To Build or Not To Build: Role of Technology in Twelve-Step Fellowships

At CHI 2013, I’ll be presenting the ultra-secret project that I’ve been working on for the past year and a half. (Why ultra secret? I was supposed to be 100% working on my dissertation at the time!) In this work, I investigate the role of technology in helping members of twelve-step fellowships (e.g., Narcotics Anonymous) recover from addiction or alcoholism [Full Paper]. I’ve already made a Follow the Crowd Blog post about this work that gives a bit of background and highlights some of the findings. And I didn’t want to just mirror it, but rather talk a little bit about what was interesting and surprising to me in doing this work.

As a researcher who designs and builds communication systems, videochat has kind of become the hammer with which I attempt to fix every situation. I went into this study, thinking that this was going to be another one of these cases. Wouldn’t it be cool if people could just attend meetings through videochat? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if AA meetings could be brought directly to jails, institutions, and rehabs through videochat without all of the (considerable) logistics of a physical visit? Going through the process of doing this study (attending more than 100 meetings and interviewing 12 participants in-depth) made me better appreciate why the twelve-step communities are wary of these approaches and why they coud present a huge problem to the community. Technology focuses on making things easier and more efficient, but through this it might actually be reducing opportunities to show effort, build community, and construct meaning.

In writing this paper, I (and the reviewers) asked myself “what would I build based on these findings?” and I’m not sure if I actually came out with an answer. I know I have a better sense of what wouldn’t work and a greater appreciation for the complexity and wisdom of the processes that are currently in place for twelve-step communities. Can I make it better with technology? Possibly, but I’m almost paralyzed by the fear of making it worse.

If there are other designers or builders who have found themselves in a similar position, I’m  curious to know how you have approached this struggle.

Paper Crafts for HCI

As HCI moves off the desktop and increasingly involves physical components, it’s helpful to be able to quickly construct cool-looking enclosures for your electronics and mock up components in a way that can explain your device to a user. There are lots of guides to help you prototype a 2D interfaces using paper (e.g., Snyder’s book) and reasons why you might want to use them, but I wanted to share some ideas for 3D paper crafts for prototyping. Why paper? It’s cheap, quick, not intimidating, and it looks like a prototype so the user doesn’t expect it to have full functionality. I find that I am more comfortable making mistakes when I work with paper (and making mistakes is how research gets done). Two of my favorite techniques for 3-D prototyping with paper are modular origami and cardboard tab-slot constructions.

Two completed origami units representing time, each with an LED and an RFID tag inside. (See instructions)

Two completed origami units representing time, each with an LED and an RFID tag inside.

Geometric modular origami lets me make simple or complex hollow shapes from standard paper that hold together with the tension of the paper. A few additional dabs of glue can reinforce the design in the longterm. The awesome thing about this approach is that it requires zero equipment, usually I don’t even need scissors! Two collections of instructions that I’ve found most useful in my work are Origami Boxes and Unit Origami. But, just to get you started, I’ll walk you through an example. Lets say that I’m interested in figuring out if people can better understand and plan how they spend their time by representing time as small physical objects (a metaphor for a unit of time) placed into different RFID-enabled bowls (e.g., projects). At some point, these objects will have some electronics in them, but for an exploratory study it might be enough for me to convey to the user how these will eventually work. So, I’m going to create a bunch of pebble-like objects, each with an RFID tag and an LED using simple modular origami. Instructions below walk you though it… In this case, I might draw different “displays” or states on each one and swap them out as necessary in a wizard-of-oz or a cognitive walkthrough study.

Instructions for the origami pebbles. (Click for much larger view)

Instructions for the origami pebbles. (Click for much larger view)

A tab slot box for an Arduino and some other components created using the FlexBox template.

A tab slot box for an Arduino and some other components I created using the Flexbox template.

Origami is fun and a good start, but you might want something a bit more sturdy and functional. Cardboard is a great step up. Thick mounting board has essentially the same properties as thin wood (but cheaper) and you can use many of the same joints to keep things connected, but you don’t need any tool other than scissors or a blade knife to make it happen. But if you have access to FabLab, I recommend going with the laser cutter instead. Thingiverse is an excellent place to find templates to start. My personal favorite is this FlexBox parametric design. Download the postcript file and open it in any text editor to set your own parameters for the size of the box and the width of your cardboard. If you need additional modifications, just import the resulting postcript file into Illustrator and add whatever else you need (e.g., holes for wires). Once you laser cut it, the whole thing can be made more stable with a dab of glue or tape. The result looks pretty professional and is throw-away cheap to make.

No Love for Wireless Communication Providers

Today, I went to a town hall lead by AT&T’s VP of research, Chuck Kalmenak. Chuck’s talk really painted the larger picture of research at AT&T and our priorities as a group. Also, it drove home for me that I’m now in industry and that I’m part of a larger company which makes it possible for me to do all the fun stuff that I do. So, today’s post is about public opinions of wireless communication providers, like AT&T.

I recently came across “What Does The Internet Think” which is a website that searches based on associative sentences to understand the general sentiment towards a particular search. This is obviously not an infallible approach, but I think that it’s a cool way to get a general lay-of-the-land. So, I searched for the 4 biggest wireless communication providers in the U.S.: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile. All-together these four providers represent 294.1 million U.S. subscribers. Here are the results, sorted from best to worst:

Why is the Internet so negative about wireless communication providers?

Why is the Internet so negative about wireless communication providers?

For me, this was good news and bad news. The good news is that I work for the best wireless provider and I’d like to think that I am or will be part of that success. The bad news is that even though the Internet was least negative about AT&T, it was still negative. Why is there no love for any of the mobile providers? What can we do better than what we’re doing right now?