XVIII.3 May + June 2011
Page: 14
Digital Citation

Building outwards from sustainable HCI

Elaine Huang

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This column marks the start of a new forum for interactions entitled Sustainability in (Inter)Action, which considers the application of HCI and interaction design to problems of environmental sustainability and explores the ways in which knowledge and expertise from other fields can contribute to these efforts.

In recent years there has been an explosion of work in the interaction-design and HCI communities focusing on environmental sustainability. The enthusiasm for research and design in this area can arguably be traced back to the CHI 2007 conference, prior to which there had been only a smattering of papers and projects on the topic. The 2007 conference comprised two key events that galvanized the community. The first of these events was a special interest group (SIG) meeting on sustainability and interaction, which served as the community's first large-scale, open discussion of the subject [1], and the second was the presentation and publication of Eli Blevis's seminal paper on sustainable interaction design (SID), which served to identify and make explicit the critical connection between ecological sustainability and interaction design [2]. These events set forth a new set of challenges for the community and gave root to a lively discourse that has only gained in volume and momentum in the four years since.

back to top  Growing a Passionate Community

Much of the early discussion of sustainability in the HCI community focused on whether HCI could actually make a meaningful contribution to environmental challenges, and whether sustainability was a legitimate area of focus for HCI research. Arguments in favor of the area looked to the things that HCI does best—such as visualizing and communicating information in ways that people understand through interactive system design, or understanding people's practices with and perceptions of technology—and posited this expertise and set of skills would be key in finding solutions and encouraging sustainable practices. Currently, sustainability in HCI is seeing rapid growth and general recognition as a valuable and valid area of study. This is evidenced by continued and increasing publication on the topic at CHI and related venues and workshops; journals devoted to aspects of sustainability and HCI; and the integration of academic courses built around sustainability in HCI and HCC curricula. The inclusion of sustainability as a Featured Community at the CHI 2011 conference underlines the increasing attention that the HCI community is giving to the area. Furthermore, it is difficult not to notice the tangible enthusiasm and passion for the subject within the community.

Sustainably Ours, the predecessor to this column, has served as a key forum for exploring the intersection of sustainability and interaction design for the past three years. Examining the ways in which design and HCI knowledge, approaches, and methods could be applied to meet environmental challenges, the forum has been instrumental in developing the body of knowledge and ideas that constitutes a "first wave" of sustainability work. In addressing this new and unfamiliar set of challenges, the community first examined the problems and then looked to itself to start finding solutions. What aspects of the manifold environmental problems—global climate change, e-waste, decreasing biodiversity, among others—were we equipped to address? What could we draw forth from our large and diverse toolbox of skills and expertise to alleviate or simply understand these problems?

This initial wave of research in the area built up a core of knowledge that relied heavily upon the unique experience and knowledge of the HCI and interaction-design communities, generally approaching problems in various domains from an HCI perspective. These forays into sustainability included studies of human practices surrounding consumption, waste, and energy use, using methods such as contextual inquiry, surveys, and interviews. System designs and technology prototypes focused strongly on using good information visualization to increase awareness and communicate information to users in ways that were meaningful and easy to comprehend. And designs leveraged many of the media channels that have become central to the HCI community in recent years, such as online communities and social networking software, as new means of delivering information and supporting sustainability.

back to top  Building from the Inside Out

The community continues to engage in sustainability-oriented research relying primarily on core HCI expertise, creating a foundational bridge between sustainability and interaction design. However, we are at the same time discovering the need to build bridges outward to maximize the impact and effects of our work. The urgency of global climate change and related problems underscores the fact that the sustainability work undertaken by the community must have effects beyond the boundaries of the community if we are to contribute to solutions. One of the great challenges that lies ahead for sustainability work is how to assess the success of our research, not only in terms of evaluating interaction, but also in terms of understanding the impact of our work on everyday life and practices, behaviors, and perspectives.

Despite the increasing agreement within the CHI community that HCI and interaction design can contribute to solutions to sustainability challenges, few, if any, would argue that HCI itself is the solution, or that problems of sustainability can be framed purely as problems for HCI or interaction design issues. Rather, as this first wave has illustrated, HCI can be effective at providing certain pieces of the puzzle.

As we move forward in search of solutions with concrete, real-world impact on environmental sustainability, it is critical that we focus not only on those pieces but also on identifying and establishing the connections with the pieces that fall outside our realm of expertise. The Sustainability in (Inter)Action forum aims to continue strengthening the HCI core of SID, while finding and building connections toward more complete solutions in which HCI works in conjunction with other areas of knowledge.

Much of the current research in sustainable HCI has begun to reach outward to connect the ongoing work in HCI with other domains, such as politics and environmental psychology. Drawing and establishing these connections is essential, as it helps us address needs in which our community is inexperienced and avoid duplicating work that others have already done. One of the initial challenges, however, is simply understanding where to look for expertise so we can begin to take advantage of the vast knowledge that already exists and lend our own expertise to other communities where it might be beneficial. Sustainability in (Inter) Action aims to provide a forum for exploring these connections.

Although we do not presume to know all the directions that this next wave of sustainable interaction work will take, there are some important bridges that seem especially ready for construction. More specifically, there is a need to connect with data that other fields can provide, to look to methods and theory from other areas of research and practice, and explore new and existing infrastructure outside of our primary research community.

Much of the work in HCI and sustainability has relied upon data that we are able to collect ourselves, such as logged user data, self-reported data, or sensor data to understand various phenomena or evaluate interactive systems aimed at addressing environmental challenges. Other work has taken advantage of easily accessible data that is simple to communicate, such as measures of carbon footprint. Reliance on such data has allowed researchers to engage more deeply in the design and interaction aspects of our work. It has allowed us to focus on the user experience and perspective by dealing with types of content that do not fall far from our core expertise.

However, there is also a need for the community to look to the extensive and scientifically rigorous bodies of environmental data that are being produced by environmental science and engineering, among other fields. The ability to understand and use this data will be extremely powerful in helping us come to mature and viable solutions that go beyond proof-of-concept. As one example, work in the area of life cycle assessment (LCA) has produced cradle-to-grave data on the environmental impact of products and services, data that is regarded as arguably more comprehensive, standardized, and scientifically rigorous than measures such as carbon footprint [3]. Such data, however, is complex and less straightforward to use and access than much of the data our community currently relies on; making use of it will entail not only rethinking content, but perhaps rethinking design as well. Recent work by Bonnani and Hockenberry has made a step in this direction. They investigate the use of LCA in interfaces to support environmental awareness by examining how Sourcemap, an open source tool that supports exploring and calculating LCAs, with an emphasis on carbon data and material sources [4]. This work represents an important trajectory—the integration of the increasing wealth of data that can be gleaned from other fields that are also addressing issues of environmental sustainability, and the establishment of connections to these fields.

In addition to offering potential sources of data, other fields may also hold theories, models, and methods suited to addressing challenges of environmental sustainability that complement those in our own toolbox.

Recent work in the area of sustainable HCI has begun to identify these connections. Most notably, Froehlich et al. have made a strong argument for relying on work from the field of environmental psychology when considering the design of eco-feedback systems, largely because of the particular methodological approaches taken in that field that are often complementary to the approaches in HCI and interaction design [5]. In a further example, work by He et al. ties traditional notions of user-centered design to models drawn from behavioral psychology and addiction therapy to address the challenges of motivating changes in energy use [6]. As the community strengthens the ties between environmental sustainability and HCI theory, methods, and models, it must also continue to look to other fields for tools and knowledge that can be applied in conjunction with them towards novel or more complete solutions.

Going forward, a third bridge that the community must continue to build is that between research and real-world situations. Although HCI and sustainability research relies on studies of existing practice and deployments of novel technologies outside of the laboratory setting, recent work by Aoki et al., which has attempted to bring novel technologies into a real-world community, underlines the novel and unexpected challenges of interacting and negotiating with various stakeholders in a municipality [7]. Notably, the work highlights the complexity of perspectives among organizations and individuals, the barriers it can create for buy-in, and the implications for how research needs to be conducted outside of the comparatively constrained and controlled settings in which many other technologies in the area have been deployed and tested. Rather than shying from the potential messiness and complications that may result from situating novel technologies in real environments and communities, we should embrace the opportunity to learn from the unanticipated challenges that such deployments afford as a way of better understanding, and thus better addressing, the domains in which we are attempting to have a positive and concrete impact.

The question of what fields, areas, and stakeholders may hold useful knowledge for interaction design and sustainability is still an open one, and the potential areas for exploration mentioned here are but a small subset of examples from a largely unknown set of possibilities. Certainly many more possibilities exist, and a recent and excellent comprehensive survey of the sustainability research in HCI by DiSalvo et al. makes arguments for additional connections with other scientific and design communities. Such connections, they argue, would encourage us to draw new conclusions through research rather than repeating the same ones we have already drawn [8]. Dourish also proffers an articulate argument for the need to consider sustainability research in HCI within the greater political and economic context so as to avoid a constrained perspective that yields a constrained impact [9].

In this still nascent area of study, we have only just begun to look outside of our own field for resources and expertise that may help turn our studies and designs into concrete solutions to problems of sustainability. As we consider how HCI methods and knowledge can be used in conjunction with those from other fields, communities, and stakeholders that are addressing similar issues, one of the key challenges is identifying what these connections will be. Although some current and potential communities and research areas are mentioned above, this list is by no means comprehensive. Sustainability in (Inter)Action is a forum for exploring these bridges and engaging with these communities while continuing to explore the critical area of sustainability in interaction design.

back to top  References

1. Mankoff, J. C., Blevis, E., Borning, A., Friedman, B., Fussell, S. R., Hasbrouck, J., Woodruff, A., and Sengers, P. Environmental sustainability and interaction. Proc. CHI Extended Abstracts '07. (San Jose, CA, Apr.30-May 3). ACM, New York, 2007, 2121–2124.

2. Blevis, E. Sustainable interaction design: Invention, disposal, renewal and waste. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems: CHI'07. (San Jose, CA, Apr.30-May 3). ACM, New York, 2007, 503–512.

3. Weidema, B.P., Thrane, M., Christensen, P., Schmidt, J., and Løkke, S. Carbon footprint: A catalyst for life cycle assessment? Journal of Industrial Ecology 12,1 (2008), 3–6.

4. Bonanni, L., Hockenberry, M., Zwarg, D., Csikszentmihalyi, C., and Ishii, H. Small business applications of Sourcemap: A web tool for sustainable design and supply chain transparency. Proc. of the 28th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. (Atlanta, GA, Apr.10-15). ACM, New York, 2010, 937–946.

5. Froehlich, J., Findlater, L., and Landay, J. A. The design of eco-feedback technology. Proc. of the 28th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. (Atlanta, GA, Apr.10-15). ACM, New York, 2010, 1999–2008.

6. He, H. A., Greenberg, S., Huang, E. M. One size does not fit all: Applying the transtheoretical model to energy feedback technology. Proc. of the 28th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. (Atlanta, GA, Apr.10-15). ACM, New York, 2010, 927–936.

7. Aoki, P. M., Honicky, R. J., Mainwaring, A., Myers, C., Paulos, E., Subramanian, S., and Woodruff, A. A vehicle for research: using street sweepers to explore the landscape of environmental community action. Proc. of the 27th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. (Boston, MA, Apr. 4-9). ACM, New York, 2009, 375–384.

8. DiSalvo, C., Brynjarsdottir, H., and Sengers, P. Mapping the landscape of sustainable HCI. Proc. of the 28th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. (Atlanta, GA, Apr.10-15). ACM, New York, 2010, 1975–1984.

9. Dourish, P. HCI and environmental sustainability: The politics of design and the design of politics. Proc. of the 8th ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems. (Aarhus, Denmark, Aug. 16-20). ACM, New York, 2010, 1–10.

back to top  Author

Elaine M. Huang is an associate professor of HCI in the Department of Informatics at the University of Zurich, where she leads the People and Computing (Z*PAC) research lab. Her research focuses on sustainable design, ubiquitous computing, and collaborative technologies.

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