Weekly reflection: Like a fish in water

Two days ago a year ago I started my PhD. I re-enrolled and I am officially a 2nd year. As with most things in the PhD in my experience, the transition is a fluid one. I mostly see it by new students starting and me taking on new responsibilities like teaching. But there is no clear cut. Looking back, my project has changed immensly. After doing research, in conversation with others what I looked at has evolved and changed. The area I look into has changed. The methods I chose are more refined than I originally thought. But nonetheless I see a red thread running through the whole process. There was an unease with the way people living with dementia are treated in the technology development process that fueled my initial idea which is still guiding what I do now. I have only changed what I want to do about it, playing more towards my strengths than I originally intended.

After my viva I felt a bit stranded. I have been working quite intensly towards this deadline and felt lost after it was over. I took some time to read interesting papers that had piled up on my desktop, getting inspiration and looking deeper into things that still need refinement. But in contrast to earlier times I have been able to communicate this and ask for help with structuring the time to come. I have a very broad plan now on how to proceed and will fill that with life as I go along.

I am still paddling along, caught between times in which everything makes full sense and those in which I have no idea what I am doing – or supposed to do. But I start to accept this as how it is going to be, deciding on what I know when I feel confident to do so and asking for help when I struggle. I feel like a fish in water, sometimes letting the current take over, sometimes taking full control. This is one important thing I have learned in this last year.

Reflections on study plan

One feedback I have recently been given is that I need to go back to my study plan and re-evaluate how it all links together. This in turn will help me strenghten my researc question and clearer formulate the aim of my PhD project. I will not address them one by one, but instead will reflect on the areas that are represented in all of them.

  • Technology: While I initially looked into all technologies developed to support people living with dementia, monitoring technologies have become a focus of my research. These technologies mainly benefit the caregiver by supporting him in monitoring people living with dementia or by relieving him of some of these duties. It is associated to the (perceived) risk people with dementia may be living in, to the question whether they enhance the independence of people living with dementia by enabling them to stay independent for longer or whether they infringe on the privacy of people living with dementia, which may have an impact on the autonomy as well. I see smart, intelligent, context-aware or connected technologies as an extension of this as they address the same problem area and potentially have the same implications in regards to personal rights.
  • Dementia: So far I have not yet addressed any particular type of dementia, but use it as generic as I find it in the literature on the topic of technology. I am aware of many different types of dementia and how they differ and will limit down the topic as I see appropriate.
  • Empathy: This has so far not been an explicit item in my research, but I wonder if it should be so. The studies undertaken so far – and those planned – all have an element of this. In the initial study I specifically chose names and descriptions to evoke empathy as well as asking participants to think about themselves in the situation, I used dementia specific technologies to develop empathy myself, the story I wrote is made relatable, i.e. aims to create an empathic connection, and I aim to work with people who know people living with dementia thereby being able to relate to the person. Especially if I turn my focus from learning from users of technologies to designers (or even both? ) empathy becomes a tool I use. What I need to become clear about is to what aim I employ this tool. What is it I want to change? People’s opinions? Ways of working? Is it just a tool to elicit responses? This is something I need to dig into deeper.
  • Future: All of the things I have done and intend to do have a focus towards the future. Individual futures , technological futures, short and mid-term futures. This is firstly related to the shift in technology that I see happening and the wish to learn more about the outcomes this may have, but also because I do not yet see that happen much. Technology development seems very much caught up in the now, with little regard for where the technologies may go, how they may develop.
  • Values: So far I normally used the quite generic term ‘values’ to explain what I am interested in. What my research started to focus on is the complex and complicated relationship between privacy and autonomy in regards to moitoring technologies. I am also interested on the ‘beyond privacy’ – what does this entail? How does ot play out in the everyday? Is privacy a value in itself that is worth protecting or are there other factors that play into it, e.g. quality of life, relationship with others? The question I am interested in goes beyond privacy in the info-sec way: Is encrypting data enough or do other factors play into the understanding of privacy that will hinder the use or acceptance of the devices/technologies currently developed/proposed?

Critical Design Methods share the focus on future developments, and the aim on critiquing the values/biases in designs, which will make them an useful tool to use in this project. Nonetheless I wonder if I did not put too much emphasis on critical design methods so far and if my aim does not go beyond learning about the methods, but learning about the technologies and exploring their future developments.

What type of HCI are you?

Even though I have a MA in Interaction Design, it feels like a big step into studying a Phd at the school of computer science. Even though it is still all around HCI, the focus, the methods and the topics are different. Not all, not everywhere, but often.

While most people I talk to either have a computer science or philosophy background, I am a designer. With a strong interest in the way design, people and technology interact. But I did not write a commputer program, I did not run a lab study to gain my MA, I made a thing. And I reflected on making a thing.

Maybe it is therefore that I still stumble to find my feet. And my place in HCI. I still have a look from the outside, wondering how I fit in. How does my work relate to those who develop new types of interaction and to those who run lab studies to infer error types and give suggestions on how they can be avoided. I was therefore very interested to follow the discussion around the three “waves” or “paradigms” of HCI. Following slightly the technological development, distinctions are made between what topics HCI addresses and which methods its members choose. So far I felt quite comfortable in the ‘third wave’, which I understood to be interested in reflexive, exploratory work, not only accepting, but rather focussing on the questions of how users make sense of interaction. Slightly postmodern, this strand of HCI as I understood it, went beyond the classical user and looked at individual experiences, maybe even disrupt rather than support.

Within a discussion about the different strands I also found reflections on design fiction and speculative designs, which made meInĀ  relate even more. I therefore emphasised the sense-making aspect of my work in my last write-up. I put the emphasis on the understanding how potential users make sense of new technologies and how that might influence their design. Creative methods such as design fiction would be used as a tool to enhance designs before they exist, with my special focus on values, particularly privacy and autonomy which are closed linked in the area I am researching.

Recently I came across another interesting take on HCI, that resonated with my work and what I aim to achieve. In ‘Humanistic HCI‘ the authors also address design fiction as a method but put a slightly different emphasis on it. They outline the three key items of humanistic HCI are a focus on critique, a contribution to knowledge not by extending what we know, but how we look at the knowledge we have and understand it as well as an element of speculation to trigger this understanding. While I have to go back and reframe, refocus how I define my research project, I can find all those items in the studies I have undertaken so far as well in those I planned out. In this new apporach I can find a subtle shift in regard to my aim, which may be more about changing focus than understanding focus. I will reflect further on this in the following post in which I look again at all the studies planned so far to find their common goals and methods.