This weekend I attended the Designing Technology for Major Life Events workshop at CHI. Although I didn’t get the one slide introduction memo, I still enjoyed the discussions that took place. The attendees had a variety research areas that related to major life events – retirement, pregnancy, cancer diagnosis, natural disasters, gender transition and more. The major theme that resonated across the topics was that of transition. Transitions into different living environments can cause stress for college students and isolation for older adults. Grandchildren who move away from their grandparents lead to adopting new forms of communication technologies. Gender transitions can trigger reflection and the need to change one’s identity. Moving from a primarily offline world to digital culture can spark concerns of privacy and control. Cancer diagnosis changes routines, awareness and participation of patients. All of these are important life events, but what makes something important? Facebook’s attempts to decide importance with its News Feed algorithm. Can such algorithms be used to force memory to remember good major events vs. bad ones? Could this idea of forced memory be used to make transitions easier?
Life course theory posits study one’s experiences over time. The study of the lifespan is unique because, although it affects everyone, it does so differently for each person in the world. That’s what makes doing research in this area so challenging.
In our breakout sessions, we brainstormed design challenges of technology as it relates to major events and opportunities resolve these conflicts. A few of these challenges are,
- technology can be seen as a negative influence,
- we unintentionally design for exclusion, and
- building systems is risky business
While researchers face these challenges, we can also begin steps to solve them. One solution is to treat technology as a playground. As the plenary speaker, Margaret Atwood, stated – “First we imagine it, then we make it.” Researchers could benefit from a few improv or creative design classes. Often we are concerned about methodology and following the correct process that it limits the scope of our work. Do research for research sake.
Because we want to design for the majority of people who will use our systems, we often design to exclude other people either based on access, financial abilities, skills, trust, and language. However major life events happen to everyone, no matter their abilities. Therefore while our excuse to not building technology for outlier populations may be a cost-benefit reward, we must remember that low tech and no tech options can still be used to study technology use.
Lastly, building stuff is risky. It’s much easier to observe existing human behavior because no device is perfect. And, major life events typically do not happen every day. Therefore there are much higher stakes if the technology doesn’t work as expected. However, we must develop something that is functioning “enough” because no work will ever get accomplished if we build solely on what currently exists. While I am in the process of struggling with this, I have to remember that the first version will probably not be perfect and iteration will happen.