FeaturesSpecial topic: Interact Comes to India: Field Trips as a Culture of Design Praxis

XXV.3 May-June 2018
Page: 61
Digital Citation

A personal perspective on the value of cross-cultural fieldwork

Arne Berger, Dhaval Vyas

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Doing fieldwork is an excellent remedy for HCI researchers' potential biases. However, thorough fieldwork requires proper preparation, and sometimes extensive planning and support from local communities. As such, supporting researchers in getting a glimpse of what it's like to do fieldwork in a particular area would be a worthwhile addition to HCI conferences. Last year, we were fortunate to spend time with fellow researchers as part of two HCI conferences, and a great deal of that time took place in the field, outside the conference venues. The CHI 2017 workshop "Asserting Agency in the Age of IoT" was held in a residential house in Denver, where we reflected upon smart-home systems design in the real conditions of a U.S. neighborhood very different from most of our own, in other countries. Later that year, INTERACT 2017 in Mumbai, India, provided the opportunity to conduct field trips in the local area that were complementary to the workshop program. As a group of 10 researchers, we set out on a two-day excursion. The goal: to meet older adults to understand how they experience aging.

back to top  Insights


Here, together with our fellow field-trip companions, we reflect upon the effect this field trip had on us as HCI researchers and as a multicultural group, and the effect it had on our research. We do so because many HCI researchers may be sympathetic toward fieldwork, yet also may believe they lack either the opportunity or the experience.

When a group of women shared one of their practices with us, it dawned on me: Maybe there is no technology or design needed after all?

Surely two-day field trips provide only a brief and partial look. Yet even a short but focused encounter can inform us about the life-worlds and values of those who may be affected by our future designs. After all, the idea behind rapid ethnography is to enable ethnographic research over a shorter period using a focused approach [1]. Depending on our willingness to open up to the uncertainty of the field, different, even challenging cultural realities may have a valuable impact on us as HCI researchers.

ins02.gif Our field note materials and some German Christmas sweets given as a token of appreciation to the participants.

Apart from the specific research question at hand, a field trip enables us to answer more general questions: What is the impact of seeing, feeling, and understanding people's real-life situations? How can deliberate reflection on different cultural backgrounds inform our repertoire as HCI researchers? For example: How can understanding a similar problem in two hemispheres influence our design and research capabilities? We were a group of 10 researchers, from seasoned ethnographers to first-time visitors to Asia. Most of us met there for the first time. Together we came from Germany, Italy, Sweden, Australia, the U.K., and India. In what follows, each of us reflects on this experience. Collaboratively, we hope to contribute to an understanding of the value of cross-cultural field trips for HCI researchers.

Arne, as the field trip organizer, you were responsible for the overall research question, methodology, and general planning prior to the trip. What was the objective? The field trip aimed at getting a nuanced view on older adults' practices of support. Enabling older adults to live independently and well has been a topic of research in Western countries for a decade now [2,3]. Yet relatively little is collectively known about how older adults actually perceive, construct, and maintain support structures for help, security, and comfort within their home and the artifact ecologies at their disposal. How do they cope with the growing need for support? How do they reciprocate? To investigate, we used a mixed-method approach of narrative, open-ended interviews, group discussions, collaborative photography, and in-action ethnographic sketching. Our field trip focused on two areas in Mumbai with different social geographies. In Dharavi, a large slum, we met older adults with a busy routine: taking care of grandchildren and the home while their children were working. In Powai, an upper-middle-class neighborhood, we met older adults who had domestic help at their disposal. —Arne Berger, post-doctoral researcher, TU Chemnitz, Germany

Christiane, your research is concerned with HCI systems that support people in delicate situations.

How do you compare findings from Europe with those in India? What are differences in providing and receiving support? I found it particularly fascinating how implicit assumptions were challenged that may have been evoked by my own background and the aim of the field trip. "Understanding the support network of older adults" implied for me that these people needed support. However, the families I visited painted a somewhat different picture. For example, when the older couple provided support to their working children by taking care of their grandchildren. The aim to "understand implications for how to design for support" made me assume that some kind of design could improve the situation. When a group of women shared one of their practices with us, it dawned on me: Maybe there is no technology or design needed after all? After an interview, we were invited to accompany an 85-year-old woman who meets several of her friends outside her house every evening from 6 to 7 p.m. Her son had told us before that she has a huge social network around, which was the reason they would not move to another place. These women sitting on their bench, chatting and laughing, watching their grandkids running around and playing—it just did not seem as if they needed technological support for their network. —Christiane Grünloh, Ph.D. student, TH Köln, Germany and KTH Stockholm, Sweden

Dhaval, our field trip took place in your home country, yet you have been living outside of India for many years. How might we as a global HCI community conduct meaningful HCI fieldwork across culturally different countries? Ever since ICT4D research took off, I have seen all my visits to India with the eye of a researcher. The two-day format of field trips may not be sufficient to get an in-depth understanding of a specific culture, but I thought it provided us with a good initial understanding that can guide more comprehensive fieldwork in the future. Our collective findings showed some of the known cultural features that older adults in India exhibit. For example, they relied heavily on familial support and spiritual solace during the latter parts of their lives. We found that a majority of our participants relied on their adult children for support, while they helped out with the household activities and looked after their grandchildren when required. The older adults viewed this not as transactional but rather as family intimacy. Findings such as this are not uncommon across India. Despite the useful initial findings, there are clear challenges that we as HCI researchers need to address, such as the ethical issues related to conducting research with underserved communities. However, I do believe that we can address these challenges through collaborative engagement with local organizations and participants. — Dhaval Vyas, senior lecturer, QUT Brisbane, Australia

ins03.gif Post-interview photo opportunity and chat with our fellow field-trip participants.
ins04.gif There was lots of HCI-in-the-wild spotting on our way to meet our first field-trip participants.

Rishab, you live and study in Mumbai, yet this was your first field excursion to Dharavi—a place very different from yours. How did this change your perspective? Before the field trip, I had heard about and seen Dharavi through numerous people's perspectives. That translated into my having certain expectations and preconceived notions. I was always excited about visiting Dharavi to find out how many of them held up, so the field trip was a terrific opportunity. Plus, this was my first time doing research. I was guided by seasoned researchers and found the whole experience enriching. Through every step of the process, my colleagues helped me understand the basics and some of the nuances of conducting a field study. One of the key takeaways for my current work as an undergrad student: Now I make sure that all things that I make are grounded in hard reality—not the reality I see, but rather the reality of potential users. That is more important. The field trip made me fall in love with the idea of field research and research in general. —Rishab Jain, IIT Bombay India / student volunteer

I had a distinct feeling that forming any impression (let alone distilling "findings") on such a short-term visit would have .somehow been unfair to the people we encountered.

Alessandro, how do you think the reality of people living in a slum and our research in HCI overlap? How relevant is HCI research when confronted with pressing issues, like the nonexistent plumbing in Dharavi? I regard both days as moments of personal growth. However, as I try to approach my research with a spirit of reciprocity, I wonder what can be realistically achieved in the short time frame of a field trip and how it can benefit the people we work with in meaningful ways. Many researchers think that proper HCI4D research can be conducted only through long-term (potentially years) engagement with communities, ideally living on site and sharing the daily lives of research partners. While I believe research can be articulated in many ways, including shorter-term projects, on my way back from Dharavi, I had a distinct feeling that forming any impression (let alone distilling "findings") on such a short-term visit would have somehow been unfair to the people we encountered. For example, the fact that the visit was designed to keep us safe, and that we were given copious recommendations on what to do and how to behave, means that during our visit we were probably blind, not just to all the problems that fell behind our specific research questions, but also to the inventiveness of the people, the ways they live day-to-day, and the thick network of social relations that certainly extends well beyond the rooms in which we were received and the few alleys we walked down, keeping our eyes on the student volunteers to avoid getting lost. I experience this sense of blindness continuously in my work. Partly this is because knowledge of many aspects of the life in the communities I work with is precluded to me, and partly this is because, for many different reasons, the individuals I engage with are—within the community—the ones in a position of power. A large part of my research work consists of trying to make sense of the implications of these imbalances, how it affects what can be learned, and working out ways to give back, even to the people whose voices I couldn't hear. Can anything like this be articulated for a two-day field trip? Perhaps it could with ongoing preparation (e.g., establishing contact with the community months ahead). Does this mean that we should not do HCI research with communities because they have more pressing issues to address? Certainly not—in fact, quite the opposite. I believe that a goal for HCI research should be to create technologies that give everyone a voice. However, I also feel we should remain aware that the limits and constraints of a field trip will conceal so much from us, and that what we concretely reciprocate should be higher on our research agendas. —Alessandro Soro, post doctoral researcher, QUT Brisbane, Australia

Saloni, as the local contact point and manager of the field trip, your task was to take care of everything from logistics and food to translation and answering questions. What was your biggest concern with having to take care of 10 strangers? My state of mind before the field trip was far from nervous. In fact I was extremely excited! Being a student volunteer for a field trip gave me the perfect opportunity to experience firsthand how professionals do field research. I conducted interviews and group discussions, and I could observe, question, and understand the perspectives of HCI researchers from various countries. The excitement also stemmed from the fact that we were to study the behavior and lives of older adults, a research direction that I am increasingly curious about. The complementary perspective of visiting researchers gave perfect cover for my own differences from the local cultures being studied—seeing through their eyes helped me learn more about my own culture.

Usually the food, language, and cultural differences can disorient a non-local. Visitors to Dharavi often walk in with preconceived notions of hygiene, poverty, and degree of social sophistication, or lack thereof. In our case, I would say, the sailing was smooth. Every participant came with a similar agenda: to learn more about the people we were there to meet, and to better inform our own designs. The holistic participation of a group of people with open minds and the sole agenda to learn ensures that everyone leaves a bit of themselves and takes a bit of the place they visited. What better event than a conference to bring these people together? And yes! I would definitely want to be part of such a field trip again. It was an amazing experience, and we should make such opportunities available to everyone. —Saloni Metha, IIT Bombay India, Samsung Bangalore, India / student volunteer

back to top  Conclusion, or Why we are Asking for More

With the ongoing turn from the lab to the field, HCI research is steadily moving from evaluating hypotheses to understanding the real-life circumstances of those for whom we strive to design. It may feel comfortable and satisfying to conduct elaborate research within the secluded environment of our labs. Yet the explorative, oftentimes messy nature of the field enables us to get nuanced and detailed insights into people's behavior, practices, and values, as well as their use of places, networks, and technology. We aimed to explore worlds different from our own—even a glimpse into another culture can inspire our research to be more appropriate, relevant, and humane.

We hope we can motivate future conference chairs to consider adding field trips and support for field trips to the repertoire of HCI conferences. And maybe we as a community can dare to travel to more places outside our comfort zones for conferences to participate in such opportunities. We also hope we have provided some input for researchers as to why adding field trips to their workshop proposals is a good idea: to foster short excursions to the field together with like-minded researchers. Finally, we appeal to more HCI researchers to leave the comfort of the lab. Even if it is just for a detour, this will help reclaim the understanding of real life-worlds to inform research, making future designs better resonate with actual users.

back to top  Acknowledgments

Thank you to Aniruda Joshi, Nimmi Rangaswamy, Jose Abdelnour-Nocera, and Debjani Roy for being pioneers in proposing and supporting field trips in conjunction with the INTERACT 2017 conference. Thank you to all our fellow participants for being brave and curious. We hope to see each other at INTERACT in Cyprus 2019.

back to top  References

1. Millen, D.R. Rapid ethnography: Time deepening strategies for HCI field research. Proc. of the 3rd Conference on Designing Interactive Systems: Processes, Practices, Methods, and Techniques. ACM, New York, 2000, 280–286.

2. Berger A. Understanding the informal support networks of older adults in India. In Human-Computer Interaction – INTERACT 2017. R. Bernhaupt, G. Dalvi, A. Joshi, D.K. Balkrishan, J. O'Neill, and M. Winckler, eds. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol. 10516. Springer, Cham, 2017.

3. Lindley, S.E., Harper, R., and Sellen, A. Designing for elders: Exploring the complexity of relationships in later life. Proc. of the 22nd British HCI Group Annual Conference on People and Computers: Culture, Creativity, Interaction-Volume 1. BCS Learning & Development, Swindon, UK, 2008, 77–86.

back to top  Authors

Arne Berger, born in the 1970s in the Eastern Bloc, is an interaction design researcher and post-doctoral researcher at Chemnitz University of Technology, Germany, where he explores novel modes of co-creation of smart connected technology in the context of the home. arne.berger@informatik.tu-chemnitz.de

Dhaval Vyas works as a senior lecturer at Queensland University of Technology's computer-human interaction discipline. He currently holds the Australian Research Council's DECRA Fellowship. His research focuses on understanding and designing for underserved communities. d.vyas@qut.edu.au

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