CHI Nederland

The Web and Beyond 2008: Mobility - report

The second Web and Beyond conference took place on May 22, 2008 at the historical Beurs van Berlage in Amsterdam. It was once again a great success, with inspiring keynotes, interesting stands and presentations, and over 500 international attendees; a fertile exchange of experiences, contacts, and ideas.

This year’s conference was focused on mobility, exploring the opportunities, challenges, and implications for users, communities, and designers to provide rich and smart access to data, communications, and transactions in a wide variety of settings and devices.

Chairman Steve Pemberton opened the conference with his usual flair and humor by sharing an anecdote about the recent ADSL breakdown, where his mobile PDA temporarily became the only link to the internet. In fact, in Japan, thanks to “all you can eat” high-throughput subscriptions, it is the norm for users to access the Web on mobile devices when travelling as well as at home. However, despite this global trend, most traditional site designs are still focused solely on windows PCs and high-resolution screens.

Adam Greenfield, charismatic author of "Everyware ", shared his vision and hopes on the use of “ambient informatics”, that is locally distributed information (for example embedded in urban infrastructures) that can be interacted with and acted upon. These services should be well considered to support more humane and pleasant “metropolitan experiences”, reestablishing a spirit and soul often lost in many modern cities. A person walking down a sidewalk becomes in effect a user of the city, with complex information processing tasks merging into subconscious behavior. Furthermore, given the rise of mobile access to virtual communities, the “big now” that an individual might be emerged in at any given time is no longer limited to his current physical location, leading to new types of behavior. These developments have big economic, social, and security implications. As the web services model gets increasingly applied to physical reality without effective recourse, these represent important political questions that need to be addressed. Adam argues that as usability professionals we should not focus on trying to control the total user experience, but rather design thoughtful seams and hinges with sufficient “looseness in the weave” to allow for organic, bottom-up emergence of behavior, culture, and communities.

Along a similar line, sociologist Jyri Engeström , founder of micro-blogging site Jaiku , talked about the importance of “social objects” and “nodal points” for the creation of valuable social media services. He argues that urbanism is starting to kick back, changing the basic concepts of the industry so far. Long-term success of social networking services depends on the reason why people want to connect; not just a cool little application on facebook, but adding more profound value by sharing a common interest, a “social object” (often reflecting existing objects such as pictures, videos, text messages, links, etc). Jyri defines “verbs” as individual actions that leave traces on a social object (such as “created”, “bookmarked”, “commented on”, etc). Users want to be aware of their contacts’ actions in their social peripheral vision, to stay virtually connected with friends and family that might be physically disconnected. Mobile devices enable users to capture slices of reality that couldn’t be captured before. By detecting the “nodal points” (such as content, time, location, or media), the significance of data can be evaluated, thus filtering those bits relevant for a particular person in a specific context and time.

Based on the previous keynote presentations, Ben Cerveny adapted his presentation and took the audience on an exciting - if somewhat mind boggling - flight of inspiration on communities as “geomorphic organisms” (geomorphology: a landscape shaped as a result of the forces surrounding it, geomorphic organism: individual social groups shaped by events and environments surrounding them), as a model to understand behavior in the new real-time networked environment. According to Ben, a dynamic set of people and their interactions can be compared to a multi-cellular organism, shaped by their links and connections, and bound together by their “vision of utopia” as an ideal future to aspire to. Ben also used the analogy of a school of fish or a flock of birds, where individual behavior merges into and is entrenched in the group as a whole, and group dynamics become self-organizing with different roles emerging for individual members of the group. Their “envelope of sensation” is formed, for example, by perceived emotional states, networks, built environments, financial markets, etc. The combined input of subjective opinions influences how members of the group instinctively experience and interpret external stimuli, but these individual opinions are in term shaped by that community. A common cognitive model is formed by trading subconscious “flotsam” back and forth, taking in impressions, tagging them in a shared “internal language”, and extracting meta data to reinforce and evolve a shared model of the world. Thus similar to biological metabolism, input is digested, transformed, adds sustenance, and might result in ‘accidental’ output. Ben envisions a city to become a temporary configuration of urban resources, almost like a wiki with its own scripting language to activate various resources, bathed in many small stimulations and constantly engaged in reforming itself unconsciously in response, where collectives can “play their environment like an instrument”. This constant peripheral awareness of - and reliance on - a person’s multiple communities or “tribes” becomes almost like a cybernetic extensions of their own body, potentially leaving individuals and groups vulnerable to the threat of losing this vital connection.

There were also a number of interesting parallel sessions by various Dutch practitioners and academics. Continuing on the previous evening’s presentations , Ingrid Halters, TomTom’s head of user experience, gave an overview of recent developments within TomTom’s navigation devices , including aggregation of user generated content and context sensitive data detection. Ingrid also provided an insightful glimpse at the special challenges faced by highly mobile, specialized consumer applications, used by novice users of all ages and cultures in a variety of contexts. For in-car navigation devices, this includes safety issues, intuitive task-based interactions, task automation, instant recognition (“out of the corner of the eye”), social environments, varying noise and volume levels, weather and light conditions, physical/ergonomic conditions, as well as persuasive interfaces to discourage or limit interactions with the device while driving.

Kars Alfrink , a seasoned speaker at Chi NL, shared some examples of mobile components for “playful cultural resistance”, and presented a compelling argument on the importance of play to achieve a greater purpose. As Kars points out, playing is not the opposite of productivity, but forms in fact the basis of many innovative achievements in society, business, and design. Kars closed his entertaining presentation with a request to all designers of future mobile services to ensure there remains sufficient space for games; reminiscent of Adam Greenfield’s argument for “looseness in the weave”.

Maartje van Hardeveld, user experience consultant at Rabobank , provided an insight into the advent of mobile banking and illustrated the user experience process leading to the introduction of Rabo Mobiel and Rabo TV. Developments within the financial industry result in less physical visits to local branches, but an explosive growth of direct channels. Consumers are less committed to any particular bank, but expect easy, instant access anytime, anywhere. Nevertheless, in the past, uptake of mobile banking services has been slow. In 2005 Rabobank conducted an ethnographic study using interviews, photo diaries, and group sessions to investigate how, for what purpose, at what time, and in what context consumers want to use mobile devices and financial services. This resulted in some interesting insights and creative ideas, some of which were further explored with persona, storyboards, and several real-life trials, including mobile payments at a supermarket branch and virtual access tickets to Rotterdam Zoo .

Christian Lindholm rounded up the conference on a lighter note, sharing some anecdotes and insights of the mobile market and recent technology trends. He elaborated on the success of Apple’s iPhone , with users passionately addicted to their mobile devices as an extension of their personality, as well as the trend of netbooks versus smartphones, such as the revolutionary Asus Eee and iPod touch . According to Christian the continuum of convergence from phone to computers are examples of the advent of “casual computing”; light and affordable networked devices that can be instantaneously accessed in almost any social situation, without disturbing the social context.

Many of the speakers portrayed the vision of a revolutionary new networked urban society. While this can be inspiring, there also often seems to be a lack of careful thought and consideration in the overall enthusiasm and hype. Beyond commercial and personal benefits, there are major implications, including

    * environmental (e.g. how to sustain the massive energy requirements, health implications, and waste by-products of large computerized networked environments)
    * social (e.g. how open and inclusive are networked communities and services)
    * political (e.g. in how far can they be abused to subconsciously influence the views and behaviors of a groups’ members)
    * ethical (e.g. in how far are consumers aware of their interactions and dependence on these services)
    * security risks
    * etc.

It seems imperative that the usability community, as well as society as a whole, becomes aware of and addresses these issues!

Overall, the conference set a high visionary as well as pragmatic standard. A great achievement for CHI Nederland, which over the past ten years has grown into the second largest local chapter of ACM SIGCHI; perhaps a reflection and continuation of the philosophical and literary tradition of the Netherlands within Europe throughout history.


Antje Roestenburg, june 8, 2008