Extended summary of current work

Extended summary of current work


In recent years, the field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) has given much attention to domestic photographic practice. In combination with the emergence of digital photography as a mass market, the attention given to domestic practices represents a paradigm shift from the study of computing in terms of abstract rationality to its role in the social world of human activities [7]. Research to date has attended to ‘photo-sharing’ and ‘phototalk’ [11], [5], and also ‘photowork’, the management of digital photos in terms of their storage and retrieval [17].

Less attention, however, has been given to the display of photos and the ways in which they accrue meaning as situated artifacts in the ‘fabric’ of home. The role that situated digital displays play in family representation is relatively unmapped in design terms, [19]. The PhD project assumes this topical focus, concerned with understanding how photographic artifacts become resources for expression and empowerment in order to inform the design of display technologies.

Further to this, a primary objective for the project is to understand how identity construction in the home relates to the photographic representation of life experiences, placing emphasis on the construction of meaning around the domestic use of photographic artifacts. The photograph is perhaps the most salient mnemonic and photographs are commonly, if mistakenly referred to as ‘memories’. The research approach for this project draws from accounts of cognition that incorporate artifacts and activities alongside mental processes, [14], [13], [7]. Such accounts have drawn attention to the role of situated social activity and material culture in the formation of meaning, memory and identity [18], [6], [2]. For this project, autobiographical memory is conceptualized as a fundamental aspect of human creativity: memories are continuously experienced, performed and re-created through our interaction with people and things. Its agenda is positioned within the phenomenological tradition.

People don't often have control over how they are represented in their family home. Historically, parental ownership of a household camera has dictated the capture of particular events to the exclusion of others. Also, there is often a ‘curator’ of a family photo-display and personal expression is often transformed by the interests of the ‘family-at-large’ [3]. Framed photographic portraits, amongst other displayed artifacts, can serve to assert and perpetuate a sense of domestic moral order [22]. The emerging ubiquity and democratisation of digital camera technology has opened up new and interesting design challenges for photo display technologies in the shared space of the family home, alongside social psychological challenges to better understand the changing forms of expression afforded by digital photographic practice.

Research is focused on ‘family portrayal’ for many reasons: the subject of ‘family’ features centrally in autobiographical recollections [15]; ‘family’ is a discernable social unit; and the materiality of the photo display affords a shared manifestation of meanings within a family, via its form and arrangement [9]. The home is a distinct design domain comprising a complex set of ‘ecological habitats’ [4], in which people are at liberty to engage with the world creatively [22].

Research Study

‘Family Portrayal’ ‘Family Portrayal’ is a qualitative study concerning the meaning attached to photographs and their display in the family home. The study involves eight households, each comprising two participants, in a dyadic relationship of parent and teenager. The principle objectives are: to better understand the ways in which photographic displays 'empower' and 'constrain' representations of family members, giving particular attention to parental control and teenage expression; and to produce socially engaged inspirations for the design of novel photographic displays in the domestic domain.

Empowerment through representation is understood in terms of the autobiographical stories that photographs ‘allow’ family members to tell. Of particular interest is the relationship between parental control of representations and the relative visibility of photos in collections. Research activity is designed to generate conversation around individual photos, attending to an anticipated tension between ‘self-presentation’ and its ‘family portrayal’. Assumptions surrounding these labels will be challenged, along with ‘home’ and ‘family’.

Each participating household provides one teenage participant aged between 16 and 18 and their parent or guardian. Upon an initial home visit, the researcher presents each participant with a study pack, containing a camera and tasks, printed on cards, (see Figure 1). In response to the tasks, and in their own time, participants are asked to gather photos sourced from their existing collections with newly captured photos of their displays.

This material facilitates a semi-structured interview with each participant on a subsequent home visit, in which meanings attached to photographs and their display are discussed. This visit includes a tour around relevant home displays, followed by a group discussion with all participating household members, focusing on family interaction with photographs, which is filmed by the researcher. Camera images from study packs are processed after the home visits as illustrations of the task responses.

Research activity incorporates critical and reflective approaches in the field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI), [21]. The tasks invite creative and subjective interpretation by participants in their own time (Figure 2). Some are deliberately ambiguous so as to encourage less stereotypical or formulaic responses, such as, ‘bring me a photograph that is provocative’[12]. This approach facilitates both an interpretative engagement with materials and rich inspiration for design explorations [20].

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, (IPA), has been employed to study interview transcripts, photographs and video footage collected from the field, in order to identify themes, [23]. These themes have accompanied design explorations to inform subsequent PhD studies, including the build and deployment of design prototypes as vehicles for further critical engagement [16].

Forms of Inquiry

Inquiry combines critical, analytical and creative forms in synchrony: research combines social psychological enquiry and design prototyping of display technologies. The process of concept sketching seems somewhat incongruous to analytic enquiry and considerable attention has been given to articulate the relationship between the two activities for this project. Research has not followed a linear trajectory from social science enquiry, through design requirements production, to the generation of design proposals via concept sketching. Fieldwork has informed a design sensibility through furthering the research agenda and its theoretical underpinnings. Yet insights from the field have alsoproduced design inspirations independent of any formal analysis of data, (see Figure 3, below). Scientific enquiry has certainly not preceded the design process. In fact, creative activities that constitute the design process, such as sketching, prototyping and scenario building, inspired the design of the field study described above. Interdisciplinary activities are therefore intermeshed through the research agenda and do not follow an order pertaining to methodologies in the HCI tradition that produce user requirements for design [8].

An example follows of how concept sketches serve a critical and reflective function in relation to research questions. Essentially, they constitute the process of formulating ideas. Even if the ideas are half-formed, the sketches can serve as powerful conceptual tools. Figure 3 presents an example of how this can be achieved.

Figure 3 also illustrates the way in which a design can constitute a research tool. The sketch proposes the installment of a ‘design intervention’ into a household participating in field research. Over a period of time, this proposed interventional artifact, through its ascribed material functionality, could serve the research question at hand, which in this case is how photographic displays can be used to empower and constrain representations of family. The artifact comprises a wall-mounted photo display housing two photographic prints and a sliding door to enforce the viewing of only one photo at any one time. If this were installed in a family home, how would household members accommodate it?

The design is very simple, but even as a conceptual tool, this sketch raises many interesting questions: firstly about the role of photo display technology in the home; and secondly about the potential for an artifact to catalyse or evoke particular situated interactions between household members so as generate insights about their relationships. The specific function of ‘design interventions’ is given in a research capacity: they are not proposed ‘solutions’ to ‘design problems’, nor are they product ideas. In this project, they accompany other forms of inquiry in the generation of knowledge. For example, ethnographic tools may be used to capture and analyse interactions with the artifacts. (Design interventions could also incorporate an engineering goal for prototyping and user-testing technology in the field, (akin to ‘Technology Probes’ [16]). If so, the nature of this functionality would be technical but not product-orientated [4].)

The discipline of design is of central significance to HCI research activity, because computers, as artifacts, need to be designed, and computing’s ubiquity has determined the inclusion of design with scientific research [10]. But this has been done with only with a degree of success. In this context, design activities present epistemological issues for researchers and this has been well documented [1], [13], [4], [7]. For example the appropriation of ethnographic methods in a requirements-led design approach often results in the misrepresentation of data [8]. Historically, social psychology has been concerned with producing theories and design with artifacts, so novel research tools are to be developed in order to position design questions within a social psychology framework. As outlined above, design activities generate different forms of knowledge to other forms of inquiry, such as interview transcripts of talk or ethnographies of observed activity that can be analysed using traditional methods. Interventional artifacts specifically generate tacit and situated forms of knowledge about their contextual nature and people’s relation to them, generated through the cognitive activity of their use. A central issue for this project is how these forms of knowledge can be managed, utilized and disseminated for the purposes of HCI research and if this activity has to be held scientifically accountable in order for this to happen.

The graduate symposium at CC07 would provide an invaluable platform for discussing many aspects of the PhD project at a key juncture in the project timescale: it follows the design of prototypes and precedes their deployment in a new field study; and it follows a CHI2007 workshop, which I have co- authored, entitled ‘Exploring Design as a Research Activity (EDRA) between April and May 2007. This project presents interesting issues concerning the conceptualisation of cognition for the purposes of understanding creative activities, which includes domestic photographic practice. Beyond that, what can this inter-disciplinary inquiry contribute to our understanding of autobiographical memory? In general, there are epistemological issues concerning the scientific basis of design as a research activity in HCI that are worthy of exploration.


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