More funology: inspiration

XI.5 September + October 2004
Page: 51
Digital Citation

Pastiche scenarios

Mark Blythe

Maureen, are you tied up at the moment?

Not at all, Professor Dingbat, I was simply idling away a few minutes, putting Dr. Quintock’s Cultural Studies slides online for the first years, sending out a reminder that no one has yet paid their ten pounds towards the examiner’s dinner and trying to revive Professor Lapping’s rubber plant.

Jolly good Maureen, you know about this "Net Neighbours" scheme don’t you?

The one where you can do a bit of online shopping on behalf of an older person?

Yes, that’s the one. I thought at first it wouldn’t take very long but they’ve given me three to look after and some of them blather on for an absolute age. You wouldn’t believe what I have to listen to, their neighbors’ kids this and their bilious distress that. You’ve no idea how annoying it is—people blithering away about their problems while you’re trying to get things done!

I think I can just about imagine it.

Well anyway, I’ve got this check through the post from one of my old dears—

"Old dears," Professor Dingbat? Dr. Quitntock’s slides state very clearly that the term "old dears" is sexist, ageist, and offensive.

Ah, of course, where would we be without Dr. Quintock’s unfailing guidance? Quite right Maureen, well one of my elderly ladies—

Dr Quintock’s slides go on to note that the term "elderly" is also contested. Age is a social as well as a biological construct.

Well what am I supposed to call them? Chronologically challenged? Ha ha ha!

Professor Dingbat! That’s just the kind of reactionary humor that has made "politically correct" a term of abuse. Dr. Quintock says that "older people" is the phrase currently used by those of us who aren’t quite so keen on being offensive.

Well it’s a good thing that Dr. Quintock isn’t here then isn’t it? Now listen carefully, one of my coffin dodgers has sent me a check to cover the shopping I ordered for her. Make yourself useful and run along to the bank with it sometime this week will you, I haven’t got time myself. Oh and here’s a list of the ones who haven’t paid yet, ring them up and remind them when you’ve got a spare moment or two.

        (Pastiche Scenario from Taylor) [6]

The characterization of users in HCI scenarios has been severely criticized in recent years. Lene Nielsen has argued that they are very often little more than stereotypes, mere functionaries that illustrate the workings of the product being described [5]. Calling for more vivid characterization, she argues that it is not possible to predict the goals or actions of users without knowing anything about them. Alan Cooper has shown how the creation of personae can lead to design insight [2]. Djajadiningrat et al. found "extreme users" to be helpful in generating designs and Nielsen has argued that the techniques of film scriptwriting can enrich scenarios [3]. However, creating a vivid and non-stereotypical character each time a scenario becomes necessary in the design process is a bit of a tall order.

Pastiche allows the designer to very quickly evoke resonant contexts in which to place a new design or consider user needs. Pastiche is a form of writing that imitates and borrows from other works and styles. It appropriates characters, situations, and plot lines to place it in a new context. Pastiche scenarios then draw on existing narratives in order to create richer and more resonant descriptions of users and technologies. Because the cultural sources drawn upon are rich and resonant, possible interpretations of the scenarios are multiple. Character traits are not answered by product functionality because other authors have developed the characters with quite different aims in mind. This creates ambiguity which, as Gaver et al. note, can lead to new design challenges and insights [4].

Pastiche scenarios were initially developed in relation to the conceptual design of a piece of surveillance technology. This was a directly political subject which necessitated a detailed consideration of possible impacts on civil liberties and privacy. Pastiche scenarios, then, were made drawing on the Miss Marple detective stories (for an idealized utopian view of the crime prevention technology), a clockwork orange (for a dystopian view of how the technology might affect those it would be used against), and finally, and perhaps inevitably, Orwell’s 1984. Although some of the characters in the resulting scenarios might be described as caricatures they were not stereotypes. The use of pastiche focused attention in a totally uncompromising way, on the very real dangers of the technology under consideration. These scenarios were concerned with conceptual design issues. However, the method also proved useful in the implementation stage of another project, the Net Neighbours scheme.

Net Neighbours is a scheme developed at the University of York with the local branch of the charity Age Concern. The scheme widens access to computer-based facilities like online shopping through volunteer telephone intermediaries. Plans are being made to extend the scheme so that university staff can do voluntary work from their offices by taking a little time to shop online on behalf of an older or disabled person. There are a number of possible methods for arranging the finances and at an early stage of the project a list of scenarios was prepared for discussion with Age Concern staff. Little discussion was generated perhaps because they were very dull to read. A number of pastiche scenarios were then prepared. The first was "A Christmas Shopping Carol," which featured Scrooge as the older client reluctant to reimburse the volunteer and raised various issues, including trust and honesty on the part of both the volunteer and the client. The second was a set of scenarios based on Laurie Taylor’s satirical newspaper column on the antics of academic staff at the fictional university of Poppleton. The scenario at the beginning of this article shows, through comic exaggeration, some of the difficulties university employees might encounter were they to take on too many clients and also some of the problems they would encounter if the accounts were not administered electronically. It also flags some of the issues around ageism that Age Concern is keen to address.

Although the scenario document was rather long the Age Concern representatives read them in their lunch break because they found them amusing. The rather dry subject of secure financial systems was enlivened by pastiche and a range of issues and design problems were raised around privacy, trust, honesty, complexity, reliability, and dependability which helped shape the final procedure.

There is an obvious objection to these kinds of scenarios: They do not address the typical user. This is an entirely valid criticism. The pastiche scenarios outlined above all addressed entirely atypical users in order to identify potential problems and abuses of the technological configurations described. Pastiche scenarios are not in any sense a scientific tool; rather they are resources to inspire or caution design. Similarly, the selection of the scenario has a profound influence (or bias) on the issues that are likely to be raised; selections must be based on the work the scenario is to do (as with the utopian or dystopian scenarios for the surveillance technology). One of the principle advantages of pastiche scenarios is that they are fun to make. They engage the designer and lead to fresh insight because the traits and quirks of the characters have nothing to do with the technology being imaginatively road tested. Pastiche scenarios are certainly not presented as an alternative to more traditional scenarios, rather they are suggested as a complementary and fun addition to the HCI toolkit.


1. Carroll J. M. (2000). Making use: scenario based design of human-computer interactions. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

2. Cooper, A. L. (1999). The inmates are running the asylum: Why high-tech products drive us crazy and how to restore the sanity. Indianapolis: Sams.

3. Djajadiningrat, J. P., Gaver, W.W., & Frens J.W (2000). Interaction relabelling and extreme characters: Methods for exploring aesthetic interactions. ACM.

4. Gaver, W; Beaver, J; Benford, S. (2003). Ambiguity as a resource for design. CHI2003 Conference Proceedings. New Horizons..

5. Nielsen, L. (2002). From user to character: An investigation into user-descriptions in scenarios. DIS2002 Conference Proceedings. London: The British Museum.

6. Taylor, L. (1994). The laurie taylor guide to higher education. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann Ltd.


Mark Blythe
University of York, England

©2004 ACM  1072-5220/04/0900  $5.00

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