iCHI’17: Where Does Data Physicalization Fit in the Irish HCI Community?

Last Friday, I attended the iHCI’17 conference on UCD campus. It was a small event, with less than one hundred attendees from colleges all over Ireland, including UCC, UL and DKIT. Despite its size, however, the content was of high-quality and fairly wide-ranging. Some of the most memorable talks, for me, included a discussion on designing health monitoring apps for the elderly, and a study into how to empower cultural heritage professionals to create bespoke interactive exhibits.


After attending this event, I was struck by the shortage of Design-driven research on display. Of around twelve presentations, only two or three could be considered as Design-oriented. The others were more deeply entrenched in Computer Science, Health or Psychology. Coming from a background where Design is integral to HCI, I found this surprising. However, after mentioning this to my supervisor while leaving the conference, he commented that in Ireland, Design makes up a very small portion of the HCI community. Of course, this is not a negative revelation. It only makes sense that industry-driven sectors such as Health or Computer Science receive more funding and therefore attract more researchers. However, it did make me question where my research areas – the deeply Design-oriented topics of Data Physicalization and Tangible Computing – fit within the Irish HCI community. I can’t say I have an answer yet, but I do have a few thoughts (or beginnings of thoughts) on the subject…

Supporting Data Presentation

Many of the presentations given at the conference included dense, scientific data demonstrating some aspect of a study – findings, motivation, etc. Quite frankly, I found it pretty difficult to understand a lot of it. Not having a background in statistics or any form of quantitative research, I was usually just about getting to grips with the meaning behind a scatter plot or a histogram when the speaker would flip forwards and the slide would disappear. Of course, plenty of HCI researchers would not have this problem – I imagine I was in the minority. However, if research that relies of the audience having a good understanding of quantitative methodologies was presented at a conference with a larger population of designers, the speaker might risk losing their audience, even if their research is highly relevant.

What if data physicalizations were used to support talks like this? What if the more design-oriented in the audience were enabled to find meaning in data through design-based methods? Of course, this approach would not be appropriate all the time – but certain settings, such as poster presentations, would be ideal for this type of approach. What I’m really wondering is, what if quantitative researchers were introduced to new ways to represent their findings in an in-depth and meaningful manner that reached out  beyond members of their own communities to us non-quantitative folks? Pretty cool things, I bet.

Providing Alternatives to Traditional Interfaces 

One of the talks that I enjoyed the most was given by a speaker from Dundalk Institute of Technology on developing health applications to support elderly patients moving from hospital to home. Her message was that, in general, older people are open to adopting technological solutions into their recovery process. However, she also pointed out that she had encountered difficulties in unexpected places with older people having trouble using a web application – she used the example of an elderly man not understanding what the ‘Submit’ button does. I couldn’t help but wonder if Tangible Computing might offer a solution to this problem. By embedding the capabilities of the speaker’s health application into a familiar objects, such as a book or a kettle, the need to teach the user how to operate a web application would be alleviated, and the overall user experience could be improved. This concept could be expanded to pretty much any web application-based project – Tangible Computing might not be the right choice every time, but it could certainly open up new avenues for technological solutions to research problems. Which leads me on to my last point…

Finding Common Language

Why is it so difficult to explain Tangible Computing, Data Physicalization and a bunch of other tangential disciplines to someone who has never heard of them? This thought is not a new one – it’s something I have come back to again and again since first encountering these concepts for myself. In theory, Data Physicalization does what it says on the tin – it gives physical form to data. Simple. But I find myself grasping for a more coherent phrase or pulling up examples on my phone whenever I try and explain this concept to someone – and by that stage I have usually bored them to tears and completely lost their attention. I have had the same experience – to a much greater degree – with Tangible Computing. Why is it so difficult to explain these design-driven concepts? Is there a better way – a clearer phrase, a well-known example – that might expedite this process and hold people’s interest? I think that by searching for a common language for talking about unfamiliar design concepts, we might clear the way for HCI researchers and non-designers to move from pure Computer Science or Psychology standpoints to incorporate Design into their work wherever it might be most needed.




2 years ago

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