To pastures new

It’s not all that long since I started this blog, but I’ve decided to move digital home: as I have my own domain, it makes sense to host my own blog and not have ads or whatever on this WordPress-hosted one.

You can find me at, where I’ve just uploaded my first post (a summary of my experiences at MobileHCI). Catch you there!

Time offline: does it work?

A little bit ago, I talked about my frustration at online distractions getting in the way of focusing more deeply on work. I resolved to try using a program called Freedom to stay offline and get more done: it worked wonders during my EngD write-up.

Alas, it’s not quite so helpful now. I’m still glad I have it, but it only helps when you have a focused offline task, like writing a paper (or a thesis!). There are still online aspects even to that (popping onto the ACM Digital Library to double check a reference, or emailing a co-author about such-and-such) but it’s primarily about sitting down, writing, rewriting, and editing.

Of course, now I’m doing my postdoc I’m in a very different position to last winter, when my One Focus In Life was to Write The Damned Thesis. Nowadays I have articles to write, but also experiments to run, DESIRE’11 to look after, presentations to prepare and so forth. It’s not quite so straightforward!

So I think my main revision to the plan is this: use Freedom liberally when writing papers, but otherwise simply don’t leave communications mechanisms (email, Twitter, IRC) running in the background. Maybe check ’em two or three times a day (start, middle, end?). I predict I’ll end up in my inbox way more often than that — work often requires that I check past correspondence or ping off fresh emails — but we’ll see.

I’m glad I’m spending a small amount of time thinking about this stuff. I’ll figure out a strategy sooner or later!

The Society of Text

This was one of the many books in my unofficial ‘hypertext library starter kit‘. It was strange for me to peruse  a hypertext book from 1989, a (just about) pre-web era: authors used the terms ‘net’ and ‘web’ in a very different way, and articles included reference to, for example, continuing debates about the value of bi-directional links.

It offers a wide range of papers, some more and some less relevant after twenty years. I especially enjoyed two, the first of which was From database to hypertext via electronic publishing, a well-written and informative article on preparing information for different forms of publication. It sums up with a set of insights including the memorable ‘Hypertext is like cayenne pepper’ (a little goes a long way) and  some nice insights into the impact of medium, e.g. a paper book vs its hypertext version. I also enjoyed Hand-crafted hypertext, which presents the results of an attempt to hypertextify six Hypertext ’87 papers (using Hypercard, IRIS and KMS). The idea was to compare the hypertext systems, and although of course the systems themselves are now largely defunct, the approach and the write-up are lovely.

(Available on Amazon)

Bad Science

I read this back in March, and should have written my thoughts at the time as a lot has faded now! Still, I wanted to make the point that this book was a really excellent read — Ben Goldacre is talented at conveying his message in a clear and engaging way. As a scientist, I found it a really empowering read in terms of its messages about the importance of engaging with the media, not just switching off or giving up.

One of the impacts of the web on society is that information is much, much cheaper than it used to be: things that previously required a trip to the library, access to an encyclopedia or some other physical activity are now a quick Google search away. I feel this has yet to be reflected in the way we educate our children (at least in the UK): it’s essential that people are able to critically evaluate sources and say “What’s the background to this? Is it accurate? Why is it presented in this particular way?”

This book is one very nice way to engage in a bit of self-education on the topic. I think it’s an especially valuable read if you work in research, but frankly it’s useful to all of us as we encounter information, especially when figuring out how to deal with fact, opinion and advertising.

(Available on Amazon)

Tweet-a-Prisoner: Social Media and Prisoners

A friend of mine called Mark Alexander is in prison, wrongly convicted of murdering his father. I know Mark from my IBM days, which means our mutual friends include the wonderful Andy Stanford-Clark and Matt Whitehead.

He’s been in prison for quite some months (good lord, they went fast:/ ), and we’ve primarily been staying in touch via a service called Email a Prisoner. You type your letter into an online form, pay 30p and hit ‘send’. It gets printed in the prison in question, popped into an envelope and delivered to the prisoner, who of course can reply by snail mail.

(Andy and I have been discussing related issues of latency — for  example, hearing bad news by phone one day and receiving a happy letter from before that news the next. I believe he may write about this shortly.)

Email A Prisoner is a nice service, and has been complemented by us visiting Mark, and by phone calls between Mark and Andy (in which Andy often ends up relaying greetings!). Still, these communication mechanisms are a world away from the fast-paced world of social media, even if Email A Prisoner does make things easier: as an expat living in the Netherlands, I have much more contact with my online British friends than the offline ones.

So I was absolutely delighted when Andy and Matt implemented Tweet A Prisoner! As you might imagine, it rather does what it says on the tin — Mark has a Twitter account (tap_MA), and with a bit of technological and social jiggery-pokery is able to update it from prison. Andy’s written an excellent explanation of how the system works.

I wanted to share a few words about the relevance of this to my EngD, where I focused on the redesign of digital experiences for non-digital contexts. As Andy observes in his write-up, in this case we were forced to use non-digital media for parts of the system, yet unless you’re Matt (i.e. the ‘social component’ of the system — the person who is so kind as to close the loop and upload tweets written by Mark) that’s effectively invisible. If I didn’t know Mark’s situation (or read the content of his posts!), I could easily assume he just happens not to log into Twitter on a daily basis.

I’ve yet to chat with Mark about his personal point of view, but this certainly gives him a new way to interact with a bunch of people: he can stay in touch with friends and ex-colleagues, and share his experiences more widely. I’m intrigued as to how his visceral experience of Twitter is changed by this rather unusual set-up.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a dearth of work on prisoner engagement and social media, but I wonder if this isn’t a topic for conversation: social media can help prisoners reconnect with healthier environments. Would that now have an impact in areas such as mental health and rates of recidivism?

On a personal note, I was absolutely thrilled when I saw the first set of Mark’s tweets. Thank you Andy and Matt!

Parallels between HCI and Web Science

Yesterday I read the cover story of the latest edition of ACM’s Interactions magazine: Reimagining HCI: Toward a More Human-Centered Perspective. The author describes a refocusing within HCI from evaluation of interfaces through system design and into “general sense-making of our world.” He calls for a refocusing in HCI towards “new forms of living with and through technologies that give primacy to human actors, their values, and their activities.”

Given that my doctorate concerned understanding user experiences towards designing better systems, it’s unsurprising that I found myself nodding in agreement — particularly given my concerns about unintended negative impacts from technology, an issue relevant to HCI and User Experience, but also to Web Science (which after all, encompasses unintended societal impacts of technological changes).

(Quick example: many of us now live in an ‘always-on’ culture, in which we expect one another to be constantly online, and feel guilty when we ourselves are offline. This arose from technological changes: the spread of smartphones, the widespread availability of affordable data contracts, and the rise of social technologies from email to social networks.)

I want to talk about Web Science here. Relatively early on in the article, Bannon remarks upon how issues such as ‘reliability’ are not purely technical, but are “inherently sociotechnical” — a phrase which put me in mind of Wendy Hall’s framing of Web Science as “the theory and practice of social machines.” However, he also remarks:

This panoply of ideas, critiques, art, designs, and reflections at times sits uneasily with a more scientific research agenda. There is something about the kinds of questions being raised that makes us realize this mixing of scientific knowledge, on the one hand, and design expertise, on the other, can create uneasy bedfellows.

Web Science is broader than “scientific knowledge plus design expertise” but the concept of tension arising from multiple domains is not unfamiliar here. Bannon goes on to cite Winograd, who reportedly argues that the challenge for interaction design is combining:

  • practical aspects from engineering
  • human concerns that guide design
  • social science perspectives on our world

Well that sounds familiar. Combining such facets may well be a challenge for interaction design, but it’s a challenge for Web Science, too. HCI is not Web Science; Web Science is not HCI. Nonetheless, it’s no surprise that interdisciplinary efforts to work in sociotechnical areas will share certain challenges.

So what — and how? — can these communities learn from one another?

Life in the digital age: I need to get offline!

I am less focused than I’d like to be. The internet is a wonderful, amazing tool, but it’s a pain in the ass sometimes!

Do you ever get those days where you’re busy and not slacking all day, but by the end of it you feel that the sum total of your achievementsn was to have tackled your email and done some little jobs?

It seems to me that too many of my days are like that, lately. It’s important I’m responsive to email, of course (not least when communications chair for a conference in the not-too-distant future!), but when I leave my mail application running, I find it hard not to treat each incoming email as a high-priority interrupt. Which is clearly ridiculous.

In addition, the people I follow on Twitter provide me with all manner of useful and interesting links to articles and news that’re relevant to my work. All the time. Without a break.

So what to do?

I wrote my EngD up fast. Really fast. I had a job offer starting on 1st January this year, and it was conditional upon having my thesis in the bag by that date. I don’t think I wrote about it at the time (I was too busy writing the damn thesis!), but one of the most useful tools in my Thesis Writing Arsenal was a ten-dollar piece of software called Freedom. It provides a very simple service: it cuts you off from the interwebs for a given period of time, anything from 15 minutes to 8 hours. Once it’s initiated, the only way to get online (apart from waiting out the time period) is to reboot your computer.

I felt a bit silly using it — I could close my email, web browser and Twitter, or indeed kill the wifi! — but somehow it worked in a way that other things didn’t. I got a tonne done!

So here’s my new resolution: I’m going to aim to use Freedom for two two-hour chunks of time per working day. Meetings count as time offline (luckily, they’re few and far between at the mo).

I’ll let you know how I get on.