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.

Getting Kids to Invent in a Giant Single-Day Workshop

Recently, I organized an invention workshop for AT&T’s “Take Our Kids to Work Day.” This involved three 45-minute workshops and almost 300 children (ages 7-15)! I’ve never designed with children on this scale and I wanted to share how it worked and some lessons from it (as well as share my materials, in case anybody would find that to be helpful).

What We Did: I gave a quick presentation on the 5 steps I take to invent, using the ShareTable as a concrete example. The kids were divided into 2 teams of 4 people at each table and each team had a different design challenge. They then had 20 minutes to come up with ideas and draw some inventions. Finally, they presented their best idea to the other team at the table, taking about 5 minutes each. I circulated throughout the rooms, focusing on the teams that were sitting back, instead of leaning forward.

What Worked:

  • Doing such large groups meant that I could very quickly get an understanding of whether something was working. For example, in the first workshop there were 4 teams that had the design challenge of a system that helps a shy kid who moves to a new school. All 4 teams really struggled with this challenge, so I was able to pull it out and replace it with different challenges for the two subsequent workshops.
  • Design challenges that focused on more physical ideas, like fun on car trips and taking care of pets, yielded a larger variety of ideas.
  • I got names and emails of families that might be interested in trying out new technologies. This is a great solution to age-old recruitment problem!
  • The prompt that worked best, directed to the whole group, was: “If you’re having trouble coming up with a good idea, write down a really bad idea. Cross it out and write the opposite of it.” See example below:

[Bobby] was thinking about ideas for better car trips. (1) He wrote down "I can't think of anything" in the middle of the page. (2) I make the suggestion that he think of a bad idea first, he writes "something that hijacks your car." (3) I tell his to cross it out and write the opposite of it, he writes "an app to help you find your car." He sees that as a good idea, gets excited and quick comes up with and draws 3 more ideas.

[Bobby] was thinking about ideas for better car trips. (1) He wrote down “I can’t think of anything” in the middle of the page. (2) I make the suggestion that he think of a bad idea first, he writes “something that hijacks your car.” (3) I tell his to cross it out and write the opposite of it, he writes “an app to help you find your car.” He sees that as a good idea, gets excited and quickly comes up with and draws 3 more ideas.

What Didn’t Work:

  • Very large groups meant very little one-on-one time with me. In general, the groups that I spoke to during the design session produced better ideas and were able to push past the initial “obvious” idea. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get to every team.
  • It was easy for the more shy kids to sit back and not participate, since there was little hands-on supervision from adults during the design exercise.
  • I was hoping to be able to do repeat sessions with kids who put down their names as being interested, however it seems that there are legal issues with having parents bring children to work outside of a formally organized event. So, it is likely that I will not be able to follow up with the children from this workshop in-person.

Why Do This: Designing with children is actually a great way to get ideas. Designing with a big group is great way to understand the ideas that would be valued by that culture. The kids are probably not going to come up with the next thing that you will patent, but with a little bit of translating, you can get to some interesting underlying nuggets. For example, take a look at these four ideas:

Four ideas from the workshop. These may not be directly implemented, but they can tell us a lot about designing in these domains.

Four ideas from the workshop. These may not be directly implemented, but they can tell us a lot about designing in these domains.

Now, let me try to translate what I got out of them: (1) We may not be able to make a translator for dogs, but perhaps there could be other ways of making the invisible visible, such as displaying physiological variables. This would be interesting as a contribution to the burgeoning field of pet-computer interaction. (2) Almost every team that worked on the translating problem came up with some variations on glasses and headphones (this one also came up with a typing glove), which shows that children might be quite comfortable with wearable computing, so that’s not a bad bet for the future. (3) Most teams that worked on the remote best friends idea, came up with something that was embodied, could interact with the remote space, and could participate in play. These are all excellent ideas to include in any technology for remote contact in the home. (4) There were a lot of variations on physical activities in cars (pools, slides, trampolines, etc.). While it’s probably impractical to go off and try to make this actually happen, this points to the idea that what kids really want to be able to do in the car is something physical. Hmmm… DDR for the car? *runs off to the patent office*

So to summarize, I think there is a lot of value to be had from even one-off invention workshops with children (as long as you’re willing to do some translating of the final ideas). Regardless of where you work, you may be able to organize one of these in the context of a take your kids to work day. Even if you end up with a giant group, it’s still doable and there are even some advantages to it.

Tips on Recruiting Study Participants

As HCI work expands outside of traditional computing fields and as we seek to design for users who are not like us, recruiting participants can become a really time-consuming and difficult process. I wanted to share a few approaches that have worked for me in the past, in particularly focusing on recruiting in situations where you can’t just sucker undergrads or lab-mates into participating.

  • Do your formative work (such as participatory observation or interviews) with an organized group, if possible. You may have to do some general volunteer work with the group first. This helps establish your legitimacy within this group and you will be able to continue working with both old and new members in the future.
  • Even if you don’t think that your potential participants have a relevant formal organization, try searching There are groups for just about everything and they’re usually happy to have somebody who is interested in their issue as a speaker, so it’s easy to make a connection.
  • Post widely on public sites. I have recruited a lot of participants through craigslist, which has the benefit of being fairly local. If your study can be done without meeting in person, I also recommend posting to forums that are relevant to your topic of interest.
  • Ask widely in your social network to see if anybody can recommend a participant for a specific study. Facebook is actually quite good for this task, but I’ve also found that bringing it up with people face-to-face gets people to think about it harder. I like to do a lot of looking on my own first, so that I can say “I’m having a hard time finding participants. Here’s what I’ve done so far. Do you have any other ideas?”
  • “Snowball Sampling” is when you get a participant to recommend other possible participants. I find that this works great! My one tip for making it even better is asking the snowball question twice: once when I follow up with the participant reminding about our scheduled meeting and again after the study is complete. This gives them a chance to think about it a little bit.
  • Do compensate your participants reasonably for their time and transportation. I have found that it is possible to recruit participants for free, but they often have ulterior motivations for participating which may clash with your study’s needs.
  • If your study can be done in one session and without special equipment (e.g., an interview), take advantage of the times when you are travelling. Just through posts or meetup groups or connections to friends, I usually get an additional 2 or 3 participants when I visit another state. For some reason, just because I’m there for a limited time, people feel more excited about being in the study (“You came all the way to CA to talk to me?”).
  • Lastly, if you need a small number of participants with very specific characteristics, I’ve found that it is worth the money to go through a professional recruiting firm. When I was in Atlanta, I used Schlesinger Associates and I was very happy with the results. I also think that in the end, it led to better data than using friends-of-friends, because the participants didn’t feel a social need to be positive towards my system. But, it is expensive.

One thing that I haven’t tried yet, but could potentially be interesting is using TaskRabbit, which is a site for posting quick tasks and having people in your area do them for money (so, it would only work if you’re compensating participants). If anybody has tried it, I would love to hear about your experience.