Beki Grinter

Archive for the ‘HCI’ Category


In computer science, discipline, HCI, research on October 15, 2012 at 2:53 pm

There was a panel about theory in HCI at the NordiCHI conference today. I wonder what they discussed. It made me think about questions I’ve been asked about the role of theory in human-centered computing, particularly in the context of teaching the Introduction to Human Centered Computing class (which is a survey of a variety of theories about technology). In that class, I recently said something about my own relationship to theory, and now I’m wondering whether it’s true for others, so here goes.

I find some theories more personally compelling than others. They speak a type of truth to me, one that I find very engaging. They bring out, for want of better words, the researcher in me. What I find very useful about this is that because theory is related to methods and questions, I can use these connections to focus in on particular problems. One of the first theories I ever used was Grounded Theory, it’s in my dissertation. I took the route of building more theory atop of articulation work (and to some degree social worlds) to develop my theory of software recomposition. The theory, modestly, explains some of the reasons that software is hard to produce, its because the process of modular decomposition creates a division of labor full of dependencies that are often underspecified and then change during the course of development. All of these dependencies are discovered at integration, unless they are well managed, and that makes production difficult.

Grounded Theory spoke to me. The works I read seemed to address problems that I found compelling, and using methods that I enjoyed to use. It didn’t help me find the domain, that was a different inspiration, one largely stemming from a sense that HCI had overly focused on the end-user taking the engineer to task and I wondered whether the work worlds of developers were as socially and technologically complex as those of the end-users and if so, whether we had to make inroads there in order to make the world of the end-user better. But it did help me formulate questions, operationalize them empirically, and do analysis.

Focus is the enemy of a new researcher. Being reflective on what your passions are might be one way to do this. I’m very lucky I also know the things I do not like to do. I am glad when others do them because I don’t want to.

Well that leaves all the big questions open like what is a theory in HCI, what should it do, what does it mean that we have multiple theoretical approaches, should we develop our own theories or use those developed by other disciplines. But, it is an answer to what problems should I work on? If you can find research that speaks to you very deeply, that supports the answering of questions you find interesting and using methods that you find enjoyable to practice, that seems useful.


Concerns about the Omission of HCI in Impacts of CS “Tire Tracks” Diagram

In academic management, computer science, discipline, HCI, research on August 15, 2012 at 9:18 am

Recently, the “tire tracks” diagram of how Federally funded research has led to impact on the Computing industry and American experience was updated. Appreciative of the work that it does to continue to make the case for basic research in Computer Science, I was keen to see it. Imagine my disappointment when I realized that HCI was not present.

Maybe HCI is omitted because the “tire tracks” diagram focuses on product and not business practice outcomes. One major impact of HCI on industry is User Experience design. Don Norman and his team at Apple first popularized that term, in a paper they wrote about Apple’s User Experience (UX) practice, the research that continued to inform those corporate practices, writing it up for an HCI conference, the ACM’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI). Now consider, Google’s focus on keeping it simple. I’ve asked UX professionals and global estimates (based in part on membership in professional societies) are as high as 44,000 people who work in the field (another estimate was that about 10K of those people work in the United States). That’s a pretty significant type of employment impact!

Returning to the product-oriented outcomes, Brad Myers has done an eloquent job of explaining the role of HCI in the software and systems we take for granted today. He has even produced tire tracks. His diagrams suggest to me that HCI may have gotten folded into Computer Graphics in the CRA’s version of “tire tracks”. But, to omit explicit recognition of HCI is to preclude innovations that came from explicit consideration of humans, whether it be as information processors or soci0-technical beings. Yes, sure, the product innovations happened in the graphical user interface and how it is manipulated and interacted with, but reading the history of innovations at that interface it’s clear that the inspiration and the basic science that was drawn on included science about people, and developing a basic science of the interaction between people and machines. One particularly fruitful area for development that is of interest within HCI and appears to be missing from the tire tracks is input devices and techniques…

PARC features in some of the industrial work, and it is worth noting that the culture of PARC was to have a focus on the relationship between people and machines. J.C.R. Licklider’s Introductory Note to an anthology of papers about Computers and Systems in the book about the first decade of PARCs research: A Decade of Research: Xerox Palo Alto Research Center 1970-1980 captured this as follows:

In my opinion, the interaction between people and computers is the most exciting new frontier of our time; here, in these pages, are many superb contributions by colleagues who not only share the excitement of that frontier but are developing the new land and building a new way of life in it.

These papers are an eloquent testimoney to the fact that, in the ten years since it’s conception, the Palo Alto Research Center has flourished. In that short time, many computer scientists, I among them, have come to consider it as the leading center of research in interactions between (or, in 1960’s terms, the symbiosis of) human beings and digital computers. …

The science and technology of the human use of digital computers are being created right now. p3

I’m disappointed that as we continue to chart this frontier of novel people machine interactions that the role of HCI has been omitted by the people making the case for the future of our science. I think Computer Science will come up short without taking people seriously. After all, in the marketplace we can ask whether the truly successful technologies are just a matter of their hardware and software, or is it that they deliver something that people want, desire, find useful and useful, and connect them to others.

The Autobiographical Turn

In discipline, empirical, HCI, research on August 2, 2012 at 10:46 am

There has been a turn towards the autobiographical in some ethnographic research. The idea is that by sharing one’s autobiography—the relevant parts—that it will make it easier for the reader to understand the analysis process. Understand where, you, the analytic instrument starts.

When I first learnt about this I thought that that was very valuable. I thought that it would be useful to understand something about where the author stands with respect to the material. I also knew from experience in studying religion that people made various assumptions about my beliefs (ranging from atheism to fundamentalism). Realizing how any position along that continuum could be applied to my motives for the research made me think that putting something clearly out there was potentially very useful.

But lately I’ve been thinking that there is a problem. Putting something about yourself into a research publication puts it into the professional public forum. Most of the time we spend in professional forums is very carefully managed to create a good impression. But is that what we bring to analysis? If we bring parts of ourselves to analysis, is it more/as likely to be the far more complex experiences of our lives? Do the experiences that shape us mostly deeply come from the types of things that are easy to share or are far more complex and not something that we would choose to put into the professional domain? More  cynically, I began to wonder whether sometimes the autobiographic turn was being used in pursuit of professionalism (but that was me at my most cynical).

Back to the question of my religion. I have wrestled with writing about my religious position, and in the end I find that I am relatively uncomfortable in writing about it autobiographically because to make it useful in any meaningful way I would have to reveal far more and discuss a whole set of choices and experiences that I have little desire to share with the HCI research community. Here’s my religious position, I have no strong position on the question of religion. Of course that’s very convenient because it fits nicely into a professional position—the type of distance is in line with ideas about how empirical science is conducted). Also in the absence of knowing far more, doesn’t seem to be helpful. It’s a nice way (of course) of saying “its complicated.”

And now when I read these autobiographical turns I find myself asking two questions: how is what you are telling me tied to the professional image that you are trying to project, and what is being omitted as a consequence.

How to Outwit Your Thermostat and Other Tales from the Future

In empirical, HCI, research on July 31, 2012 at 8:33 am

Having lived with an Internet scale that will tweet my weight if I want (what planet did the designers inhabit before they moved to Earth) and mastered the art of not allowing it to do so, we are now experimenting with “smart thermostats”, i.e. the products from Nest. Let me say from the outset that I’m very excited about these. They look beautiful. Gone is the old white thermostat with its “I’m an 80’s calculator, or perhaps even a wrist watch” interface. This has a turning dial, it’s smooth, it glows blue when cooling and red when heating. It also tracks our energy usage, so I can see how many hours a day we are cooling our house. Also because its connected to the Internet it knows how hot it is in Atlanta and uses that to infer whether we’ve possibly used more energy to cool today because the weather has been warmer.

So that’s all working very well.

What has been more interesting is that the Nest is trying to generate an automatic schedule for us. What I mean is that based on the way we set it when we am here, the Nest has been building up a data corpus that it’s now using to control the settings in the house, including settings for when it thinks we are away. You can turn this feature off, but we thought it would be interesting to experiment with it.

This works well when we are on a regular schedule, but the summer for academics is not always routine. So a new feature for me is when I am home trying to pretend, at least to my thermostats, that I am still away. One way they detect that I am home is through movement, so I have found myself in the bizarre situation of attempting to sneak past my thermostat in order to get somewhere without it knowing. I’ve been mostly successful.

I also find myself thinking “what are my thermostats doing?” I hope that this will wear off with time, but while they are still learning I wonder what they are getting up to at home while I am away. Fortunately Nest has an account, you can log on, download the iPhone/iPad apps and while away those boring moments in meetings by checking in on your thermostats. I’ve had to turn mine up and down several times, especially in the early phases when they didn’t understand my schedule. I have a thought for a really good rouse which is to set the temperature on someone while they are at home. Do I think that the Home Office is set too low by its current occupant, now I am empowered to change it on them. Bhwaa haa haa…

I’m pretty happy with the Nests, I’m enjoying learning more about my energy usage (although since I can’t compare it with, say my neighbors, I’m not sure whether I’m doing better or worse than others). But, I am reminded about how with each innovation in home automation, so I’m adding another little to-do into my life. So, I’m balancing its sensible aspects and adapting some of my behaviours (like sneaking about my house) in order for it to make sense of the routines I want it to know about, not the ones I don’t.

HCI Challenge Three

In academia, computer science, discipline, HCI, research on July 29, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Recently I wrote a post about top challenges in HCI. I had been asked by someone to list the top three challenges in HCI. Mine are about the field as a whole, and a reflection on the field, which I think is broad in both theory and problem domain.

I could only come up with two challenges at the time, but I have a third to add. Keeping up with it all. I suspect that this is not a problem unique to HCI. Keeping current with the literature is a significant challenge. There are a profusion of conferences and journals in my field, and due to search engines like Google Scholar and repositories that synthesize collections such as the ACM’s Digital Library (which keeps it’s own materials but also makes available other publishers), it’s relatively easy to end up even after a short search with enough materials to last the year of reading.

In HCI there’s also the challenge of doing the reading in order to be able to understand the readings. This is related to the first challenge. In a field that is theoretically diverse, sometimes it’s not possible to get the full import of the paper without reading some of the related background theoretical pieces. And so another package arrives from Amazon of things to read.

So challenge three, keeping up with it all.

I’m curious, what are your top challenges in HCI?

Top Challenges in HCI

In academia, computer science, discipline, HCI on July 24, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Recently I was asked what the top three challenges are in HCI. At the same time I was reading Yvonne Rogers’ new book on theory in HCI (and revisiting Harrison, Sengers, and Tatar). It was an interesting time to be asked that question given my reading choices at the time.

I’ve wanted to—although since it’s the summer, time for academics to work on research—survey my HCI colleagues at Georgia Tech, what would we write as our top three challenges. I suspect we’d pick different challenges. And perhaps that’s OK, since we are working on different things and our challenges represent our orientations.

But the question was: what are the top three challenges in HCI and not “what are the top three challenges in your area of research” (at least that’s what I thought I heard)? So, what then was I to answer.

Challenge one: there’s no common core in HCI? (I use a question mark because I am not sure that that’s a problem). The theoretical plurality within HCI allows a variety of research questions to be pursued following a vast number of methods, and with answers that have very different beliefs about knowledge embedded within them. On the other hand, I suspect that some theories have established a stronger voice at the table than others. Are there actually theoretical sub-specialities within HCI?

Challenge two: what are the boundaries of HCI? (Again a problem?) Asked another way, what is not legitimate to study under the banner of HCI? One way I think about this is that HCI has followed computers as they left the military and large corporations into the hands of users wherever they are located and whatever they happen to be doing. That’s likely not the right set of ways to carve the boundaries, so then in what way should we cut them up?

So I am not sure that either of these are problems perse, but it does seem to me that its a very interesting time to be in HCI, whatever that is.

Lana Yarosh is Right: Being Happy in Graduate School

In academia, computer science, discipline, HCI, research on July 23, 2012 at 11:19 am

Lana’s written a great post on being happy in graduate school. I’m glad she’s written it and one of the reasons I wanted to share it was because I think its great advice. I also wanted to comment on negotiating with her advisor on work-life balance. Takes courage. As an advisor sometimes I’ve tried to front load these conversations. A wedding is an obvious example where you can tell that the work-life balance is going to change, at least temporarily. I’ve tried to be upfront about recognizing that. I don’t know whether it has ever come off as seeming like I’m crossing the professional-personal boundary, but my only intent was to reduce the complexity of asking the advisor for “time off” since I know its harder for a graduate student to ask their advisor the same question.

I’d take other approaches to solving the difficulty of approaching the advisor about work-life balance questions, but that’s the one I’ve settled on, at least for those sorts of events.

A community for HCID/4D

In discipline, HCI, ICT4D, research on May 30, 2012 at 1:12 pm

I had a number of conversations with people about my last post on HCI4D (for those of you who didn’t read it it was a short reflection on the role that the 4 plays in ICT4D and its implications for HCID/HCI4D). I’d like to begin by thanking everyone who wrote to me and engaged me in these discussions, as usual I learnt a lot. And this post is a reflection of some of what I learnt, and some thoughts about what I think might be done.

I learnt that there has been some discussion about forming a community (a la UIST and CSCW) within SIGCHI focused on HCI4D. As part of that the name was discussed. Several things about it, including the term Development and the question of its relationship to HCI. I will try to summarize the debates as I understand them. Development is a concept with a long, complicated, and problematic history. Development for who, by whom, how, with what objective (asking any of these questions when faced with the term development gets at some of the issues). The relationship concern is about what it means to separate (which a community does, in a way—it marks a set of things as being some how of the same and different from others) HCI4D from HCI. Also there are definitional boundary challenges, what is the set. For example, as I have mentioned before, I still find it strange that ICTD can only happen some countries and not others.

These are real concerns. And I wonder whether rather than engaging them as a set of things that make the formation of a community complicated, they might be precisely the reasons to create a community.

As I understand it communities are organizational tools. They support the growth and awareness of a collection of concerns. And HCI4D is a really interesting space to discuss the types of issues that the very discussions about its name have raised. Development is a complicated term historically and that history has impact on what we do in contemporary practice. But it doesn’t mean that contemporary practice shouldn’t be explored and its lessons understood, and used to reflect back onto Development (and whether indeed what is being done qualifies or whether the agenda is different, and whose agenda it is, and the role of location, partnerships and so forth). A community could give Development a central place in their agenda.

Concerning the relational boundaries, I also think that the value a community could bring is through reflection on why the distinction was drawn, whether its the right distinction, and so forth. In other words use the feeling that it is complicated to split whatever it is we do into HCI and HCID/4D as a point of reflection on what are attempting to accomplish, or how it might have arisen. One thing that seems different to me is failure. There seems a lot more willingness to discuss failures in the HCID/4D context. Is that because there are more of them? Or has HCI constructed a discipline in which failure is not a learning opportunity but a paper that was not able to be published? I think another lesson that might come out of comparing the two is methodological, I think some of the methods that we’ve developed in HCI do not import straightforwardly into HCID/4D, but they were never described as having limitations.

Finally, I think the project of examining the constituencies served by HCI could be done through HCI4D. Its presence suggests that HCI has focused on a subset of people (hence the problems with methods). But it makes it more visible. In the end I think a regional grouping of people is tricky and will be tricky for ICTD/HCID also. However, I think a community makes it more visible, and opens it up for discussion, and I feel that that is something worth discussing.

I suppose what I am saying in a rather clumsy way is that its the very concerns about HCID/4D that I think make it interesting to create community around. Not a community that is awkward about their presence, but uses these challenges as motivating concerns for reflection and discussion.


In discipline, HCI, ICT4D, research on May 24, 2012 at 11:05 am

One of the many things I’ve learnt as I have learnt more about ICTD is that there is an intentionality to the presence of the 4 in some of the formulations of the name. In other words, Information and Communications Technologies and Development is different from Information and Communications for Development. And its not just difference in words, the choice means something.

Information and Communications Technologies and Development concerns the relationship between technologies (whether in use, or being built) and development. By contrast, Information and Communications Technologies for Development is the study of what should be done and how it should be done. It ties research to the practice and takes a stronger moral stand about the outcome, that something should actually happen.

I like this because of the degree of intentionality it gives to the process of doing research and its outcomes for the people who participate in that work. Of course you can see the same type of intentionally in participatory design, action research and in some of the recent discussions about Value Sensitive Design. But the intentionality is tied to the methods used, its about the discipline itself, the corpus of knowledge and the common shared values of the community.

In HCI the term HCI4D has been gaining increasing traction—I have not seen the term HCID in use—but perhaps its time to have the same type of discussion about whether we are for or and. And this discussion would happen at an interesting time in HCI, as I have heard other discussions about whether there is a common core in the field, and if so what it is that unites the collection of very diverse activities in HCI.

CHI 2012: Reviewing

In academia, discipline, empirical, HCI, research on May 15, 2012 at 10:07 am

I attended a few sessions devoted to discussing reviewing for CHI.

In the end I feel that there are two “camps” of ideas for improving the reviewing process and I do not think that they are reconcilable.

One set of suggestions I heard was to conduct experiments with papers and reviews. Several were mentioned. For example, take papers and their reviews and then have other people review them and see whether you can come up with same set of reviews. Another set of thoughts are around the generation of reviewing metrics. Metrics about how long a reviewers review is, how timely they are, and so on and so forth with the goal of creating a record of their behavior that can be used in the future to assess their reviewing ability. Behind these, and other experiments, seems to me at least to be a firm belief that reviewing should be treated as a quantifiable science.

But, then there are counter arguments.

For example, Danyel Fisher made the very astute observation that averages are a relatively meaningless concept in reviewing, even though we make use of them. As he put it, a score of 3 is not the same as a score of 5 and another score of 1. But when we average that’s what we turn those scores into. And he made me reflect on how we can and do talk about the scores in this way…

Jeffrey Bardzell makes an equally compelling case that reviewing is not a science with a comprehensive and  fantastic series of articles (1,2, and 3) in which he argues that it is a process of providing expert judgement. Danyel and Jeff are both, in my mind, getting at the same thing, which is that reviewing is a subjective act, based on expertise and such both its processes and its outputs should be understood and treated in such terms.

And it doesn’t stop with reviewers and ACs. Being a Program Chair is also a matter of expert judgement—one of assigning papers to AC’s and reviewers. Making decisions about how to compose the program committee are all not matters of science but of judgement.

I think the reviewing as science model is doomed to failure, and along the way it will create more work for everyone involved as we try to pursue a set of metrics that do not accurately characterize the work that we do, but become a substitute for it, with all the problems that that can bring. I think we need to take up more seriously the question about how we come to think of ourselves and practice a critical review practice based on a belief that we are experts not participating in a scientific process and what it means to handle not just the process but its products in those ways.