Addressing critical challenges

XV.1 January + February 2008
Page: 67
Digital Citation

LIFELONG INTERACTIONSMy father’s kitchen table

Allison Druin

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One late night, I sat at my father's kitchen table swapping "work stories." I told him about my never-ending lab meetings and emails, and he told me about his frequent fights with his computer. At 65, my father is an active consultant to the plastics industry, with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and a wall of awards that chronicle his busy career. Yet despite all his success, what seemed to consume him on this late night was, of all things, a wireless mouse. His computer support consultant insisted it was "the thing to have," yet in a few short months my father had knocked it on the floor countless times, misplaced it twice, and finally broke it. A wireless mouse was not the thing for my father. In fact, he was quite furious at "this wandering mouse."

While I was trying to be sympathetic and supportive of my father's mouse adventures, I couldn't help but let my mind wander to the children in my lab who had redesigned numerous computer mice over the years. In my early days as an academic, I would work with five- and six-year-olds using paper, clay, pipe-cleaners, and old socks to make "mice of the future." My young design partners suggested everything from tying small pillows on mice to imagining computer mice that sprout wings, all to "keep their mice safe from falling on the floor and breaking [1]."

Little did these young designers know they were envisioning solutions to my father's challenging interactions with a wireless mouse. That night at the kitchen table, I was struck by how similar the concerns are of users at the extremes of life. Those people who are at the beginning of their lives or those who have experienced a great deal of life can be concerned about their physical abilities, memory recall, and how robust the technology really is. When we can support the interactions of users that may have special challenges (they can't spell "elephant," can't remember what button to press, or can't find the mouse), we can better support all users from age seven to age 77.

That is why when I was asked to jump aboard this new forum, I was quite excited. This will be a place to investigate the relationship between children, teenagers, and older adults, and technologies they interact with—from screen-based worlds to tangible/ubiquitous computing. These interactions may take place at home, in school, at work, or in public places. What will be a critical part of this forum, no matter what the subject matter, is the respect we need to have for users of any age or life experience with diverse dreams and needs.

Randy Pausch, in his profound talk this past September at Carnegie Mellon University, pointed out that "enabling the dreams of others" is something perhaps as important as achieving your own dreams [2]. As interaction professionals, there is nothing more important we can all do than understand users' lifelong interactions between people and their technologies, and support the opportunities for new dreams and possibilities for the future. By giving ourselves the "permission to dream," as Randy explained, we can create the technologies needed to support people's diverse lives. In the coming months I hope this forum can explore such topics as:

• Is Less More? Should we be creating more-simplified technologies for children and older adults? Will these simplifications help users to focus on the task at hand, or will these technologies just become "uncool" or "unusable"?

• Intergenerational Design. When children partner with older adults to create new technologies, what methods need to be changed? Can diverse ages and viewpoints be bridged to find new solutions to old problems?

• When Social Computing Is Too Social. What are the perils for children when their interactions online become questionable? Are there technologies that need to be built or social norms that need to be established, or both?

• How to Stay Healthy Online? What are the challenges for older adults relying on consumer health information over the Internet? Is it what older adults need, or can this information lead to wrong paths to staying well?

Herbert Kohl, the writer, educator, and reformer, has pointed out that "by valuing the imagination, we empower ourselves to dream of the world becoming a better or more decent place, which provides an opening for us to act to transform it [3]."

Kohl's words suggest we can make a difference. One of my favorite examples of when accommodations for challenged users made a difference for all users is a sidewalk "technology" called curb cuts. These indentations in the sidewalks (which activists spent years fighting for) have enabled travelers in wheelchairs to move freely between curbs. This simple design has also enabled bikers, rollerbladers, parents with strollers, and people with shopping carts to maneuver the sidewalks more effectively; the technological advancement intended to support those with limited mobility has actually supported everyone.

Another example of making a small difference in technology that can lead to big usability gains can be seen in newer refrigerators. A simple beeping sound is now triggered once the refrigerator door has been open for a given amount of time. While this new techno-refrigerator feature is an excellent reminder for forgetful older adults or curious young children to close the door, it can also be an important feature for the average adult rushing around trying to make dinner. These few examples can serve to remind us that "universal usability" can happen when we consider how small and large changes in interactions can lead to unifying people of difference [4].

It is important, however, to acknowledge that no matter how much we attempt universal solutions, sometimes the differences between people just need to be acknowledged. Users of different ages in different parts of life may never be able to interact and understand the world in the same way. My colleagues and I find this out on a monthly basis thanks to our work on the International Children's Digital Library ( We developed tools that enable children to search for books online according to how long a book is, how a book makes you feel (e.g., happy, sad), and even by the color of a book cover [5]. However, what continues to surprise me is that every month we get at least one email from a bewildered adult who has no idea why there are colors that you can choose from to search. In more than five years, we have never once received an email from a child asking why that tool was there (children have sent us many other emails such as why the Harry Potter books aren't in our library, but that's for another discussion on intellectual property).

In thinking back to my kitchen-table discussions with my father, it now strikes me that his computer consultant truly did not understand my father's interactions with his world. He needed to acknowledge my father's way of "talking with his hands," which for years has led to more than a wireless mouse on the floor—think papers, pens, and the occasional water glass. Today I believe my father is content with a "wired" mouse, a new computer support consultant, and knowing he'll one day write a strongly worded letter to Steve Jobs, the maker of his recently deceased wireless mouse. As for me, I look forward to more late-night discussions at the kitchen table, and a better understanding of lifelong interactions.

back to top  References

1. Druin, A., "The role of children in the design of new technology," Behaviour and Information Technology, 21, no.1 (2002):1-25.

2. Pausch, R. "Really achieving your childhood dreams," from his last talk presented at Carnegie Mellon University, September 18, 2007. For the video: For a transcript of the talk:

3. Kohl, H. Stupidity and Tears: Teaching and learning in troubled times. New York: The New Press, 2003, p.76.

4. Hochheiser, H. and B. Shneiderman, "Universal usability statements: Marking the trail for all users." interactions 8, no. 2 (2001): 16-18.

5. Druin, A., A. Weeks, S. Massey, and B.B. Bederson, "Children's interests and concerns when using the International Children's Digital Library: A four country case study," in Proceedings of Joint Conference on Digital Libraries (JCDL'2007) Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, (2007):167-176.

back to top  Author

Allison Druin
University of Maryland, Human-Computer Interaction Lab

About the Author

Allison Druin is the director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL) and an associate professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. For more than two decades, Druin has led interdisciplinary teams of adults and children to develop new technologies (e.g., digital libraries, mobile storytelling) to support children's learning. She was the founder of CHIkids, a CHI conference program, which led to the development of her team's co-design methods with children, Cooperative Inquiry.

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