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.
The ShareTable was my Ph.D. thesis project and the paper about its deployment will be presented at CSCW 2013. Since everything is officially accepted, I thought that I’d give y’all a preview of the paper and summarize a few of our findings. I’m also going to give an overview of our process, which may be helpful to other students who are in the same boat.
A diagram of the system components and photos of the ShareTable in the homes of participants.
We wanted to address two common issues in remote parent-child communication that we discovered through interviews with divorced families: (1) children don’t feel empowered to initiate the interaction and (2) its hard to have a longer interaction because just talking is boring for the child. To address these challenges, we designed and deployed the ShareTable — a system that provides easy-to-initiate videochat and a shared tabletop task space — in four divorced households. We compared the families’ previous communication practices (from a 2-3 week diary baseline study) with their use of the ShareTable system. Throughout the month of its use, the families employed the ShareTable to participate in shared activities, share emotional moments, and communicate closeness through metaphorical touch. The amount of parent-child communication more than doubled for both families because doing activities together was more compelling than just talking. Additionally, children initiated a much greater proportion of conversations over the ShareTable than they had previously done with the phone. However, the ShareTable did also introduce new concerns over privacy and new sources of conflict about appropriate calling practices between the parents. Overall, our experience showed that the combination of videochat and an activity space provided a compelling medium for communication with young children. A similar approach may be useful with other types of geographically-separated families, as well as in supporting children in remote play and learning.
I also wanted to reflect a bit on the whole process. While I was working on this project, I frequently felt frustrated and like things weren’t moving along fast enough. Indeed, there were a lot of times that I ended up backtracking on ideas, rewriting the code (twice completely ), and reconsidering the best way to approach the whole idea. However, reflecting back on it, that’s a kind of progress as well and perhaps that’s what research is all about. Indeed, even in the slowest of years, I made some progress on the overall idea. Sketches (while they almost seemed a waste of time while I was doing them) turned out to be a great way of getting early feedback on my ideas, considering alternatives, and most importantly attracting good people to this project. The design would not have been possible without Stephen Cuzzort, Hina Shah, Hendrik Mueller, Brian Di Rito, and Berke Atasoy. The implementation would not have happened without Stephen Cuzzort, Jee Yeon Hwang, Sanika Mokashi, Shashank Raval, Duane Rollins, Jasjit Singh, and Anthony Tang (even if not everybody’s code ended up in the final system). And there was no way I could have deployed it in the homes without Sanika Mokashi, Yi Han, Eugene Medynskiy, Kurt Luther, David Quigley, Caleb Southern, and Jay Summet (there was a lot of truck driving and furniture-moving involved!). And, of course, my advisor Gregory Abowd was there every step of the way.
The process of developing this system took several years, granted with a lot of side projects and learning along the way.
So, if you are currently a Ph.D. student and you’re feeling like you’re climbing a never-ending mountain, keep at it, you’ll feel great when you reach the top! In the meantime, try to find good people to help. Even though it’s only my name on the thesis, the giant list of names above shows that I couldn’t have done it alone. Ask for help when you need it!