Closer? Exploring a smart domestic technology to support interpersonal connectedness over distance

December 27th, 2013

Earlier this year I finished the MSc (with Distinction ;-)  in Human-Computer Interaction with Ergonomics at UCL I’ve previously written about on this blog.

Below is the introduction to my dissertation. The full dissertation (pdf) is available from the UCL Interaction Centre website.

Motivation
Connectedness, the subjective experience of interpersonal closeness (Lee & Robbins, 2000), is a fundamental need for human well-being (Smith & Mackie, 2007; Townsend & McWhirter, 2005 1. The need can be especially salient in relation to partners and close family members (Lindley, 2011; Neustaedter, Harrison & Sellen, 2013). Since connectedness is closely related to physical presence (Dey & De Guzman, 2006; Rettie, 2003), maintaining it over geographical distance can be a challenge. In an exploratory study of communication patterns of close family members living apart, we found indications of connectedness dipping between regular communications, resulting in feelings of anxiety and loss (Stawarz et al., 2012).

The Information Age and ubiquitous computing has brought a host of supplementary technologies to support interpersonal communication over distance. Voice calls, video calls, email, SMS, instant messaging, social network sites, and smart phone games offer a range of possibilities for staying in touch with our loved ones. Yet it seems they don’t meet our need for connectedness.

Kuwabara et al. (2002) offer a possible explanation for this. They argue that current communication technologies are content-oriented, focused on precisely transmitting explicit content. However, in co-located relationships, implicit mood and presence cues help evoke and sustain a sense of connectedness (Kuwabara et al., 2002).

Studies exploring communication of mood cues (e.g. Boehner et al., 2007; Fagerberg, Ståhl & Höök, 2004) offer interesting possibilities for rich connectedness-oriented communication. However, indications suggest a simple representation of a loved one’s presence can in some instances be enough to create a sense of connectedness. In an ethnographic study of instant messaging use, Nardi, Whittaker, and Bradner (2000, p. 79) found participants occasionally monitored the contact list for online presence to “maintain a sense of connection”.

Research question
This study explores the experience of connectedness felt by individuals geographically separated from their partner, when adding automatically communicated remote presence information to an existing communication pattern.

We take a design-oriented research approach (Fallman, 2003), and explore the phenomenon through a dyadic remote presence indicator prototype – a tangible version of the online presence icon known from instant messaging systems – linking two physical locations. In particular, we seek to understand what qualities of the prototype support an evocation of connectedness.

The aim of the study is to generate insights, which can be used generatively when using the design strategy of remote presence awareness to design connectedness-oriented technology.

Read the full dissertation (pdf)

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Call for participants

June 6th, 2013

I’m currently writing the dissertation for a part-time MSc degree I’ve been doing for the last 3 years. The dissertation is exploring how we can use technology to feel closer to our loved ones (in this case either parent(s) or partner) when not living together.

As part of the project I’ve developed a prototype. The prototype consists of two cigar boxes connected via the internet. Each cigar box contains a motion detector and an LED light source. When one motion detector detects proximal motion, the LED in the other cigar box lights up and vice versa — think the green online status icon from Skype, but instead of indicating online presence the LED signals someone is present near the other cigar box.

prototype

Lit LED on cigar box showing someone is near the paired cigar box in your loved one’s home

Taking part in the study would entail you — and either your partner or your parent(s) who you’re not living with — living with the prototype for 4 weeks. The prototype is plugged directly into your router via ethernet and USB cables. If it’s better placed elsewhere in the home I can lend you an Apple Airport Express which can be plugged into a socket and join the WiFi network and the prototype can be plugged into that instead.

I would interview you — and the person(s) using the paired cigar box — before and after the four weeks. The first interview would be about current communication patterns and the second interview about your experience of living with the prototype.

For practical reasons I’m hoping to be able to find people who both live within reach of London. However, if you live in London and frequently travel to the other location it might work out anyway. If you take part you would have my eternal gratitude, and a token £25 voucher for amazon to show my appreciation.

Please do get in touch if you’d like to hear more.

Thanks!

 

Reflection on the taught part of UCL MSc Human-Computer Interaction with Ergonomics

April 30th, 2013

When I started this blog it was with the purpose of getting practice in writing as I had just been accepted for a place on the UCL MSc Human-Computer Interaction course. That is more than 3 years ago… I have now completed the taught part of the course and will hand in the dissertation later this year.

The course finished with a 2-week practical User-Centered Design project, followed by a 2000 word essay including a 1000-word reflection on the course as a whole.

Below is my reflection on the course, which I hope will be useful for people considering applying.

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Design and emotion (or One BHAG to rule them all)

May 5th, 2010

Last week I got a tweet from a friend with the following wording:

The fact that you can put the BBC player’s volume right up to 11 still makes me smile every time.1

The tweet immediately caught my eyes as a perfect example of many of the things I’ve been reading about lately concerning emotion and design.
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Identifying needs: Qualitative field research

March 29th, 2010

In the introduction to his book Designing Pleasurable Products Patrick Jordan writes:

Usability-based approaches 1 to product design tend to view people as users, while products are seen as tools with which these users complete tasks. Because of this usability approaches to user requirements specifications can be limited, tending to emphasize the practical aspects of interacting with products, while paying little attention to emotional or hedonic aspects of interaction.

This builds on Jane Fulton’s idea that simply eliminating deficiencies in products is no longer enough to satisfy users. Products must elicit positive emotions when experienced, both psychologically and physiologically, thus forming a powerful emotional attachment between the user and the product (Fulton 1993).
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User-centered interaction design life cycle model

February 3rd, 2010

I’m currently preparing for my MSc in Human-Computer Interaction with Ergonomics at UCL which I’ll begin in September. As I’m slowly working my way through the introductory reading list [pdf] I’ll create some posts here to help me organise and make sense of the information.

I’ll begin with the Interaction Design Lifecycle Model as described by Preece et al., 2002 in the book Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction. The model incorporates three principles of user-centered design and four activities of interaction design.

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Easy automated backup strategy

January 29th, 2010

During the last couple of years I have gradually moved towards a more digital lifestyle. It started when I replaced my SLR camera with a digital SLR. Later I ripped and properly tagged my entire cd collection in iTunes (weeks of work, and some learnings to share in a possible future post). With so much irreplaceable content and literally years of work it is paramount that I insure myself against loss of that data.

In an ideal world I would not have to spend any time thinking about backing up my data. Everything would be stored online ‘in the cloud’ and accesible for me from anywhere on any device that supported the data format. I would trust the companies storing the data not to lose it. I believe it will not be many years until this ideal scenario is reality, but in the meantime I need an easy and automated backup strategy. Easy in terms of time and complexity to set up and automated in terms of low to zero maintenance.

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Flexible working – Part-time roles and job-sharing.

January 26th, 2010

On Wednesday 20th January 2010 The Guardian came with a supplement focused on flexible working. It’s great to see an increased focus in mainstream media on the ways we organise our work lives.

My friend and former eBay colleague Azita Qadri is working with start-ups to find them high calibre part-time candidates. In 2007 she set up the company Eat Your Cake to help professional mothers balance their career and family by job-sharing. She has later specialised in part-time roles in start-ups. I did the logo development and branding for Eat Your Cake and designed and built the website. It is still one of the projects I’m most proud of.

Learn more about Eat Your Cake and how they can help you find a part-time role or job-share.

Download The Guardian “Flexible Working” supplement [pdf] from 20 January 2010