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Paper: At Home with the Technology

At Home with the Technology: An Ethnographic Study of a Set-Top-Box Trial
Jon O'Brien, XRCE
Tom Rodden, Mark Roucefield, and John Hughes, Lancaster University
ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, Sept 1999

At Home with the Technology: An Ethnographic Study of a Set-Top-Box Trial
Jon O'Brien, XRCE
Tom Rodden, Mark Roucefield, and John Hughes, Lancaster University
ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, Sept 1999

Background: The authors did an ethnographic study of the introduction of a set top box into several homes in the UK. The primary aim of the study was to provide GPT (the makers of the box) feedback quickly on their design. Eleven households representing different demographics were studied through observations made during a series of evening visits.

Two paper breaks down into two main study sections:
- 1) a study of existing technology use in the home
- 2) a study of the set-top-box introduced into these homes

Part I: Existing technology use and patterns in the home

Daily scheduling:

The first interesting point is that the daily routines of those studied were often strongly intertwined with the media technologies in the home. When asked to record their daily activities, they were often scheduled around personal use of the TV and stereo. Also, these technologies were often clocks for their daily routine, e.g. when a certain program ended it was time to head to work/school.

The second point was that, in addition to setting schedules around personal use of these technologies, schedules were also dictated by other's uses of these technologies. There was a strong sense of ownership of a particular space in the home when a particular space was being used. If we relate this to Mateas' observation that families spend most of their time in the "Command, Control, and Hang-out" space, we make the connection that use of media technology often denotes ownership of the most essential place in the home. O'Brien further observed that the ownership of this space often reflected the social organization of the home, resulting in a prioritization of rights to access media technologies. Also, other home members usually respected the temporary ownership imparted at different times.

Security/Access Control/Good Parenting:

The authors then makes an interesting point on security from an access control point of view, which he frames as models "good parenting." A technology invariably affects how parent's raise their children, and the authors as well as Grinter point out that the role of the "good parent" is often expressed through control of the television, telephone, and other technologies. To quote the authors, "homeholders incorporate domestic technologies into the complex set of routines, rights, and obligations constituted in and through the social organization of the household; indeed we find that these technologies are accomodated within this social organization."

I believe that this model of access control is possible due to the tight correlation between time schedules on TV content. The schedule of primetime TV allows parents to control content on a time-basis, with children being banned from TV at later hours. These later hours also correspond to a transfer of control of the television to the adults in the house.

Distribution of activities vs. centralization of features:

The authors make the point that the "pull" of technologies to certain spaces of the home creates conflicts, which can be additionally compounded if multiple technologies are situated in the same space. These types of conflicts are more unique to the entertainment technologies, as other home activities were generally more transferrable to other areas of the home. The authors observed that these conflicts were either resolved through social means (e.g. scheduling), or through technological means (e.g. more televisions or more portable televisions).

The authors cautions that any new technology introduced into the home can upset the careful equilibrium that has been adopted.

A related point that he makes it that the family room is situated around entertainment technologies. In one home he observed that the furniture was rearranged during visits by guests to be turned away from the TV. Also, TV is perceived as an "antisocial" activity for guests and it is not permissible for it to be on, while it is permissible for the stereo to be on. This is interesting when contrasted with technologies like TiVo series 2 Home Media Option, which use the TV-based UI to allow access to music - will it be permissible to turn on the TV to access this UI, or is a "quiet" UI still necessary (even for music).

Part II: Introduction of the Set-Top-Box

Set-Top-Box description: black, VCR-sized box that provided access to downloadable video and audio, including TV, music, and radio, and also enabled games, shopping, local services (e.g. public transport) and banking. The UI was a series of icons along with a PIN that had to be entered to confirm selections.


The authors didn't note any significant problems with the aesthetics with the box. The only user that had trouble with it also would not place a TV in her house.

Billing concerns:

The authors indicated numerous billing concerns with the technologies. Some examples:
- features to monitor household expenditures were perceived as loss of control
over household expenditures as they might result in greater expense. For examples, one user was afraid that the banking feature might "go beserk with your bank account and run up a bill of ten thousand." I imagine that this perception is compounded by the vast difference in product quality between consumer electronics and PCs. The more something feels like a PC, I would hypothesize that users trust it less due to their poor experiences with Microsoft software (expectation of bugs).
- In general, users had trouble determining who was in control of the system. The example of the user above expressed fears that the set top box, not the user, was in control.
- Users wanted to know clearly and precisely the costs the system would incur (line costs, service costs, additional feature costs, etc...). This was perhaps compounded by differences in telco billing in the UK.
- Even with a flat-fee system, they were also afraid of being trapped if the rates were raised.

Poor understanding of the technology:

Many of the billing concerns are translatable to poor understanding and perception of the technology itself. Examples of things that were difficult to understand were:
- where the programs/music were stored
- was content streamed, and if so did they have to pay the line costs of the streaming
- was the content transferrable to physical media, or was it trapped inside of the box. This concern is particularly relevant because centralization of content increases the resource-sharing conflicts within the house.

The authors also indicates that the lack of understanding of the technology resulted in users creating worst-case scenarios, including:
- what would happen if the set-top-box broke (or Dad threw it out the window)? Would they lose their content?
- would the technology be able to interact with other technologies, such as the stereo, and would it be as good of quality?

Design implications (use of PIN):

The choice of the PIN created additional expectations for the users. Users wondered about the portability of content since they had a PIN: if they were using someone else's box, would the PIN enable access to stuff they had paid for?

Control of the PIN also became a billing/security concern. The authors noted that users were afraid that the PIN enabled children to run-up costs on their bills
if they were allowed to use it. Also, users also wondered if the PIN created
an outside threat, as other people could just enter in random PIN numbers.
Some users wondered if a smart card might be better, as it was easier to
control access to.

The authors concludes that family activities would be best facilitated by a security system that was very flexible, and met their concerns about content control, billing, and intruders.

The authors' examples make a good point about security: users care about security when it creates a perceived threat to their financial stability.

The authors' conclusions:

"Central to this flexibility is the need to avoid designing in any preconceptions about the nature of domestic environments. Homes and home life vary considerably, and the cultural norms associated with the home also vary tremendously."

"The ability to undertake activities within different locations was central to the successful management of the home, and when technology
inhibitied this it often led to tensions within the home. Perhaps a logical conclusion of this need for distribution lies in the development and application of interfaces that are closely meshed with the physical nature of the home (for example, the provision of tangible bits [Ulmer and Iishi 1997]).

"Often the technology was the means by which good household management was demonstrated (for example, in the case of parenting)."

"Domestic environments are closely bound up with issues of security and privacy, and these concerns were often read into the technology."

"In significant cases - reaction against satellite television is a good example - participant's resistance to domestic technologies was based entirely on issues concerning the home as a socially organized environment of significance to the householders, having little to do with any technological concerns."

My own notes:

This is the best paper I've seen so far with regard to ethnography and the home. Granted, I have not read many, but this one incorporates both a useful study of media use in the home, as well as a study of the impact of a new media technology.

The large investment in set-top-box technology as well as wireless access points I think would benefit greatly from the points in this paper, as greater benefit would occur if they were more inline with one another. Instead of focusing on bringing media "in" to the set top box, I believe that the O'Brien study clearly shows that the focus should be sending media "out" of the set top box to create a benefit to the household equilibrium, rather than a source of new conflict. Wireless technology would be one way of bringing this portability to the masses, who would most likely find the CAT5 wiring an impossible task.

Similarly, features such as access to banking are laughable IMHO for a set top box, as my father usurping control of the TV to pay the bills is an unnecessary conflict. A feature that would allow my father to do this on a separate TV or computer, would be interesting.

Possible implications:

- Centralization of features in a set-top-box is destabilizing, unless the set-top-box experience is portable. Many house have multiple TVs to resolve resource conflicts, so the set-top-box should support access for all TVs in the house if the desire is not to upset the careful household balance.

- Another implication is for content control. TiVo is already an example of a technology that removes the relationship between time and content, which creates difficulties for parents who are used to limiting access to unsavory content by sending children off to bed early. Also, it removes physical controls over content - if mom and dad don't want little Jimmy watching their movies, they can always lock up these movies to prevent them from being played. With the TiVo, however, all content is accessible in the same interface. There is no way to create separate "zones" within the TiVo to make sure that children are only watching approved content. Conversely, though, the TiVo provides many new affordances, such as being able to incorporate TV ratings to automatically segregate TV shows. It also could allow parents to track TV usage and set limits on the amount of TV that could be watched. For example, there could be a "+1 hour" button that would allow little Jimmy to watch TV for one more hour. This would help assert the parent as the authority for control over the houses resources.

- The authors' points on the perception of the PIN seems particularly applicable to expections have been created with Apple's recently launched music service,
which is tied to Apple login IDs. Apple's music currently isn't streamable
to other friend's computers, even if the correct login and password is used. To
some, this seems like an unnecessary limitation, especially because Apple does not provide them with physical media for portability. Also applicable to Apple's service is the notion of portability. By constraining the media experience to Apple computers and iPods, it creates a financial barrier to traditional means of resolving resource conflicts. While parents could fafford a cheap CD stereo for each of their kids, the notion of buying all three kids an iPod seems ludicrous (I even wonder if the iPod even works in a multi-user scenario).

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