Sunday, November 23, 2008

Grand Challenge for HCI: Growing Ecologies of Interactive Artifacts

In a study from the Pew Institute we get numbers on things we all have suspected: people have problems setting up their new technological artifacts. The study shows that:

"Some 48% of technology users usually need help from others to set up new devices or to show them how they function. Many tech users encounter problems with their cell phones, internet connections, and other gadgets. This, in turn, often leads to impatience and frustration as they try to get them fixed."

There are other interesting numbers in this report, numbers that should make all interaction designers around the world embarrassed. Numbers that show that there are a lot of angry and tired “users” out there. This is a sign of something we could label as a Grand Challenge for HCI and interaction design.

There are of course several explanations to this growing problem. One is that technological things are getting more complex. There is a desire from producers to cover many and diverse contexts, therefore they make the artifacts possible to adapt and tailor to specific and particular contextual and user needs and constraints. Even if this is made in an attempt to make artifacts more user oriented, it seems to lead to long and complex set up procedures that cause a lot a problems for users. Another explanation is that we are entering the age of artifacts networks. An individual user lives today with a large number of artifacts that all can or need to be coordinated and to communicate.

I am leading a research group where we study how people create, organize, strategize and think about their own personal interactive artifact networks. We are doing this by approaching the networks as “ecologies of artifacts” which gives a lot of metaphorical ideas around how artifacts are part of an ecology, how they compete for attention and survival. It is an environment of such complexity that it can (has to) be seen and understood as a “living” environment. We have lately published some papers on this and also designed and built an ecology of artifacts mapping tool.

This is fascinating research, not dealt with in traditional HCI. We are moving into a world where a growing number of things around us are becoming interactive. When all these things communicate and collaborate the complexity grows infinitely. We need new theories and approaches on how to udnerstand these environments and how to design artifacts that "fit" into these ecologies. If we could do that better, we would reduce the "set up" time and effort which would make people less stressed. My prediction is however that we are at the moment moving in the opposite direction. Interactive artifacts are not designed for the ecology of artifacts and hense causing enormous problems for people who try to create their own ecology of artifacts in their own personal way.

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