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.

Hungry for Power

The scene outside an emergency charging station in Jersey City after Hurricane Sandy.

I survived Sandy‘s visit, but a week without power has certainly changed the way I think about my mobile devices. As everybody knows, our devices get exponentially more powerful every year (this is called Moore’s Law, though many smart people do not think that growth will continue at this rate). However, the efficiency of batteries has not been increasing in a comparable fashion. That’s why my old dumb phone could go days without plugging in, while an iPhone runs crying to its charging dock every 8 hours. New devices are designed for the best possible world where power is always available. My experience during Sandy has showed me that this is a dangerous way to think. So, two ideas to consider:

First, we could change the way mobile devices treat power. All devices should have an “extreme” power conservation mode. There is no reason why I shouldn’t be able to set my SmartPhone to a mode that will maximize my ability to send and receive emergency calls and text, but suspend all other functions. Also, we might think about better ways for devices to communicate the consequences of user decisions on battery life. For example, in “cautious” power conservation mode, the phone can let the user know that (say) turning on the GPS for 15 minutes will take the phone from 45% power to 40% power. Or that trying to maintain signal in the subway will significantly drain batteries. As with the way that giving energy use feedback in Hybrid cars changed the way people drive, I think this will quickly change the way people use their phones in power-scarce situations.

My conception of what a handcrank flashlight might look if it was available in a more convenient head-mounted model.

Second, we could introduce redundant ways of powering up one’s devices. Over this crisis, I came to rely on my handcrank LED flashlight that I got as conference swag at some point. I want more things like it! I want to be able to charge all my devices with some combination of cranking, walking, pedaling, and whatever. Can I harness the power of the wind during a tornado? Emergency solar? One of my coworkers had the idea of harnessing power from more resilient home infrastructure, such as a gas stove. What about running water? A lot of these devices already exist but seems to be quite inefficient and prohibitively expensive.

The point is that our mobile devices are no longer a luxury, they are a necessity to keep us safe and connected. I think it is important to think about what happens when everything else fails.