Folk Theories and Ubicomp

In a recent study by by Poole, et. al., Reflecting on the invisible: Understanding end-user
perceptions of ubiquitous computing, the authors examine “non-functional” properties of technology adoption.   The authors claim that a user’s understanding of what a technology does and how it works shapes their “orientation” towards it.  Specifically focusing on the concept of RFID technology, study participants were asked about their understanding of the technology and the implications of adoption.  The authors used a method from public policy in which they combined semi-structured interviewing techniques with an exercise in which participants described various images.  The authors insinuated that they garnished a much better response from the photo presentation technique than they would have been able to receive with standard questionnaires.   35 participants were interviewed and shown the photos (72 total photos).  Results showed that although participants were basically in the dark when it came to an understanding of the whats and hows of RFID, many could describe the technology by analogy (Folk Theories).   They found that the participant’s perceptions of RFID were greatly influenced by popular culture (.. no surprise there..).   Some learned from their family/friends, some from their job.  It was discovered that 2/3 of the participants had used some form of the technology.  The study goes on to discuss participant perceptions of social appropriateness, identity management, trust, and personal choice.  In the end, the authors discuss the importance of understanding public perceptions of ubiquitous computing technologies, most of which can be invisible to the population and difficult to understand.  Through a greater understanding of folk theories,  users values, and user expectations, HCI professionals and system designers can begin to design these ubicomp technologies to support or exceed these expectations.

This research is very insightful.  I am extremely interested in the impact of ubiquitous computing on the social interactions of individuals and society at large.  I hope that as HCI professionals we continue to realize the impact that popular culture, folk theories and urban legends have on the public’s acceptance and use of technologies, especially technologies that are invisible.

In related work, Mathew Chalmers has done extensive research into the areas of seamless and seamful computing.  Seamless describes an environment in which ubiquitous technology is hidden from a user (like the Wizard behind the curtain), whereas seamful computing describes an environment where users are made aware of changes in their environment (such as switching from network to network).   Of course it does not have to be binary, there are varying degrees of either.  The important point is how, as a designer, we are to know which will be most appropriate at which time?  There are many variables to consider and varying slants on each.