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

XXV.3 May-June 2018
Page: 35
Digital Citation

SPECIAL TOPIC: INTERACT comes to India - Introduction

Debjani Roy, José Abdelnour-Nocera, Nimmi Rangaswamy

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In 2015, Anirudha Joshi (IDC, IIT Bombay) approached us to co-chair and organize a novel track never before seen at the IFIP INTERACT conference series. It would focus on providing participants with a taste of the real world outside the conference building. Since this conference would bring many HCI researchers from inside and outside of India, this was the perfect time to inaugurate this new track. "We wanted to give them an opportunity to do something concrete going beyond the conference venue," says Joshi, who calls India, and especially Mumbai, a hotbed of grassroots creativity. "Every user, every person, every community has a goldmine of ideas. They face unique problems, and find interesting solutions. We introduced 'Field Trips' as a track to enable international and Indian participants to together engage in an HCI activity with the local stakeholders. We hope that this let both groups see India in a new light, and that this engagement has triggered new research ideas and future collaborations."


This activity could not be framed as a one-off intervention that would leave no legacy. That would have been ethically dubious. We therefore decided that each field trip should offer an opportunity for mutual reflection and learning, where ideas and insights between the communities and the delegates would be co-constructed as a consequence of these encounters. These were an opportunity to reflect and visualize the tensions created between local cultures and the assumptions, priorities, and values embedded in both our research traditions and the tools and concepts of HCI.

Approaching Indian communities living and working in slums, the countryside, and different types of urban settlements required some prior understanding of their intrinsic motivations and value systems. To ensure that field-trip participants were aware of these, and also to manage expectations, we had to devise a dialogue between all stakeholders. Field trips then required a special process of curation. The important values underpinning this type of engagement had to be respect, awareness, and an insider's understanding of the communities where we would be working. The honest question: What's in it for these communities? But also, what's in it for those who intervene or visit? A field trip, or any such encounter where all parties engage directly in these two questions, enjoys the best chances of success. This is the sweet spot we design researchers all crave.

Approaching Indian communities living and working in slums, the countryside, and different types of urban settlements required some prior understanding of their intrinsic motivations and value systems.

Fieldwork in the context of this track constituted a complexity of cultural spaces and hermeneutic encounters that had to be deconstructed before, during, and after the event. This introduction and the articles in this Special Topic attempt that deconstruction.

The field trips started with their initial curation and all the negotiations, co-designs, dialogues, and realizations that unfolded until their culmination at the INTERACT 2017 conference. We provide our account of these stages in the next section. This is followed by a brief discussion of the field trips through the HCI4D lens.

back to top  Curating the Track

Field trips were designed to take place over two days. A group of participants would conduct activities in and around the Mumbai region, such as observing people and cultures and conducting usability tests, focus groups, or interviews.

For many participants, from various countries with varied ethics and backgrounds, this would be the first trip to India. India is known for its diversity, and Mumbai is the amalgamation of the diversity that we wanted participants to experience. The motive behind curating the track was to align organizers' plans for their field trip with the realities of the field settings. Hence, field-trip planning was in collaboration with the chairs, organizers, and stakeholders of that excursion. This was necessary—the idea was to manage the expectations of each field trip while ensuring the experience would be interesting for everyone. A great deal of co-designing was required ahead of time to create an enriching experience in just two days.

Attracting proposals. The call for proposals gave an overview of what to expect, with possible locations in and near Mumbai. Potential foci for a field trip included livelihood, entrepreneurship, innovation, children's rights, everyday stories, and hacker/maker culture. At every step, we as chairs asked organizers why they wanted to do what they wanted to do, and we asked ourselves how to make these things possible in the best possible way. Organizers needed to explore their own creativity in understanding a field, rather than forcing their ideas to fit some specific predefined structure. Converging on these ideas was accomplished through Skype calls and iterations in the proposals.

Co-creating proposals. Though it was important to create an experience for the organizers and participants, it was even more important that the study conducted should be relevant, feasible for the field setting, and follow a methodology to deliver takeaways and learning. Proposals were reviewed on three aspects:

  • Relevance. Each proposal reflected the academic and professional experience of the organizers. Some drew on assumptions that were not relevant, and thus not suitable to the context. There were exchanges of ideas and discussions before consensus and final acceptance.
  • Feasibility. Some proposals were interesting but ambitious with respect to the time and setting of the study. These had to be narrowed down. Some organizers wanted to try out different methods like reflexive and collaborative photography. In such cases, the ethical dimension had to be addressed more clearly in terms of benefits for the participants.
  • Methodology. There were some quasi-experimental approaches in a controlled environment that were not in line with a field trip and thus had to be reworked. In other cases, organizers had planned to conduct controlled experiments with the users in a field setting, in which case the protocol had to be clearly defined.

Finally, out of the 15 proposals, six were accepted and two were merged, resulting in two two-day field trips in different locations, three single-day field trips, one usability-testing study, and one single-day field trip combined with a one-day workshop.

Planning the field trips. The first task was to identify the user requirements, which depended on the kind of study the organizers were planning to conduct and the time needed to complete those studies. External sources like NGOs and people working with local communities helped with user recruitment. In some instances, the field trip had specific requirements for users—for example, that they be elderly people or healthcare workers. In such cases, detailed coordination was needed to plan the timing of interviews.

Arranging a place was very important, as most of the field trips were conducted in the slum area Dharavi, where finding a place to accommodate groups of eight to 10 people is always a challenge. Scheduling had to avoid clashes between groups.

Planning travel was another key factor. In one field trip, participants had to travel for three hours to talk to a specific group in a locality. For others, city traffic complicated timing, as one must cut through Mumbai traffic to reach Dharavi, in the center of the city.

Language was the biggest barrier. For each field trip, a moderator/communicator would bridge the communication gap and facilitate the whole trip. Hence, groups were formed so at least one or two members could speak the local language.

As part of the protocol, the organizers would not give gifts of any kind to participants. That was taken care of by the INTERACT 2017 committee, mainly to maintain consistency across groups.

Plans needed to be well executed. The student volunteers played a critical role as field warriors who were coordinating, making decisions, moderating, arranging, and handling issues on the fly.

You can never plan enough. The uniqueness of a field trip is its dynamism. There are situations that could not be foreseen and required changes to a study's methodology. In one case, it was changed from interviews to a focus group, as it became clear that the users were not comfortable when interviewed separately. In another, a focus group changed to interviews, as organizers felt that they had enough moderators and that the other structure would work better. In the initial stage of designing the field trips, the organizers had curated the groups to conduct experiments and interviews, but on the final day a sudden inflow of participants caused the organizers to reallocate tasks. Elsewhere, a participant joined on the last day and had no task allocated, so she could focus only on observing, note taking, and maintaining a diary. While in a controlled experiment, participants sometimes did not have anything to do. Also, balancing the interviewer-interviewee relation can become a challenge, as in one study where a group of three men were interviewing one woman.

From the chairs to the organizers to the participants, no one knew what to expect from these field trips, but everyone was open to experiment, experience, and explore.

Being one of the most populated countries, India tends to be crowded. Many of the organizers and participants found it overwhelming and needed some time to adjust. Despite this challenge, it was important to try to act as a researcher and not a tourist—to withhold fascination and curiosity and to research without intrusion.

Field trips facilitate the translation of local knowledge into valid and useful design insights, redefining and renegotiating boundaries and relations. The best way to do this translation is to merge and collide viewpoints, traditions, and ways of thinking, rather than rely on ready-made national cultural models. From the chairs to the organizers to the participants, no one knew what to expect from these field trips, but everyone was open to experiment, experience, and explore. After almost eight months of planning and co-creating, the INTERACT 2017 Field Trips track was successfully accomplished, with seven field trips curated by three chairs and organized by 10 organizers. The field trips involved 37 participants from across the globe, including Australia, China, Denmark, Finland, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland, the U.K., and the U.S., as well as nine student volunteers from India and one from Germany. Overall there were some glitches, but no major setbacks or negative experiences. The glitches became the learnings and takeaways for similar further studies.

back to top  Deconstructing the Field Trips Through the HCI4D Lens

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are increasingly embedded in the everyday lives of individuals and communities in low-resource contexts around the world, with the goal of improving education, healthcare, livelihoods, and the daily consumption of services. As such, the papers lend themselves to the HCI for development (HCI4D) lens. In fact, we think there is a natural fit with the INTERACT 2017 Field Trips track and HCI4D.

The first Special Topic feature, "A Mobile App for Supporting Sustainable Fishing Practices in Alibaug," presents the sociomaterial infrastructure surrounding a mobile app that supports fishers in finding fish more effectively. This article carefully examines how even the best technology designs with the best intentions to support development also have challenging implications for the social and environmental arrangements where the solution is deployed.


The second feature, "Engaging Different Worlds," outlines the world of schools run by government and non-governmental bodies catering to children from low-income urban environments and the challenges of introducing technology-aided classroom pedagogy. Its authors strike at the heart of HCI4D, focusing on and bringing in critical stakeholders: the parents of children in under-resourced schools, who turn to technology with hope and anxiety. The paper explores these parents' challenges—as they do not own or use much technology, are suspicious of technology, and may be guided more by anxiety than objective information about everyday technologies in schooling and education.

The third feature, "Privacy and Personalization," sets out to distinguish privacy as an immersive social category in the national cultures of Germany and India. It offered an "outside" space to study situated interpretations of prickly concepts such as the construction of individual and social privacy.

The fourth feature, "Where the Streets Have No Name," scopes the elusive problem of introducing and designing user interfaces for low-literate healthcare workers. These workers form the core of the healthcare system for large swaths of rural, peri-urban, and urban slum populations in India, disseminating health education and driving the praxis of a variety of health programs. A lack of funds and the power of traditional practices prevent technology from permeating health work, thereby reducing the reach and efficacy of health initiatives that could bring positive transformations.

Arne Berger and Dhaval Vyas's critical feature "A Personal Perspective on the Value of Cross-Cultural Fieldwork" focuses on taking HCI out of the lab to users in the wild, with technology immersed in everyday settings, exposed and vulnerable to the idiosyncrasies of its users. In this article on identifying support networks for older adults across social segments, the authors place a serious bet on culture as a differentiator in the creation, building, and sustenance of social networks, and look at the implications of choosing to situate the centrality of culture in what is essentially an HCI research problem. For the authors, INTERACT coming to India opened up a vital cross-cultural space to embed culture into conversations around HCI research endeavors.

An exacting question emerging from INTERACT 2017's Field Trips track was how to accommodate and energize a methodological kit for HCI from a cross-cultural perspective. The need is for the track to yield a sufficiently rigorous treatise on various HCI4D problems and issues for policymakers, practitioners, and researchers wishing to design and apply ICTs for maximum positive social impact.

Much HCI4D work centers on studying challenges to technology adoption and access to information. This motivates researchers and scholars to pursue developmental work through designing appropriate products. For instance, the fisheries-app field trip tells a fascinating story of long-term community participation and private-public partnerships where scientific knowledge has been put to real use with some unforeseen sociocultural challenges. Education, ICT access, sustainable development, and health emerge as the most influential application domains propelling HCI4D research to explore the challenges of design research. Not surprisingly, the five Special Topic articles reflect similar applications: Education takes center stage in "Engaging Different Worlds," with a focus not only on technology accessibility for children but also the surrounding motivations and cultural influences in the adaptation of education technologies. Similarly, healthcare in "Where the Streets Have No Name" is studied in context to support digital transformations for better healthcare administrations and practices. The other three features are squarely about explorations to unravel cultural meanings of research terms like privacy, personalization, and cross-cultural fieldwork. At the heart of HCI4D are these cultural bridges built to engage with the more empirical issues of development, such as healthcare, education, and sustainable technology.

back to top  Conclusion

The Field Trips track at INTERACT 2017 taught us a few things about doing fieldwork in HCI, about India, about development, and about ourselves. At the core of these insights lies a necessary consideration of the role of culture in our practices as designers. The features for this Special Topic deconstruct this role at various levels, which align with the before, during, and after phases of the field trips in and around Mumbai. At the ontological level, we have been able as HCI researchers and designers to reflect on culture as a complex and hazy construct that signifies multiple realities of communities, participants, designers, researchers, and others. At the epistemological level, we have been able to show how the knowledge that emerged in each field trip was co-constructed and negotiated. At the methodological level, we have seen how practices and modes of engagement constantly shifted as a consequence of mutual realizations and contingencies in planning and conducting each field trip. This is the true nature of the culture of design praxis: messy, rich, unforeseen, soul-filling, flawed, inspiring, and, essentially, human.

back to top  Authors

Debjani Roy works as an independent design researcher/user experience designer. She is also a research scholar with M S University, Baroda. Her work involves understanding the acceptability and adaption of technology in underserved communities, and designing simple solutions for them. Her projects are centered around design for healthcare and technology. debjani.r@gmail.com

José Abdelnour-Nocera is associate professor in sociotechnical design at the University of West London and M-ITI, Portugal. His interests lie in the role of cultural diversity in the design of people-centered systems. He has been involved in projects in domains such as international development, m-health, business systems, service design, and higher education. jose.abdelnour-nocera@uwl.ac.uk

Nimmi Rangaswamy is associate professor at the Kohli Centre on Intelligent Systems, Indian Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad. She brings an anthropological lens in understanding the impacts of AI research and praxis. She is also adjunct professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad, where she teaches courses at the intersection of society and technology. nimmi.rangswamy@iiit.ac.in

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