Considerate Design

An exploration in developing situationally aware interfaces influenced by a user’s surroundings.

This project is about reframing the role that social structures might play in the design and analysis of interactive systems. It is an exploration of how to create a digital system that is more appropriate to our daily experiences and capabilities.

We, humans, are able to adapt to social context and therefore, change the way we behave in various situations. Whenever we are on a rock concert or an opera, in a work environment or around friends, and especially when traveling different countries, we try to align our behavior to its cultural context, to avoid getting into embarrassing and even critical moments and aim to be part of a social group we are currently surrounded by.

Therefore, I argue that technology should not only enable certain kinds of actions, but rather reflect practices, assumptions, and conventions within a particular group of people. As for this project, I drew inspiration largely from the field of human-computer etiquette and the book Where the action is, which pledged decades ago for a sociological approach to the design in everyday objects and interfaces.

We act in a world that is imbued with social meaning. Every behavior and action we take influences our surroundings and simultaneously underlies unwritten social conduct. This social conduct is rather defined by the social context than the physical space we are surrounded by. Therefore how we interact with our devices influences the social structure we are situated in. We, as humans, have the ability to adapt to our surroundings and their etiquette, such as cultural structures, but our devices behave in the same naïve and inconsiderate manner regardless of their context. Indeed, they sometimes cause uncomfortable, and even critical situations such as by craving loudly for attention in moments where it mostly shouldn’t, such as in meetings or lectures. Underlying the project above all is the aspect that people apply social rules and expectations to computers thoughtlessly [1].

Therefore, I am wondering how might we design systems which are able to adapt to their social context in order to act in a more considerate and attentive way toward our surroundings?

Smartphone usage: Who should be in control?

Apple’s heavily criticized 2016 camera ban patent, which granted a patent for technology that allows people to restrict photography in certain locations, sparked a fierce debate about censorship and whether technology companies should be able to restrict people’s behavior with their devices.

In another example, the government of the Japanese city of Yokohama has introduced by law that people are not allowed to look at their screens while walking, as this is considered inappropriate and, more importantly, potentially dangerous behavior for all traffic participants and pedestrians. This made me wonder who should be able to make decisions about how people utilize their smartphones? Is it the government, the technology companies, or should we empower users themselves to take over control?

Result

This project is exploring how it could look like if technology can be designed as rather collective decision-making and interactive system and therefore get a social understanding as well as create a common sense based on the devices in the surrounding. Hence, I am exploring new approaches in how our devices respond to us and our surroundings. Rather than providing a solution, I used this project to open a discussion about how our devices are designed today and how advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and sensors can be utilized to merge the digital world with social structures.

The interesting thing about new situational awareness technologies such as sensors and AI is that it is now possible to recognize patterns over time. Devices could connect and communicate with each other over temporary local area networks. Context can be inferred from the settings of devices in the environment and from parameters such as geographic location, as well as the user’s historical and current interactions. Such a model could look like the following:

How might we design products which are able to adapt to its surrounding?

When sitting in a movie theater these days, an ad appears before each film reminding the audience to turn off the sound on their smartphone. But what if today’s technology offered a new approach to solve this issue?

Activating awareness function in order to adapt the phone to its digital surroundings

The system could work in public places like a park, a school or a train. There it could detect settings of devices in that surrounding, create a network, therefore and adjust the smartphone’s settings accordingly to the average settings of phones they’re surrounded by. Based on this approach, I explored two ways in with a system like this could intervene:

Automatic adjustment of the volume

Negotiable

For example, imagine you’re sitting on a night train, still using your phone, while others around you are already asleep. To ensure that the others are not disturbed by your light, your phone adjusts to the average brightness setting of the people in your compartment. Similarly, suppose you’re sitting on the train watching a video. The device could lower the volume based on the settings of the devices of the people around you. The user can intervene and reset the volume to the setting that works best for them.

Smartphone restricts user to take photos based on the smartphone behavior of the people in this location

Restrictive

The following approach can be used in places where is forbidden, disrespectful, or critical to take certain actions, such as for example taking photographs at religious sites. Unfortunately, some people are not aware of this, especially when they are visiting cultures and are not familiar with the social structures there. In this case, the system could intervene and help by prohibiting photography based on the behavior of other people in the area. This could also be utilized in situations where the system should adapt to the rules of the road. Imagine if a phone could disable noise cancellation when the user is riding a bike on a busy street.

Two main questions emerged in designing this project:

How much automatization is desired?

As our devices become increasingly automated, it comes with a lot of conveniences. In the context of this project, I pose the question of how much automation is actually desired by us users. Do we want to be asked before the system makes a decision, or do we want the system to simply intervene automatically? Which in some cases, this can lead to critical situations, such as missing an important call because the system unconsciously has muted itself.

How far should the system be able to intervene?

This is another question that came up during the project. By this I mean, should our smartphones prohibit functions when they should perform actions, or should the final decision always be left to the user? One approach to this could be a differentiation of urgency, whether it is only rude behavior or dangerous behavior, and thus protect the user of mindless actions, in which the system gets a kind of common sense.

Reflection

The primary goal of this project was to explore different ways of designing systems and to ask questions rather than answer them. Working on it was quite a bumpy road, as I was confronted with my biases and ethical questions at every step, irrespective of the direction I was heading. This made me think about my role as a designer and question the origins of my thinking about social and cultural structures. In saying this, I mean that this project was more of a heavy but appreciated burden of thought and reflection rather than filled with much practical design.

If you have questions or simply want to share your thoughts, I’d love to hear about it! — don’t hesitate to send me a message.

[1]. Machines and Mindlessness: Social Responses to computers; Nass, Clifford; Moon, Youngme, pg.2

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