Designing Technology for Major Life Events Workshop

High emotional impact and the value of the journey are two big aspects of designing tech for major life events.

High emotional impact and the value of the journey are two big aspects of designing tech for major life events.

While at CHI, I got the wonderful opportunity to help organize the workshop on Designing Technology for Major Life Events along with Mike Massimi, Madeline Smith, and Jofish Kaye. We had a great group of HCI researchers with a diverse range of topics: gender transition, becoming a parent, dealing with a major diagnosis, bereavement, and more. My own interest in the topic grew from my experience designing technology for divorce and technology for recovery from addiction. In one of the breakout groups, we discussed the challenges of designing technology in this space and some of the ways we’ve dealt with these challenges in our work. In this post, I want to highlight a few of these:

Building Tech is Risky. Building a system requires the designer to commit to specific choices and it’s easy to find something that wasn’t adequately considered after the fact. In tech for major life events, this challenge can be exacerbated because the consequences of a failed design might have big emotional repercussions (e.g., tech messing up some aspect of a wedding). Sometimes, it is a big question of whether we even should try to bring tech into a given context.

Ethics of Limited Access. Building technology to support a major life event may mean excluding those without the financial means, skills, motivation, language, etc. to use the provided intervention. Additionally, we frequently stop supporting a prototype technology at the end of the study which can be really problematic if it was providing ongoing benefits to the participants. Again, because of the high stakes involved, issues of ethics of access to technology may be exacerbated when designing for major life events.

Tension Between Building Your Own and Leveraging Existing. Many systems we build require some critical mass of adoption before they are really useful. This is particularly important with tech for major life events because there may be relatively few people facing a particular relevant context at any point in time. One of the ways to deal with this is to piggyback on existing systems (e.g., building a Facebook app instead of a new SNS), but this may cause problems when the underlying technology makes changes outside of the researcher’s control (e.g., privacy policies change, APIs stop being supported, etc.).

Asking the Right Questions about the System You Built. The final challenge is understanding what kinds of questions to ask during the system evaluation. On one hand, it is important to go into the evaluation with some understanding of what it would mean for the system to be successful and the claims you hope to make about its use. On the other hand, it is valuable to be open to seeing and measuring unintended side effects and appropriations of the technology.

I think my two major take-aways from this discussion were a greater appreciation of how difficult it is to actually build something helpful in this space and the insight that many of these problems can be partially addressed by getting away for the type of study that focuses on evaluating a single system design using a small number of metrics. The risks of committing to a specific design solution can be mitigated by providing multiple versions of the intervention, either to be tested side-by-side or to let participants play around until they decide which solution is a better option for them. The ethics of access can be ameliorated by providing low-tech and no-tech means of achieving the same goals that your high-tech approach may support (e.g., Robin Brewer built a system to let the elderly check email using their landline phones). Planning for multiple solutions when building using others’ APIs can lead to a much more stable final system (e.g., the ShareTable we could easily switch from the Skype API to the TokBox API for the face-to-face video). And lastly, the problem of figuring out what to ask during and after a system deployment can be addressed by combining quantitative methods that measure specific predicted changes with qualitative methods of interviewing and observation that are more open to on-the-fly redirection during the course of the study. Overall, diversity of offered solutions, flexibility under the hood of your systems, and diversity of methods used in the evaluation lead to a stronger study and understanding of the target space.

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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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.