September 15, 2019

Formative Research. You really need to pay some attention and do your homework.



Whomever placed this sign covering a vacant storefront on the Las Vegas strip either chose to create an homage or did not confirm his death. Either choice seems nonsensical since Coleman would never play on the Strip nor would his name be recognized by anyone passing this sign. Ornette Coleman passed away in 2015. A Google search, informal interview with coworkers or a survey group would have prevented this from being produced.


This blog entry will discuss the following papers:

  1. Wobbrock and Kientz, 2016 Research contributions in human-computer interaction.
  2. Sohn et al. 2008, A diary study of mobile information needs.
  3. Gaver et al. 1999, Design: Cultural probes.
  4. Paulos and Jenkins 2005, Urban probes: encountering our emerging urban atmospheres.


I'm old school and subsequently dump the entire field of Human Computer Interaction into the category of Usability. This is very wrong and does a disservice to the topic as it encompasses far more than usability.


Research contributions in human-computer interaction

This paper by Wobbrock and Keintz provides an introduction to the depth of HCI.

From the paper: HCI is highly inter- and multidisciplinary. It is also young. It has taken a few decades for the types of knowledge in HCI to emerge, converge, and stabilize, and new ways of knowing still swirl about.

Some salient points and topics:

Many types of contributions can be made but forms of these contributions are limited.

Seven Research Contribution Types in HCI

  1. Empirical research contributions
    • Provides new knowledge through findings based on observation and data that may be qualitative or quantitative, aspiringly objective or unapologetically subjective, from the laboratory or from the field.
    • Empirical research contributions are evaluated mainly on the importance of their findings and on the soundness of their methods.
  2. Artifacts contributions
    • New knowledge is embedded in and manifested by artifacts and the supporting materials that describe them.
    • Empirical research contributions are evaluated mainly on the importance of their findings and on the soundness of their methods.
    • Artifacts, often prototypes, include new systems, architectures, tools, toolkits, techniques, sketches, mockups, and envisionments that reveal new possibilities, enable new explorations, facilitate new insights, or compel us to consider new possible futures.
    • They are often accompanied by empirical studies but do not have to be, and sometimes should not be.
  3. Methodological Contributions
    • Methodological research contributions are evaluated on the utility, reproducibility, reliability, and validity of the new method or method enhancement.
  4. Theoretical Contributions
    • Must be narrow in scope and providing new concepts, models or frameworks.
    • Theories may be qualitative or quantitative but should be testable and falsifiable that are  fully developed offering in depth explanatory accounts that explain why.
    • Theoretical research contributions are evaluated based on their novelty, soundness, and power to describe, predict, and explain.
    • They may have both descriptive and predictive power—by distilling the essential features of a phenomenon, they are also able to suggest how that phenomenon will behave.
  5.  Dataset Contributions
    • Ideally, a new and useful corpus whose characteristics have been analyzed and benchmark tested for standardized comparisons with a new methodological contribution to exercise the dataset.
  6. Survey Contributions
    • For mature topics that effectively and deeply organize the current state of research and present opportunities for additional research.
  7. Opinion Contributions
    • A separate research contribution type that is  a persuasive document intended to compel reflections, discussion and debate. 

All of the above should be acknowledged and followed when performing HCI research.


A Diary Study of mobile information needs.

Timothy Schon et al provide some additional light on the subject albeit 11 years ago but still presents some relevant points.

At the time of authorship, smart phones were still in their infancy and a 480x320 screen as found in the Apple iPhone 3g did not and could not reproduce a complete desktop user experience.

A quote from the paper: “I wish my mobile phone had a built in Superpages, so I don’t have to go to the web, launch Google, and type something in to an obscure system. I wish Superpages was integrated into the phone. Similar to how Google maps is integrated into my phone.”

Contemporary phones have resolutions up to 3840x2160 (like the Sony Xperia XZ2 Premium) and almost emulate all desktop browser functions.

Content-driven services which attempted to bridge this gap, such as GOOG-411, Microsoft Live Mobile, have gone the way of the dodo.

They gathered a relatively small sample of 20 people aged 19 to 58 to keep a diary for 2 weeks which generated 421 entries.

Salient points:

  1. Regardless of whether a need was addressed or not, our participants indicated whether they could have found the information by accessing a public, personal, or physical data source. A public data source can be accessed by anyone (e.g., the web). A personal data source is accessible only by that person (e.g., email, web history). A physical data source can only be accessed through physical methods and not electronically. Understanding which data sources are frequently helpful for addressing information needs can guide the development of further mobile technology.
  2. A person’s context significantly influences their information needs. 72% of diary entries involved information needs that were triggered by context. As we discussed earlier, the contexts included activity, time, location, and conversations. Designing technology that considers these aspects of context could aid in providing people the information they want at the “right” time and in a form appropriate to the current context.
  3. 2008 cellphone technology severely limited the mobile user experience.
  4. People had devised means to work around the limitations but none could be easily contextualized into a new interface.

Design: Cultural Probes

It is essential to understand local culture when designing a product.

One way to learn of a culture is to request varying forms of information from the target audience. This paper describes the use of a cultural probe package that requested the users to take photographs, answer questions and provoke insparational responses from elderly people in diverse communities. This was the result of an EU funded project that was exploring technologies to increase the presence of the elderly in their local communities.

Design as research: concentrate on aesthetic control, the cultural implications of our designs, and ways to open new spaces for design.

The focus was not on commercial products, but on new understandings of technology.

Instead of designing solutions for user needs, then, we work to provide opportunities to discover new pleasures, new forms of sociability, and new cultural forms.

A particularly important gap for is to bridge the generational gap implied by designing for another age group. in this case, the elderly.

View aesthetic and conceptual pleasure as a right rather than a luxury.

We used other techniques from groups such as Dada, the Surrealists, and more contemporary artists in the probes as well. They incorporated elements of collage, in which juxtaposed images open new and provocative spaces, and of borrowing and subverting the visual and textual languages of advertisements, postcards, and other elements of commercial culture. Finally, we tried to use, judiciously, tactics of ambiguity, absurdity, and mystery throughout, as a way of provoking new perspectives on everyday life. Launching the Probes We gave the probes to members of the elder groups in a series of meetings at the local sites, like the one described in the beginning of this paper. We did not describe every item, but instead introduced the types of things they would find. We wanted them to be surprised as they returned to the packages over the following weeks.

The probes were not designed to be analyzed, nor summarized to what they revealed. Rather, the design proposals produced reflected what was learned from the materials.

Cultural probes could be adapted to a wide variety of similar design projects.


Urban Probes: Encountering Our Emerging Urban Atmospheres

This paper presented some interesting concepts that are directly quoted below.

The overall research goal of Urban Probes is to understand how our future fabric of digital and wireless computing will influence, disrupt, expand, and be integrated into the social patterns existent within our public urban landscapes.

Contrary to traditional methodologies surrounding large scale research projects, each Urban Probe is designed to bypass many classical design approaches – opting instead for rapid, nimble, often intentional encroachments on urban places rather than following a series of typical design iteration cycles.

Observation (Body Storming)

Body storming consists of examining public spaces, its people, movement, and actions in extreme detail. By enforcing deep, extreme observation of a particular urban activity, object, or place, a ore authentic understanding of its true role within urban life is revealed.


Urban Probes explicitly encourage direct interventions into the authentic fabric of urban life. Just as an archaeologist must excavate and alter a dig site to improve their view of the space, Urban robes must directly intervene to alter and/or disrupt the usage, actions, or flow within the urban focus of attention. Examples may include arranging public chairs in new patterns on city streets, placing flowers atop parking meters, chalking lines between the locations of discarded cigarettes, introducing new signs and billboards, or leaving and tracking “lost” cigarette lighters throughout the city While these actions may appear random and ill founded within the scope of urban computing, we argue that these physical interventions deepen a researcher’s connection to urban objects, places and activities. In turn this accelerates the deconstruction and understanding of the essence of urban life, improves design outcomes, and promotes the emergence of fascinatingly novel ideas.


Artifact Production

An important aspect of Urban Probes is the creation of real semi-functional artifacts to introduce into an environment. Rather than designed to blend into the landscape, Urban Probe artifacts are designed to elicit direct reaction and promote immediate discussion about them.

Deployment and Reaction
The final stage of an Urban Probe is the actual introduction of the artifact into an urban landscape. Observation is important at this stage in gauging the reaction and interaction of people and place
with the new artifact.

Archaeology of Public Urban Trash

Often ignored or regarded as disgusting, our urban trash reveals fascinatingly rich details of urban life. Archaeologists have long known that amazingly detailed images of life within an ancient civilization can be revealed by examining its trash. While Americans report their “real” dietary patterns in surveys and interviews, the truth is actually revealed by examining the rubbish they leave behind.


  • Reveal the patterns of usage and flows surrounding trash and trashcans in the city
  • Challenge assumptions about the use of trashcans
  • Gain qualitative insights into urban trash and its connection to everyday stories of people and place


Our intervention step of the Urban Probe involved strategically placing our own “trash” or traces of people across the city. To understand the individual level of curiously in accidentally discarded traces of fellow city inhabitants, we adapted Milgram’s “Lost Letter Technique” into a new methodology we call the “Lost Postcard Technique”.

Goals for the Lost Postcard Technique were:
• To what degree are people interested in traces left by others? Will the items create narratives?
• What interpretations of value do city dwellers place in the detritus found within the street?
• Will found items be viewed as lost or trash? And will people take responsibility for this “lost trash”?
• Will the levels of interest, responsibility and curiosity vary depending on the location, and context, and personal nature of the lost item?

This allowed us to track the specific actions taken for each card in one of four expected outcomes:
• no recordable action – card either disregard as trash or picked up and disposed/ignored
• card picked up and returned via mail
• card picked up and URL visited
• card picked up, URL visited, and returned via mail

Within 3 days, we had received nearly 49 of the postcards (45%) in the postal mail – forwarded on by individuals.


We also conducted interviews with city planers, waste managements companies, architects, trash workers, and city inhabitants. Most of them said they used a public trashcan regularly – from 4 to 40 times a week. The majority used a public trashcan at least once a day. Some items were perceived to have value. like CD roms.



Our Trashcan Stalkings (Observation) revealed that a seemingly banal part of the urban infrastructure is actually a focus of rich human activity, a microcosm of social ecology. The urban computing question is:
How can digital technologies reinterpret this social and physical archeology, the presence and traversal of people and artifacts, and expose patterns of urban life?

There are several methods of interaction with the augmented trashcan: active, passive, and mobile.

Tossing trash into or removing trash from the augmented trashcan is an active interaction.

Any individual passing near the augmented trashcan interacts passively with it by observing its shifting visualization.

Mobile Experience
We also envision several possible mobile phone interactions with the augmented trashcan.

The very essence of place and community are being redefined by personal wireless digital tools and mobile devices that transcend traditional physical constrains of time and space.