User Experience session at LIFT08

Tried to gather my notes from the User Experience session from LIFT08. When I started on the program back in spring 2007, this topic was really the one where I had not doubts about its relevance to the LIFT community and I had already in mind the 3 speakers I wanted to have for that. Younghee Jung (Nokia) Genevieve Bell (Intel) and Paul Dourish (University of California Irvine) appeared to me as a great match and surely because I am reading/following what these researchers are doing.

Younghee Jung, a user experience researcher from Nokia started off the session by describing a sort of "competition" to design mobile phone with 3 communities living in shanty towns in Mumba, Rio and Accra. People were indeed invited to design their ideal mobile technology. Youghee interestingly presented some of ideas and stories they gathered and how they are used to complement other ethnographic research methods are discussed. The process was very similar in the 3 different places: people received an A3 document with the participant description and some left space to draw the desired phone design. These drawings have been employed by Nokia local teams to discuss phone design with the competition participants. What was interesting there was that such process is meant to uncover specific needs of certain target-groups. Lots of the examples she presented shows how the phone is expected to be able to adapt to the environment as well as local culture issues (such as noise, refugee dispersion, etc.). As last year with Jan Chipchase's presentation, that one was very insightful in terms of how ethnographical methods can be fruitful for design research. Of course, the trickiest part lies in what comes next and how these elements can be fed back into Nokia's design process, something that is always less known and discussed.

The next presenter was Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist who works for Intel Research in Portland, USA. In her own words, her job is "to know what people do with technology and why they care in a larger sense". The multi-site research she and her team conduct is meant to yield different sorts of results but she insisted on the fact that technology change faster than people and that although it is easy to believe that technology change all of us, the thing people care about and the thing people practice in their daily life transform far more slowly. Things that persists over time are;

"The desire for social connection (ie: family, kith and kin and community) The desire for meta-meaning making and participation (ie: spirituality, religion) Creative acts, and gifting (ie: making, sharing, creating experiences/objects/content etc) A good story (ie: a point of view, edited perspective, a channel) Keeping secrets & telling lies"

And it's precisely that last point that is the starting point of the talk. She quoted three data points about this topic: (1) 45 % of UK mobile phone owners admitted to having lied about their whereabouts by text message (2006 survey) (2) Cornell University study showed that 100% of US online daters lie about either their height or weight (3) James Katz says we are entering an "arms race of digital deception". And for every device that claims to purport to tell the truth (e.g. GPS), there is another service that allows to lie, deceit or create alibi. Her next argument about this was that there is a big gap between our cultural ideals (lie are bad things, secrets are seen as being good, as they allow to maintain trust) and our cultural practices (we tell lies all the time, 6-200 a day). And new ICTs manifest themselves in a very complicated space where there are already tensions between cultural ideas and practices (which are played out differently in different countries). But what are the relationships between technologies like the Internet and lies/secrets? Lies about location, context, intent, identity (physical appearance, aspirations, demographics, status and standing) are all possible, sometimes even required, on the internet (and through ICTS). For example there is a surprising % of MySpace users over 100 (because MySpace restricts access to 14 years and up) so the process of participation itself is a lie! Are ICTs (and applications and services) succeeding in part because they facilitate our lying ways? or because lies/secrets are necessary to keep us ‘safe’? Israeli researchers find that online deception appears to be an enjoyable activity and guilt, fear, shame are largely absent (as opposed to face 2 face situations). Therefore, technologies may celebrate secrets and lies: see for example secret sharing websites (such as that one) and social networking sites (including twitter) make some forms of confabulation into art. She noted how this reveal the re-emergence of the social lie of the 18-19th century. Technologies also enable to uncover deception through cell-phone tracking technology, use of video & camera phones, lie-detection algorithms (on email/SMS: the longer the message, the bigger the lie), alibi services that create whole back stories (plus receipts, photos, notes...). She also interestingly quoted a korean kid tracked by her parents through GPS: "I feel sorry for my peers who don't have a GPS tracker because means that they my parents love my more!": an inversion of what people imagine about surveillance, a sort of cultural reconfiguration. In sum, she presented arguments to show how tensions between cultural practices and cultural ideals persist around lies and secrets; and how the ideas of secrets & lies offer new ways to think about privacy and security.

Final speaker was Paul Dourish discussed the relationship between ethnography and design: not simply what we could learn from ethnography but how we might want, in a technological context, imagine the relationship between ethnographic work and design practices. There is indeed a 10-15 years interest in ethnography from design community and the question of how this work can teach us is not really addressed. 2 years ago, he criticized the "implications for design" sections in research reports to state how the presence or absence of this bullet point listed at the end of reports is not the best measures of the usefulness of ethnographic work. To Paul, there might be other kind of material that can be extracted and generative of design practice. There is something missed in this when you use ethnography to define what feature you may build or what you can get people to buy. The two large previous presentations have shown that it is richer. Ethnography is an analytical practice, not only a empirical one, not simply a way to gather data and it's a way to know what matter to people and build a series of theoretical statements. He showed how we miss also a series of disciplinary power relationships: as there is the question to ethnographer about "what are the implications for design", we should also have computer scientists standing and discuss what are the implications of their work for social sciences theories. Of course, he did not want to mean that ethnographic results are not relevant and tried to show some of the way we can pick upon the fact that classical ethnography are relevant, especially in the context of mobility... symbolic considerations about mobility, presence, absence. What I found interesting here is that he presented an alternative way to link ethnographic practice to design practice, one that does look towards ethnography as a way to directly generate a series of implications for design or marketing data that tells me about the people how we'll be able to see stuff to but rather the focus is on the analytic contribution ethnographic work mix: the frames, concepts, the way in which things are put together, the ways we focus on forms of life life rather than typical consumers.