Availabowls and Other Uses of Bowl-and-Pebble Systems

I’ve always been kind of obsessed with interacting with abstract digital ideas using simple physical metaphors. One of my recent projects in this space has recently gotten some press coverage from Fast Company, so I thought that I’d share and offer a bit more detail.

A bowl with physical "pebbles" can be a more intuitive way of managing complex settings.

A bowl with physical “pebbles” can be a more intuitive way of managing complex settings.

The issue is that there are lot of complex settings with many facets that are a pain to manage by using checkboxes in a settings panel. I use privacy as an example in a system I call “Availabowls.” Currently, the granularity allowed for specifying availability is often a bit all-or-none, but there may be a lot of nuances in how you want to manage access to self. For example:

  • I may want to be seen as available to some people/groups and not others
  • I may want to be contactable via some technologies and not others
  • I may want to specify a level of busyness between “available” and “not available” and let the sender decide if they’re issue is important enough to disrupt me

It would be a nightmare to manage each of these settings in a control panel every time I come home. Literally, I have nightmares where I’m swarmed by radio boxes and checkbox panels! Instead, I imagine that a physical token can be used to represent a specific setting. For example, pebbles represent one unit of “busyness,” small blocks represent people or groups of people, plastic tokens represent communication media. Now, to set my privacy settings, I just have to transfer objects between a green bowl (on) and a red bowl (off) when I get home. There’s more about all this in the Fast Company article.

But really, I imagine that a physical pebble-and-bowl system of this sort could be useful for other complex settings. For example, pebbles may represent separate elements of my security system, making it easy to dis/arm everything but also easy to just leave specific elements disarmed (e.g., the back door while I’m having a family BBQ). Or they may represent different eco-friendly subroutines in the house such as ones that turn off lights in un-used rooms, control the house temperature, outdoor sprinklers, etc., again allowing me to only pick the things that I really want to have on right now.

Advantages? I think this is easier to deal with than checkbox panels. It’s easier to have a pebble-and-bowl system “live” where you would most likely be making these changes (e.g., by the front door) than a computer or a tablet. It doesn’t feel like a computer, so it won’t freak out grandma. It’s glanceable or even potentially eyes-free if each pebble has a unique shape.

Disadvantages? There’s only one physical pebble-and-bowl object and I see no elegant way to be able to sync states with this object if you wanted to make changes to your settings remotely or if you wanted to have multiples of these in a big house.

Is this something that appeals to others? Or am I unique in my checkbox-panel-phobia?

Cross-Cultural Parenting Advice

At CHI 2013, I attended and helped organize a workshop on Designing for Diverse Families. I’ve been meaning to blog about it for the past two months and recently reconnecting with one of the other organizers has given me the push that I needed. I want to tell you about one discussion that we are hoping to turn into an actual project. I also want to invite both workshop participants and readers who find this to be a compelling idea to potentially join in on this project.

The goal of the workshop was to better understand our own assumptions about what constitutes a “family,” understand the gaps in our own work, and see how we can be more inclusive as a community. The variety of projects presented really highlighted how different families can be in terms of structure, practices, values, and culture. While this diversity can make it very difficult to design for families, it is also an incredible resource. At a time when many parents experience a great deal of anxiety about “parenting right” and face conflicting seemingly authoritative sources on doing it this way or that way, it can be valuable to show that there are many ways to be a parent. Things that are assumed to be true in one culture, can be unheard of in another, but nonetheless children grow up and succeed. My favorite idea that came out this workshop is that getting a perspective from a different culture on specific parenting questions can be of benefit to many families. Basically, we want a parent to be able to ask “how do other families do this?” when faced with everyday worries such as when to introduce particular foods, how to sleep train a child, how to deal with an unruly teenager, etc. Presenting these answers in the context of their originating geography can help bring home the idea that there is no single right way of dealing with most of these questions, but rather many approaches that can be successful.

So, a few of us would actually like to make this happen! Here’s the basic sketch of a plan:

  • We populate the initial list of questions and answers using Yahoo answers
  • We continue getting answers to common questions by selectively using Mechanical Turk, tracking the geographic locations of the Turkers
  • We allow users to ask questions of the community and see a selection of answers from different parts of the world displayed on a map
  • Users are encouraged to give their own answer to another question when they see answers to their own

Obviously, it’s fairly rough at this stage, which is why I’m reaching out to y’all. So for the parents out there, would this be useful for you? For the builders out there, would you be interested in getting involved in making this happen? For the researchers out there, would you be interested in getting on board or just giving advice? If you are interested in being a co-investigator, please fill out this survey to let us know what you’d like to do and we can start getting a plan together!

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