Positioning and seamful design

Åsa Rudström, Kristina Höök and Martin Svensson (2005). Social positioning: Designing the Seams between Social, Physical and Digital Space. In 1st International Conference on Online Communities and Social Computing, at HCII 2005, 24-27 July 2005, Las Vegas, USA., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates The paper is in the "seamful design"/seamfuless trend in HCI (introduced by Weiser (1991) and has been further developed by Chalmers and Galani (2004) and by Chalmers, Dieberger, Höök & Rudström (2004)): getting away from a seamless vision of computation, and rather taking advantage of seams (connections, gaps, overlays and mismatches) in design. This is so important considering the chaotic and unexpectability of the physical world:

Most developers and researchers of mobile services make the assumption that users should never have to worry about when and how they are connected to the digital space. (...) But reality is and will continue to be less than perfect (...) Seamless design aims to hide what is perceived as unnecessary technical details from users. However, if these technicalities affect the functionality of a service, an alternative would be to carefully design features that enable users to visualise, understand and possibly take advantage of differences and variations in functionality or accessibility: seamful designs. An example of a successful, unobtrusive design of a “seam” is the visualisation of signal strength available on mobile phones. This visualisation is not strictly necessary – the user will be aware of signal strength anyway, since it affects the quality of the connection. However, without much explanation it becomes a tool that allows users to search for locations with better signal strength in areas with low coverage. It may also educate users in understanding of where connections could be expected to be stronger (close to a window) or weaker (in a tunnel).

What is interesting here is the idea of using seams visualization to "educate" the user and as a consequence to modify its behavior accordingly to better use the tool. This is the simplest example we also encounter in CatchBob when user moves around to find a connection to the network.

Another part of the article which is very relevant for my research is when they address seamful design about "the quest for perfect positioning". They account that "Positioning is another area where the mobile industry – and much research – strives for perfection". Based on the study of GeoNotes (a place-based annotation system allowing users to attach digital “Post-it” notes to physical locations), they showed that "Positioning offered by technology often does not correspond to the positions people want to refer to".:

GeoNotes used a WLAN network that technically speaking offered notes to be posted at each WLAN hotspot. However, hotspot coverage corresponds very poorly with the buildings, rooms and other places where users move about. Instead of providing lists of places where notes could be attached, GeoNotes users were allowed to themselves name the places where they wanted to attach their notes.

In a one-month field test with 78 users, seams between the underlying hotspot model and the user perceived model of how places should be named were elegantly handled by the users (Fagerberg, Espinoza & Persson, 2003). Place labels were created by the end-users to post notes at places that covered smaller areas than the positioning system could handle, such as “the sofa” or somewhat more esoteric “the lecturer’s forehead”. (...) By not forcing any official labelling system upon GeoNotes users, they were set free to explore the relation between hotspot coverage and perceived places – thus dynamici.e., the intermedia seam between the digital and the physical.

Why do I blog this? What I like is this idea of challenging one of the trend in the mobile research and industry: the striving for seamless, continuous connection and for perfect positioning. This is perfectly in line with what I am working on (showing how human agency is important in mutual-location awareness). I also like this idea that "Positioning offered by technology often does not correspond to the positions people want to refer to"; what I am interested in is not to reveal messages' positions as in GeoNotes but rather people's location in real-time. What happen when you have this sort of service? Does that make sense? Judging from the CatchBob! experiment, people not always benefit from that information (in terms of performance or socio-cognitive processes) but they manage to notice the flaws (which is what fabien is looking at).

Besides, their short literature review of location-based applications is a good summary of what happened in the last 5 years.