The need for companies to change their ways

XVI.1 January + February 2009
Page: 35
Digital Citation

FEATUREThe heterogeneous home

Ryan Aipperspach, Ben Hooker, Allison Woodruff

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In the course of conducting research on domestic life [1], we have visited and conducted observations in a number of U.S. homes. Within these homes, we have often observed a certain homogeneity, a tendency toward similarity in place and experience. Our sense of a sometimes uniform and undifferentiated domestic environment resonates with observations made by others as well. For example, the modern housing landscape has been critiqued as offering limited variation in internal form and structure compared with the diversity of household populations [2, 3]. Homes with uniform construction, ceiling height, and lighting are symptomatic of designs that deal with economic constraints by being larger and undifferentiated, rather than smaller but more differentiated [4]. Additionally, fundamental domestic infrastructure, such as central heating and cooling systems that deliver a consistent climate throughout the home, reinforces the assumption that the domestic environment should be consistent and homogeneous.

Even in spatially complex homes, pervasive technology often provides access to the same "virtual environment" throughout the home, creating a homogeneous environment as viewed through the screen. Televisions playing in multiple rooms can create similar landscapes throughout the home. Further, devices such as time-shifting television recorders can subtly homogenize the experience of time by reducing the salience of external temporal structures such as network television schedules [5]. "Anytime, anywhere" networks and devices such as cellular and smart phones can also blur boundaries between work and home, as well as boundaries within the home. Laptops and PDAs connected wirelessly to the office may be placed on a bedside table, providing access to work late at night, and for many people, the experience of truly "coming home from work" is a rare one.

Increased homogeneity in the domestic environment plainly offers attractions such as convenience. For example, uniform access to data and network services offers residents the handy ability to compute in any room in the home and to be near family members while they are working. However, this is a double-edged sword, resonating with concerns of McDonaldization—the process by which modern society takes on the characteristics of a fast-food restaurant [6]. While standardized and uniform services are convenient and seductive, they are also often associated with limited variation and reduced quality. These issues resonate with our own intuition, based on our experience with design and observation, that homogeneity is often associated with a less fulfilling domestic experience.

Findings from environmental psychology and restorative environment theory also suggest potential disadvantages of homogeneous home environments [7]. Restorative environments are important for reducing mental fatigue resulting from stressful situations or intense thought, and inspection of the characteristics of restorative environments suggests that homogeneous domestic environments may not be sufficiently restorative. As Tabor writes, digital screens are "sleepless, fidgety, and demanding [8]." They "discourage that mental state of still coherence—achieved when we stare into a flame, gaze idly from a window or watch shadows lengthen—which rebuilds the self."

In contrast with more homogeneous environments, we also sometimes noticed interesting variation within the homes we studied. For example, sustainable "green homes" designed to take advantage of sun and wind for heating and cooling have strong temporal variation based on natural forces [9]. As another example, many Jewish households use technology to help them observe the Sabbath as a day of rest, providing a completely different experience from the rest of the week [10]. While these variations are associated with specialized purposes, they inspired us to consider how other consciously designed variations might manifest themselves in homes for the broader population.

Based on these observations, we introduce the concept of the "heterogeneous home," a diverse and dynamic domestic environment. In this vision we explore the interaction between technology and architecture in the home and consider how the two can be jointly designed to create a rich environment that suits the complexities and variety of life in the home. In so doing, we hope to articulate new design opportunities, as well as to encourage critical reflection on existing trends and assumptions.

To demonstrate that this heterogeneous home framework offers a fertile design space for a wide variety of new objects and environments, we created a design sketchbook. In spirit, our efforts are similar to work such as Gaver and Martin's workbook of inspirational design proposals to explore the design space of information appliances [11]. The sketches we developed are not necessarily literal design proposals, but rather are intended to engage the reader with ideas ranging from highly speculative concepts to humorous suggestions to very simple product ideas.

To generate the design sketches, we engaged in a collaborative dialogue with each other, drawing inspiration from our own backgrounds in computer science, design, architecture, and qualitative research, as well as incorporating our own analysis of existing commercial products and research concepts and prototypes. We also considered properties of restorative environments in generating design sketches. For example, environments that provide a sense of "being away" are refreshing and reduce mental fatigue [7], so we explored mechanisms that support separation between work and home. As another example, environments with fascinating patterns that effortlessly hold one's attention are also restorative [7], so we explored designs that expose engaging patterns.

Bachelard writes, "We have our cottage moments and our palace moments [12]." We also have our working moments and our relaxing moments; our public moments and our intimate moments; and our active moments and our reflective moments. It is important to support clear differentiation of such diverse experiences in the home while also acknowledging the complexities of domestic life that tie these experiences together. In this work we have sought to explore these issues holistically, considering how different aspects of the home such as architecture and technology can be jointly designed to create a dynamic and rich environment. The solutions we propose highlight opportunities to design for variety and suggest a range of technologies and spaces that might make up the heterogeneous home.

back to top  Acknowledgments

We are grateful to environmental psychologist Sally Augustin for introducing us to restorative environment theory and for providing valuable feedback on this work. We also thank Paul Aoki, John Canny, and Shona Kitchen for helpful discussions. Ryan Aipperspach performed this work as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. Ben Hooker performed this work as a visiting researcher at Intel Research Berkeley.

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1. Woodruff, A., K. Anderson, S. D. Mainwaring, and R. Aipperspach. "Portable, But Not Mobile: A Study of Wireless Laptops in the Home." In Pervasive Computing 5th International Conference, Pervasive 2007, Toronto, Canada, May 13–16, 2007, edited by A. LaMarca, M. Langheinrich, and K. N. Truong, 216–233. New York: Springer, 2007.

2. Ahrentzen, S. "Choice in Housing." Harvard Design Magazine 8 (summer 1999): 1–6.

3. Hanson, J. and B. Hiller. "Two Domestic 'Space Codes' Compared." In Decoding Homes and Houses, 109–133. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

4. Gallagher, W. House Thinking. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.

5. Brown, B. and L. Barkhuus. "The Television will be Revolutionized: Effects of PVRs and Filesharing on Television Watching." In the Proceedings of CHI 2006, 663–666. New York: ACM Press, 2006.

6. Ritzer, G. The McDonaldization of Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1993.

7. Kaplan, R. and S. Kaplan. The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

8. Tabor, P. "Striking Home: The Telematic Assault on Identity." In J. Hill's Occupying Architecture. London: Routledge, 1998.

9. Woodruff, A., J. Hasbrouck, and S. Augustin. "A Bright Green Perspective on Sustainable Choices." In the Proceedings of CHI 2008, 313–322. New York: ACM Press, 2008.

10. Woodruff, A., S. Augustin, and B. E. Foucault. "Sabbath Day Home Automation: 'It's Like Mixing Technology and Religion.'" In the Proceedings of CHI 2007, 527–536. New York: ACM Press, 2007

11. Gaver, W. and H. Martin. "Alternatives: Exploring Information Appliances through Conceptual Design Proposals." In the Proceedings of CHI 2000, 209–216. New York: ACM Press, 2000.

12. Bachelard, G. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.

back to top  Authors

Ryan Aipperspach is on leave from the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied at the Berkeley Institute of Design. There his focus was on studying and developing portable domestic technologies. He is currently the user experience lead at, a website to help people find safe, healthy, and green products by providing credible social, environmental, and health impact information about everyday products. Ryan holds a B.S. in computer science from Rice University and an M.S. in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley.

Ben Hooker is an artist and designer, and a faculty member in the media design program at the Art Center College of Design. Although his background is in screen-based multimedia design, for the past few years most of his projects have centered on collaborations with architects, industrial designers, and computer scientists working in the field of human computer interaction. The result of these collaborations is a body of work that explores the consequences of intangible computer-generated "data landscapes" merging with real, physical spaces. He has a B.Sc. in electronic imaging and media communications and an M.A. in computer-related design from the Royal College of Art.

Allison Woodruff is a researcher at Intel Research Berkeley. Her primary interests include environmentally sustainable technologies, technology for domestic environments, mobile and communication technologies, and ubiquitous computing. Prior to joining Intel, She worked as a researcher at PARC from 1998 to 2004. She holds a B.A. in English from California State University, Chico; an M.S. in computer science, and an M.A. in linguistics from the University of California, Davis; and a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley.

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The complete sketchbook is available at:


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©2009 ACM  1072-5220/09/0100  $5.00

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