Location matters but... some questions raised by location awareness of others in multi-user applications

Location matters but... some questions raised by location awareness of others The "where are you..." question that opens mobile phone conversation is both a common social norm but also an example of how spatial information are important. Asking or giving one’s physical location can be helpful to ground information like conversionalists’ availability (with regard to a social context) or to support coordination of activities (e.g. knowing what others do or did).

Location-based services eases this process of knowing the others location, be it spatial coordinates, a place or a context. Among all of those services, one of the most obvious feature behind LBS is positioning and tracking of individuals. This kind of application is used in various context (ranging from family management to dispatched workers coordination)

Apart from individual applications of LBS, there is now a strong trend in the collaborative usage of geolocation services. For instance, location-specific annotations applications (like Urban Tapestries) allow people to drop annotations at a certain spatial position at a specific location with a mobile device or a through the web (and then the messages can be accessed indepently from the platforms). Other applications allows users who pass in the vicinity of a location can then read the messages and answers; giving them a feeling of re-appropriating the city. Also, location-tracking applications also received a lot of attention (see for instance how Dodgeball has been bought by Google but there are plenty of others). Now the field is know as "Mobile Social Software" (or MoSoSo).

That said, there seems to be a conspicuous lack of user-centered design in location-based services. User's context is often not taken into account, and designers frenziness to push for automatic positioning or complex features often leads to poor scenarios as Russell pointed out some time ago. What is missing is not the technology, of course there are lots of clever positionning techniques (GPS/WiFi triangulation/RFIDs/TV waves...) but rather a scenario that fits to users' needs and their context.

For instance, one of the crux issue in location-awareness usage is the necessity of automating the positionning mechanism versus letting users disclose their own positions. At our lab, we investigated those issues using various field experiments. We use a pervasive game as an alibi to test different interfaces. The game engaged players in a collaborative treasure hunt where they could communicate using an application running on a TabletPC. The application shows the field map as well as annotation sent by the participants. In one set of experiments, two kinds of interfaces have been tested: in one case, we provided the user with an automatic location-awareness tool (the position of their partners is displayed on the screen). In another case, players just see their own character as an avatar on the campus map without their partners’ position.

Automatically displaying the position of the partners on the interface did not change the groups’ performance. However not giving the partner’s positions led players to communicate more, expliciting a lot of their strategy. In addition, another side effect of being not aware of the partners’ positions is that users better modified and reshaped their strategy over time. Therefore collaboration was enriched by the absence of this location awareness tool. It appears that it was better to provide users with a broader channel of communication that would allow them to express what they want or find relevant. The results of this experiment show that automatic positioning prevented users from engaging into rich collaboration. Giving them the possibility to embed location cues with other kind of information like map annotations appeared to be a good solution to support collaborative processes like communication or strategy discussions. This is the reason why I put the emphasis on the idea that location matters but designers should keep in mind that automatic positioning is just sharing information whereas self-declared positioning is both an information and a communication act. Sending one’s position to the partners is indeed at the same time a way to make manifest a fact that the player estimated as being relevant for the activity. This is consistent with other user experience researches, see for instance what Benford and his team. They found that letting users manually reveal their positions was also good way to get rid of location awareness discrepancies (due to unreliable network, latency, bandwidth, security, unstable topology, or network homogeneity).

This post is part of the Carnival of the Mobilists XVI.