crew, and your character define who you are on the streets and how you are perceived. The image you portray is as important as the decisions you make in a city ruled by false bravado and impulsive behavior. The only constant is the need for an identity that reflects your individuality and is backed up by your 12 gauge. (

So what the authors of Saints Row are trying to say is that you may run a gang and have prostitutes, but you’re in charge of your criminality and you have to own it, make it your own – does this address the creativity and expression goal? Along the way, pick the right “crew” because that brotherhood is most important, to hell with the rest: “Sometimes sending a message to your enemies requires heavy lifting, like that of a rival gang member into oncoming traffic.” So I suppose cooperation and inclusion is addressed here as well? Unless the underlying plot of a game meets some altruistic goal, any social message you hope to convey will be lost.


Most sports simulations also carry over themes of good sportsmanship from the playing field to the game console. For example, in the Madden football series’ Superstar mode, a player develops a custom football star that hires an agent, talks to the press and develops a playing style. Superstars are penalized and labeled as selfish players if they hire the wrong type of agent, speak arrogantly to the press or play selfishly on the field. The game promotes the idea that along with being a superstar comes the role of being a “team leader”.

As the authors state, VAP themes should be a goal for any game. While it may be easy to incorporate some of the themes from the VAP toolbox in game play, such as privacy, creative expression and cooperation, other themes may prove difficult if they run contrary to the plot of the game. Developing games that are focused on social activism would allow a game designer to go deeper into the toolbox to explore multiple themes in greater detail.

Alter egos in a gaming environment

Something the authors may have not considered is idea that those who play games for entertainment may want to explore actions that run contrary to their on belief system. That’s not to say that you have to exhibit homicidal tendencies to play a game where you kill people, but a person’s decision making in other, less criminal, aspects of the game may be out of character with how they would respond in a similar real life situation. For example, in a sports game where an individual understands the benefit of team play, they may want to explore would it would be like to act like a lone wolf – attempting to make all the plays for themselves.

Without a system in place (in these games as in real life) to penalize this type of behavior, a player may run unchecked and any social value message the game creator hopes to convey may be lost.

VAP Rubric?

Games carry a rating system developed by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) to assist parents in determining what themes are present in games (e.g.: intense violence, drugs, sexual content, nudity etc.) Both Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto are rated M for Mature, but as discussed earlier, both have very contrary social themes. A rubric should be developed to measure new and existing games against the VAP principles. The rating system would assist parents in deciding whether the game would be appropriate for their children that are mature enough to handle the violence.

Value Sensitive Design

One core value of many generations and cultures is the desire to provide and leave something behind for the future generations. In his paper, Sustainable Interaction Design: Invention & Disposal, Renewal & Reuse Eli Blevis states that Sustainable Interaction Design (SID) should be the central focus of interaction design. Blevis addresses the important topic of environmentalism or environmental responsibility.

Belvis presents the example of Apple’s iPod device as being disposable (this example would fit in with Belvis’ model of invention & disposal.) And fitting with American culture, the iPod and many other gadgets are thrown away frequently when a “newer and better” model is released. This is good for Apple if you are looking at profits and market share, but when it comes to sustaining the planet for future generations it is abominable. While Apple offers the 10% discount on the purchase of a new item when you trade in your old mobile phone or iPod, I cannot see where they offer an incentive to keep the one you have, since hardware-wise they are not upgradable. The batteries and storage are all built in and not replaceable and/or expandable. The 2GB iPod that I purchased several years back still works, but its storage media was filled to capacity long ago. Apple’s recycling website does make mention that they are serious about the company’s environmental impact, and the impact that their devices make on the environment. But wouldn’t it be more responsible to make fewer devices, thus reducing their carbon footprint since their gadgets in are made in factories which pollute the environment? It would far more sustainable to produce items that are upgradeable.

Blevis does mention how Leica produces cameras that are “heirloom quality, professional objects.” Because new (digital) Leica cameras accept the same high-quality lenses that older 35mm camera bodies accepted, Leica is following a more sustainable design model. Blevis believes that this is more common in professional quality products than products made for common consumers, and to some extent he is correct, but there are other companies that do share this model. The Pentax camera company, a long-established company that historically made 35mm film Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras, film medium format cameras, and today makes digital SLR’s and is rumored to be soon producing digital medium format cameras. They are a company that makes products for both the average consumer and professionals. Every lens that Pentax has produced is usable on all present Pentax camera bodies (let us hope they keep this pattern with the new digital medium format bodies.) Pentax’s share in the U.S. photographic market is significantly smaller than that of Canon or Pentax. In a time where “green is hot,” I am surprised that Pentax hasn’t launched a more aggressive campaign highlighting this sustainable feature of their products. I purchased a Pentax digital SLR body because I owned a Pentax film body and lenses. The driving cause of this action was the money I would save, but it was also a major benefit that I could reuse equipment as opposed to starting a new system from scratch.

In their paper A Game Design Methodology to Incorporate Social Activist Themes Mary Flannigan & Helen Nissenbaum describe how the methodology Values At Play (VAP) can be used to develop and teach girls the programming code while playing a game. Flannigan & Nissenbaum demonstrate how the RAPUNSEL project can be used to empower a population of underrepresented people. In this case, the group of people is underprivileged girls. The RAPUNSEL game is intentionally designed to demonstrate positive values to girls. The game has reward systems and challenges that seem similar to other games. RAPUNSEL takes a different approach from what many games I have encountered before do. So many games I’ve seen let you collect a weapon inventory and reward you for killing your enemy. RAPUNSEL urges players to engage in social challenges and teaches girls programming code to design their own clothes and dance moves. Earlier this semester, I became deeply interested in the Smalltalk project, and I feel that the RAPUNSEL project shares some of the same key goals of empowerment.

According to Flanagan & Nissenbaum’s paper, players can challenge one to a dance competition, but players have the option of actually turning down a challenge if they do not want to engage in competition. This style of play can satisfy the human desire to compete, but it does not focus on it as the primary goal of the game. The game has many goals and appeals to different types of girls seeking different gaming experiences. According to the website, the game is a “dance game designed to teach computer programming to 10-12 year olds.” The RAPUNSEL project is targeting this underrepresented population to help fill the void of young women entering technology-related career fields and educational programs. Girls playing this game not only get to experience a dance game, but they get to learn programming skills which could be the catalyst that gets them interested in technology, computers or programming. This “play and learn” style is not a new innovation, but in this case RAPUSNSEL intentionally reaches out to this demographic that is forgotten when it comes to computer games and learning the skills to create them.

The game does address activities that are more “girl-friendly” such as fashion and dance. These are activities that are historically more interesting to girls, and I feel it was very appropriate for the game designers to incorporate these activities into the project because it makes the game more appealing to girls. In screenshots available at one will find that there is a diverse cast of characters featured in the game. I feel that the designers made conscious decisions to put them in modern dress, but did not over sexualize them (often seen with too-suggestive clothing and too much makeup)which is something that we see happen all to often in media targeting young girls.

In Value Sensitive Design and Information Systems (Batya Friedman, Peter H. Kahn Jr. and Alan Borning) and Human Values, Ethics, and Design (Friedman and Kahn) many human values are explored and how designers should take these values in to account. Two particularly interesting values they discussed were privacy and security.

We are living in a time where many groups are flocking to social networking websites and communities. Privacy is a key value to many individuals, but the amount of information people publish about themselves on public pages may be seen as contradictory. I often ask myself several questions, “do many of these “social networkers” even care about privacy anymore?,” “how much do I care about my privacy?” and “does anyone care about my privacy?” Friedman and Kahn point out in their reading that there is a “mismatch between industry practice and the public’s interest.” They mention that many websites are collecting personal information without informing users that they are doing so, but a poll suggests that a large majority (88%) of people want the sites to acquire their consent. Users of internet technology say they want informed consent and privacy, yet the actions of so many corporations and even some individuals contradict this human value. Social networking websites such as Facebook have settings that one can enable to protect their privacy, but they are rather complex. There are even third-party websites that offer “how-to’s” on protecting your privacy on Facebook (see: ) Many people do not want to be bothered with “tweaking” their privacy settings though, it is time consuming and I feel that most people want their web experience to be easy and hassle-free. A similar issue is raised by Friedman and Kahn about Cookies. Would a user really want to be bombarded with a warning every time a cookie will be stored on their system? I feel that the case of the Mozilla browser in this chapter is encouraging. I feel that folks may be more aware of their privacy online if info about cookies is readily available on a sidebar. Microsoft also seems to be working on meeting users’ desire for privacy. Internet Explorer 8 offers inPrivate browsing in which cookies are only stored in the memory so pages display correctly (according to Microsoft.) This feature is not available “out of the box,” a user must enable it. Again, learning to do this takes a little exploring, and I find myself asking, “does the average internet user bother with seeking out such a tool?”