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HCI 2003 Designing for Society, University of Bath, Bath

From the 8th till the 12th of September 2003 i attended the annual HCI Conference organised by
members of the British HCI Group (of which i am a member) and the University of Bath.
The motto of the event was "Designing for Society".

The Bath Uni campus is located outside the city and its architecture resembles essential attributes of that of soviet fast breed reactors of the seventies. Assumptions that its a fast breeder for students couldn't be verified.

Nevertheless it was a very convenient location and with recent changes like a duckpond, lots of lawn and landscape architecture it seems like a beautiful place to work, study and hold conferences.

I was particularly interested in a workshop introducing Activity Theory as a useful
tool to describe interactive artefacts:
(Activity Theory here functions as the background model for usage and consists of Activity (e.g. writing), Action (e.g. writing) and Operation (e.g purpose).)

"Genres, use qualities, and interactive artefacts" lasted a full day
and was held be Jonas Lundberg, Mattias Arvola from Linköping University, Sweden.

We where 5 participants, including the two organisers, altogether, so there was sufficient time for questions and explanations.
The workshop had the aim of introducing the participants to the use of Genre Analysis which should help to structure use qualities of artefacts.
After an exercise of defining attributes to a collection of webpages , we made presentations of our artefacts and tried to find or develop genres for it.

Unfortunately this only works with artefacts that have a "real world" counterpart or "similar artefact in a different genre".
This method results in a very flexible system with little robustness and doing such, the flexibility becoming its weakness,
making results seem arbitrary and ambiguous. IMHO

In some cases one may have to create a new genre and define its categories (qualities) requiring that one
has to be aware of the expected outcome. This isn't very helpful when you are dealing with an "interactive artefact" that doesn't have similar genres. However, it seems to be useful in describing things that do exist.
We created a poster from the material and a three page summary.

Use Quality & Genre Analysis

I presented "bitsnpeople", as an example of "medial transformation" of data into an audio-visual installation.
Bits and People turned out to be a "group awareness display". (I could live with "actions monitor")

The Use qualities are:

Translucence (privacy / publicity)
Ambiguity / meaningfulness
Salient / non-intrusive
Simplicity / Clarity
Image presentation


Sound Interface
Form: visual:scale, audio: family of sounds e.g. mac sounds
Content: Abstract rather than concrete

Technical functionality:
Sensor technology
Multiple displays

The strength of Use Quality seems to lie rather in developing a vocabulary for distinct features of an interactive environment then in its usefulness in describing the qualities itself.

The paper is a 1.1MB .doc and i would be glad to send it to you. They are also describing a Cd-Rom interface with their method.


Usually there where 4 Panels/Lectures at a time going on, of which participants had to choose,
which wasn't easy as the titles mostly sounded sexy and very promising.

The day started with a "Use Quality & Genre Analysis" Paper. (Input above.)

Attended BENOGO, a phenomenological study of two places which was interesting because of the use of qualitative data. People describe places with 80% visual clues, then comes smell, humidity and touch, temperature etc.. People hear and see things that aren't there! Learned that there are "placeless places" like McDonalds, that become only "Places" when visited more often or for employees.

Session Task Analysis 1

A session about Task Analysis, which is functional and best used in applications that have a goal, that is to be reached by tasks.
(I wonder how this relates to my work, where there are no tasks, and the interface is no WIMP but a "natural interface" as some call it.)
I learned that i would stress the concept too much to apply it upon an explorative and experiential environment.
Task Analysis is used to ANALYSE software evaluation ("analyse software evaluation" is what he said! Shouldn't it be called "analyse software performance"?).

Session Task Analysis 2

Afterwards a Panel discussion with a wider view of Task Analysis that began at the bottom by defining what a Task was:
Dan Diaper: "Tasks are the way work (creation*) is performed." Besides i learned that "it doesn't matter if the analysis is wrong, because somehow it's going to work anyway." Sounds strange, but made sense in the context. Very comforting.
"Only skilled behaviour is really task oriented". Our tasks are nested and in everyday life people actually succeed when they INGORE their tasks. There is no monomethodological solution - one has to bring in common sense.
* added by me

Presentation of different approaches of websites compatible with PDAs.
The Group from Cambridge included Zoom functions into their PDAs and their research project was presented.
"To measure how intuitive an interface is, never give instructions."
People expect from a website: Where am I?, Where can I go?, Where have I been?
(Thats exactely the fact with classical Navigation or Cybernetics. Fuller and Förster would have been delighted. Ask Dava Sobel.)


Ethnography (i went there to hear Gloriana Davenport, but she didn't appear.)
- is a method for studying people in their own setting
- is fieldwork
- is more and more common

What i didn't understand was if you do the "fieldwork" BEFORE you make a product, or later when everything has gone wrong?


"Its not what you don't know that is dangerous, but what you do know - and thats not so!"

Several times i recognised the term "grained" or "engrainded" used to describe elements of functionalities of an application. Hadn't heard it before.

Sometimes it described the visual representation sometimes the underlying function(s).
It looks as if the term "element" has so many different connotations now, that HCI had to find a new term to describe something small that is part of something bigger. Please correct me if i am wrong.
Maybe "grained" rather refers to the "size" of something then to its "gestalt" properties (meaning that it many of it create something new, and different than just the sum of the parts).
I don't have a "feeling" for the term, but i like it.

I had taken the new Canon digital video camera with me, that has a function to take "still images".
If you take a picture it produces the pre-recorded sound of a reflex camera.
Unsurprisingly it is possible to turn this sound off, which you can't on a "real" reflex camera.
What a strange thing to have!
Actually this sound is the result of the cameras functioning, its typical characteristic and distinctive "signature", that what used to make a camera a camera. Its essence and soul, so to say.
Now, as cameras don't have moving parts any more, people miss the acoustic feedback, that is expected from the interface - and so it is just artificially added!
Suddenly the essence, turns from the norm to an unwanted side-effecct and later becomes a (value added) "feature".
Thats Zombies on Hoverboards.
As if modern electric trains imitated the sound of a steam engine, turning the whole concept of evolution upside down.
OK, i got carried away a bit.


The closing panel discussion struggled to answer questions about the future of research, gesture recognition, "invisible" computers, what good practice was and the difference between science and research.

Finally the presentation of Hiroshi Ishii was due:
Just returning from Ars Electronica he made some interesting remarks about projects that the CS community didn't take seriously, yet where enthusiastically perceived by the artist community: e.g. "ghostly presences" in the ambient room:
The new projects may be seen at

Very attractive is his concept of "ambient media", that are neither "push" nor "pull" but rather "passive" as clock on the wall, that gives you the info when you need it.
He calls it "ambient" which is a useful concept.

He recommended Mark Weisers Paper "Computers for the 21st century." which is to be found here:

Very interesting was his remark, that people, after having interacted with "tangible media", later started using objects like coffee cups and ashtrays to explain relationships or complex circumstances "offline". That refers very much to David Rokebys idea: “Exposure to technologies also changes the ways we think and talk about our experiences.”[1] and “If culture, in the context of interactive media becomes something we “do”, it’s the interface that defines how we do it and how the “doing” feels.”[1]

Which has been discovered by Nietzsche already who reflected about his relationship to his little typewriter.

Ishii gave his usual professional, relaxed and entertaining presentation. Rattling down the usual cutting edge, ubicomp pop-talk buzzwords. The audience was completely taken, inspired and enchanted and not far from a standing ovation. Later several participants mentioned that this had been the best speech of the conference and a remarkable event in their lifes. I don't get it. Its the buzzwords you get at any Media Fetival or Interactive Art whatever.

This made me realise that most of us (speaking as a member of BHCI) People must belong to a society with rather hermetic & esoteric traditions to not be aware of topics such as this, that are popular culture out there - and may be so easily impressed. The speech was ok - the projects amazing, yet often without any depth or second thought. Like the musical bottles, they are nice in a demo - but would drive you absolutely crazy in real life within minutes. Should i go on?

Overall it was an exciting event that made me realise three things:
- It brought me a clearer idea/view where my position in the field of PhDs and "digital media design" lays.
- I realised i am not making a PhD in computer sciences!
- I have to boil down the information i want to communicate with my work (practice based & theoretical) into a few, simpler & basic concepts.

As usual the people at the conference where very interesting and i expect to have some longlasting contacts with researchers that work in my field. I had good contacts with the other research students, although i wasn't in the doctoral consortium. Bought some books recommended by them. Phenemenology.

[1] Rokeby, David (1998), “The Construction of Experience” in “Digital Illusion: Entertaining the Future with High Technology”. Clark Dodsworth, Jr., Contributing Editor, Addison-Wesley

Genre & Use Quality Workshop (149.6 KB)

last update: 8/11/02013 22:26

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