Day in the Lab

XXV.2 March-April 2018
Page: 14
Digital Citation

Design participation lab

Margot Brereton, Alessandro Soro, Laurianne Sitbon, Paul Roe, Peta Wyeth, Bernd Ploderer, Dhaval Vyas, Jinglan Zhang, Aloha Ambe, Cara Wilson, Tshering Dema, Jennyfer Taylor, Jessie Oliver, Diego Munoz, Andy Bayor, Filip Bircanin, Riga Anggarendra, Tara Capel, Gereon Kapuire, Helvi Wheeler

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How would you describe your lab to visitors? At the Design Participation Lab, our projects have a humanitarian or environmental focus. We work with Indigenous communities, older people, children with autism, and people with intellectual disabilities, seeking to understand how they appropriate technologies and how we might co-design desirable technologies. We value pluralism, seeking to make technologies that reflect the rich diversity and idiosyncrasies of people and the ways in which they wish to interact.

Recently we have extended our work to exploring interaction between people and nature. Working with ecologists, eco-acoustics researchers, communities, and government organizations, we aim toward new kinds of socio-enviro-technical systems that make it easier, more interesting, and more fun to monitor and understand species.

ins01.gif We make prototypes, such as our messaging kettles and ambient birdhouses, in our IoT lab.

What is a unique feature of your lab? Our principal research method is co-design, often leading to functional prototypes that can be tried and appropriated in long-term studies. We draw upon each situation in order to collaboratively figure out ways to proceed. We like trying out new methods, and we try to foster mutual learning and new analytic and theoretical perspectives.

Many of our project choices reflect our academic, geographical, and cultural context in beautiful subtropical Brisbane. Australia is a remote nation with unique flora and fauna. Our Indigenous communities are recognized as belonging to one of the oldest continuous cultures on earth; they carry many of their stories, traditions, and languages, as well as a strong connection to their lands. Our research responds to this context.

ins02.gif We try out some of our prototypes at home. The lava-lamp glow of the kettle mate shows that my Mum's kettle is hot over in the U.K. She has the same setup and can see when my kettle is hot. We also send handwritten messages on our teaboxes. It's like a personal presidential hotline.

How many people are in the lab, and what is the mix of backgrounds and roles? Our lab is part of the computer-human interaction (CHI) discipline within the Science and Engineering Faculty of the Queensland University of Technology. CHI has 12 academic staff working across the areas of interaction design/co-design, environmental monitoring, health, and games. Our backgrounds include computer science, engineering, math, psychology, and education. We are truly a multidisciplinary group. Our Ph.D. students also come from backgrounds as wide-ranging as engineering, computer science, psychology, anthropology, and ecology. They hail from five continents, with Australians in the minority. We have about 30 Ph.D. students in CHI, 12 of whom are in the Design Participation Lab.

ins03.gif Our office is in the center of Brisbane overlooking the Brisbane River.

Briefly describe a day in the life of the lab. Being in a technology faculty, we do like to build things, but we are also heavily influenced by traditions of co-design, ethnomethodology, feminism, and pragmatism. We try to make critical designs that are also useful designs. Often these approaches are presented as opposites; they need not be. For example, we designed our messaging kettle to support remote communication around the habit of tea drinking, as well as to critique the dominant view that passively sensing older people in their homes is the way forward. Two of us in the lab now connect primarily with our mothers, in the Philippines and in the U.K., through our messaging kettles, which glow like a lava lamp for about 15 minutes whenever the party at the other end is boiling their kettle.

We live in our office space, co-design lab, tea room, and IoT lab. Or we can be found at outdoor cafes nearby. Our co-design lab is our breakout space, where we hold our reading group and host activities with visitors. The tea room is home to discussions around food, with a very well-used microwave oven but, sadly, no coffee machine. Our IoT lab is where we build our prototypes. All our staff and students are collocated on the same floor, in and among our labs, apart from our two external Namibian students, Gereon and Helvi, whom we meet on Skype. Collocation makes everything easier!

Many of our project choices reflect our academic, geographical, and cultural context in beautiful subtropical Brisbane.

On any one day, we might be in the lab, in the field, collaborating, or focused with headphones on. Most of us also teach, tutor, or supervise undergraduate projects. We couldn't do without our weekly reading group, writing workshops, and fortnightly seminars, where we all learn from each other. We share papers, advice on ethics applications, and other expertise, and people offer each other help and support in the roller coaster ride of each day of academic life.

ins04.gif A captive Eastern Bristlebird at a local sanctuary.

How would you describe how people interact in your lab? We usually have lunch together, and we like to celebrate around food. Our Christmas in July party, usually held in August, is a feast with karaoke that has become an annual tradition. Our students are very social, holding dinner parties, State of Origin (Australian rugby league) and board game nights, as well as coordinating through their CHI chat group. Jen bakes cakes, and Jinglan grows fruit, which they bring to the lab to share, making us all feel loved. Hosting OzCHI in Brisbane last November, with the theme of Human-Nature, has been a big collaborative project for the lab.

ins05.gif Our ambient birdhouses aim to help people discover their local birds in a gentle, ambient way. A random bird appears and calls every 15 minutes, so you both see and hear it, or you can swipe a bird card to choose one on demand. We explore how people use them in their homes. This is our youngest participant.

What is the one thing you see as most important about the work you do there? We like to hear people's stories and to explore together rather than impose on them. When we aren't in the lab, we are out in communities, in nearby schools or homes, or in learning and lifestyle centers run by Endeavour Foundation, an organization that advocates for and supports people with intellectual disabilities. Some of our projects with ecologists and Indigenous communities can take us to the more remote and beautiful parts of Australia. Do come and visit us!

ins06.gif Jessie placing an acoustic sensor to record continuously for two weeks in the search for endangered Australian Eastern Bristlebirds.

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