Talking 'Activity': Young People & Mobile Phones - CiteSeerX

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Talking ‘Activity’: Young People & Mobile Phones Alex S. Taylor & Richard Harper Digital World Research Centre University of Surrey Guildford Surrey, GU2 7XH, UK [email protected], [email protected]


Alex Taylor is a PhD student working at the Digital World Research Centre (DWRC). His research contributes to the STEMPEC (Socio-Technical Shaping of Multimedia Personal Communications) project. This project, sponsored by the major mobile telephone operators in the UK, aims to provide a coherent, interdisciplinary analysis of societal reaction to technology visions, and the impact this will have on the development of mobile technology. Specifically, his research explores ways of using ethnographic and other qualitative forms of data to inform the design of mobile technologies. Prior to joining the DWRC, Alex worked at the Xerox Research Centre, Cambridge (formerly Xerox EuroPARC) as a member of the Collaborative and Multimedia Systems group. Here, his research focused on investigating design practices aimed at supporting the design of effective interactive systems. His work in this area ranged from extensive ethnographic studies of various domains (legal practice, authoring, etc.) to the design, implementation and evaluation of prototype solutions. Richard Harper

Richard Harper is the Director of the Digital World Research Centre (DWRC). Throughout the past ten years, he has been at the forefront of research into the use of sociological and interdisciplinary techniques for specifying requirements for new technologies in organisational and domestic life. Before taking his position at the DWRC, Richard worked at Xerox's Research Centre in Cambridge. Here, he undertook numerous projects investigating the ways digital technologies change organisational life, working with BT labs in the UK, the IMF in Washington DC, and Lloyds-TSB in the UK, amongst others. During this time he was also a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge and a special lecturer at the University of Nottingham. The authors take the position that the nature of work and domestic life raise important implications for the design of mobile communication technologies. They believe, however, that understandings of everyday life must be carefully interpreted for the purposes of design. In the presented position paper, they describe the findings from an ethnographic study of young people and mobile phones. They then present a brief description of activity theory and explain how such a theory might be used to interpret qualitative descriptions of mobile phone use in young people’s every day lives. Through the paper, the authors aim to illustrate that a systematic method of eliciting design considerations can be achieved by employing an activity theory framework. The authors also suggest that more detailed design requirements can be identified through future studies and analyses. It is hoped that the preliminary findings from these follow-up studies will be ready for presentation at the CHI, Mobile Communications Workshop.

Talking ‘Activity’: Young People & Mobile Phones Alex S. Taylor & Richard Harper Digital World Research Centre University of Surrey Guildford Surrey, GU2 7XH, UK [email protected], [email protected]



This paper presents a brief overview of findings collected from an ethnographic field study of young people and their use of mobile telephones. The findings indicate that mobile phones provide young people with a means of demonstrating their social networks. That is, through owning and using mobile phones, young people demonstrate their participation in social groupings and define the boundaries of their social networks. Using activity theory, the findings from this research have been interpreted to produce a number of preliminary design considerations. This work reflects the first of several stages aimed at investigating a systematic means of using rich and meaningful qualitative data for the purposes of design.

The ethnographic data was collected from a study of young people in three schools, one in central London and two in a nearby county. A number of group interviews were undertaken with a total of 120 participants between 11 and 18 years of age. The study found that there was extensive use of mobile phones within this age group. Fifty percent of youngsters aged between 13 and 14 reported to have mobile phones, and ownership was as high as 80% amongst 17 to 18 year olds. The level of familiarity with the devices and services was also high.


Young people, mobile phones, cell phones, mobile technology, field study, ethnography, activity theory. INTRODUCTION

Young people, and their use and understandings of technology, raise a number of problems for the designers of mobile systems. Traditional and frequently applied design heuristics, such as UI consistency and minimizing time-ontask, do not seem to reflect the primary areas of concern for young people. The novel and inventive ways they choose to interact with technologies also make it difficult to predict the form factors or UIs that might be considered most useable or even popular. In an attempt to address such problems, the presented research seeks to understand how mobile communication devices are incorporated into young people’s everyday practical activities. Through this research the aim is to discover how young people mediate their social communication using mobile devices and from this to determine what aspects of mobile technologies provide the potential to support everyday life. The presented study focuses, in particular, on the use of mobile telephones amongst young people. The study is based on data collected through ethnographically oriented group interviews and uses activity theory (AT) as an analytical framework to interpret the results. The next section will summarise the main findings. This will be followed by a brief outline of AT and how the collected data can be depicted through an activity theoretic framework. To conclude, some preliminary design considerations will be raised.

The type of communication services the youngsters used was contingent upon who they were calling. Voice calls were used almost exclusively when making calls to family members. However, the predominant method of communication amongst peer groups was short text messaging. Many of the discussions amongst the groups interviewed revealed that mobile phones were valued because they were seen to foster and preserve a sense of community. At functional and symbolic levels, the phone allowed the youngsters to demonstrate that they were part of a social network and their status within that network. At the functional level, the youngsters interviewed described their use of phones as providing performative value. The use of the phone to talk or to text message, for example, allowed them to demonstrate their involvement in a social network. Both the physical appearance of the phone and the manner in which the phone was used held symbolic value that also supported the demonstration of social networks. The youngsters interviewed, for example, placed importance on how their phones were viewed by others. The branding, size, model or colour of their mobile phones were seen as ways to demonstrate their “street cred” for instance. The use of the phone’s features such as the phonebook, games and short text messaging were also described as valuable. Text messaging was used, for example, to consolidate a community of peers and to differentiate themselves and their peers from others, such as adults. The use of particular words and symbols, when text messaging, was seen as meaningful as well. The youngsters spoke of learning the commonly used letters and phrases over time. The accepted language was described as

becoming part of the tacit knowledge ‘owned’ by the community. Hence it provided a way of signifying community or group membership, and a way of marking outsiders. The data also suggest that youngsters use mobile phones to demonstrate their social status, much like they use other ‘cultural’ artefacts. One teenager interviewed explained: “It’s the same as trainers. Everyone goes to PE. Everyone looks at your trainers. Or you look at somebody who’s got bastard trainers. And it’s still the same [with mobiles].

Through the act of using their phones, young people appear to consolidate their peer relationships, differentiate themselves from family or household relations, and contribute to a growing sense of both independence (from family) and collectivity (amongst peers). In short, the collaborative forms of interaction with the device appear to both functionally and symbolically cement the durability of social relationships in local communities. ANALYTICAL INTERPRETATION

In this section, the findings above will be presented through an activity theoretic framework. The aim of employing this approach is to draw from the findings a number of design considerations. Before presenting the findings, a brief overview of AT will be given. Activity Theory

AT takes a sociocultural view of computer-mediated activity, suggesting that people orient themselves towards achieving specified motives, but operate within activity systems that largely define their actions and how they go about making sense of what they do. The theory asserts that people’s activities are mediated through the use of artefacts (e.g., technology) and that the ways they use these artefacts are socially, culturally and historically determined. Thus human activity is seen to be directly influenced by the social, cultural and historical context. Within such a context, activities are seen to evolve through the negotiation between people and the artefacts they use. The artefact brings with it social, cultural and historical meaning that shapes the nature of activity and consequently defines the actions and operations that must be performed. This meaning is dynamic; as people perform mediated activities they come to understand the mediating tool or artefact and the motive behind the activity in new and different ways. The state of the activity system is thus transformed and so to is the understanding of how the artefact is to be used. In its mediating role, the artefact both determines the nature of activity and is shaped through it. AT depicts the context of an activity as an ever changing and evolving system. It suggests that meaning and consciousness are located in everyday activity and it is the activity itself that defines context. This context is seen as fluid, evolving through the transitions and contradictions that take place within and between activity systems. Thus individual actions and operations can only be seen as

meaningful within the continuously evolving context of the activity system.1 AT, Young People & Mobile Phones

AT provides a way of making sense of ethnographic data for the purposes of design. For example, by accounting for the historical context, AT helps to determine the ways in which artefacts are made sense of in everyday activity. This, in turn, provides a basis for designing new technological artefacts that mediate activity in ways that are ‘sensible’ and meaningful to the user. AT can also be used to identify the contradictions within and between activity systems. These contradictions can help to understand why and how new actions are developed. They can also highlight the failings of existing artefacts and point towards possible alternative solutions. Historical context

From a historical viewpoint, the ethnographic data as well as a wealth of sociological studies indicate that young people often see artefacts not simply in functional terms, but as objects that bear meaning – particularly meaning associated with social grouping and with identity [e.g., 5]. It is apparent that young people treat phones as ‘social artefacts’. The phones are seen as instruments through which elements of self and personhood within family and peer groups can be demonstrated. The use of artefacts in this way is particularly salient for young people [3]. Young people, it may be reasoned, have incorporated this artefactmediated form of expression into their everyday lives. AT reflects this historically bound practice through its description of the activity system. It depicts the mobile phone as an artefact that mediates between young people and their social networks. Recognising this historical context allows for an understanding of why an artefact has taken on such a role. The historical context reveals how youngsters have come to make sense of the artefacts they use. It reveals that phone use is part of a larger ‘common’ practice through which the demonstration of meaning associated with group and individual identity is central. This not only helps to make sense of what youngsters do with mobile phones, but also helps to direct the design of new technologies. It explains, in part, why youngsters spend so much time using obscure, seemingly ‘clumsy’ mobile phone features such as text messaging. It also indicates that future devices should provide flexible means through which young people can express themselves. Contradictions

The contradictions within and between activities, as well as the historical context, can also be used to make sense of mobile phone use amongst young people. For young people a contradiction exists between the overall functional purpose of mobile phones and their practical everyday use. Rather than using the phone purely as a means for distributed communications, youngsters also use it to 1

See [2,4] for thorough descriptions of AT used in studies of work or [1,6] for more general discussions of AT.

demonstrate their social networks. This focus shift raises a number of further contradictions. For example, the rules mediating the relationship between the youngsters and their community come into conflict with the aim of demonstrating social networks. Household and school rules, for instance, put constraints on when and how often youngsters may use their phones. In response, youngsters have had to adopt methods for demonstrating their social networks that minimise cost and abide by (or side step) rules both at home and school. The result has been the uptake of particular socially sanctioned methods of use, such as text messaging. The uptake of text messaging shows how contradictions shape the development of the activity and, in turn, impact on the interaction with the technological artefact.

community. This is problematic as such groups are consequently excluded from being a part of the activity’s object – the social network. In short, the functional limitations of the phone result in a contradiction between the community and the object of the activity.

The use of text messaging can also be used to illustrate the impact contradictions can have. Because the phone is cumbersome to use as a tool for composing text messages, a contradiction exists between the object – the text message – and the artefact used to transform it – the mobile phone. As a consequence of the attention needed to enter text using a mobile phone’s keypad, a breakdown occurs; rather than the message, the phone becomes the object of action. The consequence of this contradiction has been that youngsters have learnt to simplify text entry by using letters and short phrases to signify longer words. Overtime, the processes necessary to compose these messages become unconsciously embedded in the operations performed to enter text. In essence, the formulation of the symbol system becomes opaque to youngsters. This process serves to illustrate the transformation of conscious process to implicit common sense knowledge.

In the following, each of the main issues identified through the use of AT will be summarised. After each summary, considerations for the design of a ‘group-wide’ method for communication will be highlighted.

Notably, the use of specific symbol systems provides another opportunity to transform the relationship between the members of social networks. Letters and phrases used in text messages allow youngsters to establish a common form of expression between their peers. This provides a further mechanism through which young people are able to define both insiders and outsiders to their communities. Here, not only does the activity shape the use of the technology. The technology itself, and how it is made sense of, determines the way in which the activity is undertaken. One last point to be made is that a contradiction arises due to functionality of the mobile phone. Because of the limitations of the phone, subjects are not able to communicate with groups of peers who are geographically dispersed; the phone only allows distributed communication between a single caller and receiver.2 Thus, seen in the context of the activity, the artefact has a direct baring on the division of ‘work’ within the community; distributed groups are not able to be part of the activity’s 2

Recently, mobile network providers have enabled a group-based text-messaging service. The service was not available or discussed amongst the study’s participants during the data collection.

DESIGN Considerations

This last point reveals a potential direction for design. It suggests that a feature should be designed that allows mobile phone users to communicate with several physically distributed people at one time. However, before proffering solutions such as conference calling and group-based text messaging, consideration should be given to the issues that were raised during the description of the activity. These issues, as will be revealed, have an important role to play in directing the design of possible solutions.

1. Demonstrating social networks: For young people, one motivation in using a mobile phone is to demonstrate their social networks. That is, to demonstrate associations with their peers and to define the social boundaries of their communities. Thus the focus is not simply on the communicative aspects of the mobile phone, but also on the phones suitability for demonstrating the phone users social status amongst others. Design considerations: The group-wide communication solution should allow users to adopt novel and imaginative forms of expression. Users should be able to create small communities within which they can share both information and the methods used to interact with their phones. 2. The phone as a social/cultural artefact: The mobile phone, like other social/cultural artefacts, is bound in the historical context. The manner in which phones have come to be understood by young people is deeply connected with their social histories. Young people see artefacts as providing a means of expressing individual and group identities. Phones, in this sense, are similar to other cultural artefacts youngsters see as important and meaningful. Design considerations: Users should be able to relate their experiences with other objects to their interactions with the group-wide communication solution. As with other objects that are familiar to them, users should be able to create meaningful associations with the ways they can talk about, share and interact with the solution. 3. Learning socially sanctioned methods: Young people learn to use socially sanctioned methods when interacting with their mobile phones. These methods mediate the relationships they have with their peers. They learn that the ways in which they use their phones take on particular social meanings, signifying different aspects about their peer relationships. The learning process itself is, in part, how they establish ‘membership’ amongst their peers.

Design considerations – The system should allow users to develop and change the ways they operate and communicate with their phones. Users should be able to create communities that have established ways of operating their phones. The ways users interact with their phones should be visible to themselves and to members of their communities. 4. Common sense knowledge: Learnt socially sanctioned methods become common sense knowledge amongst mobile phone users. Overtime, young people cease to be able to articulate how they go about performing actions with their phones. How they make sense of what they do becomes embedded in their everyday actions. Having this common sense knowledge is yet another way in which they discriminate between members of their communities. Design considerations – Do not attempt to design something that requires no learning, but rather something that has functionality that can be explored and through which routine patterns of operation can be established. 5. Sense making – The social context influences how young people make sense of what they do with their mobile phones. Young people make sense of what they do, not only through the mechanical operations of the phone, but also by seeing the actions and operations through the social context in which the activity takes place. The social context allows them to understand and explain what they do. This can, in turn, impact on how they subsequently interact with their phones. Design suggestions – Understand that users make sense of things in many different ways that often have little to do with the mechanical operations of the device. Design a solution that might be made sense of in numerous different social contexts. For example, think about how users might make sense of the operation of their phones if they want to demonstrate their social status to others. These considerations provide general guidelines to follow in designing a group-wide communication solution. Through presenting these suggestions, the aim has not been to prescribe a single specific tool for group-wide communication. Rather, it has been to provide a space to explore a host of possible solutions whilst accommodating for the social complexities of mobile phone use amongst young people. Notably, the considerations raised provide an example of how qualitative descriptions generated through ethnography can be made suitable for design. Both the possible solution and the design considerations should thus be seen as the result of a limited interpretation of the ethnographic data. CONCLUSIONS

This paper has set out to describe how AT can be used to make sense of ethnographic data for the purposes of design. The paper introduces AT as a framework that can be used to systematically interpret qualitative and descriptive forms of data. The framework offers a tool for highlighting what

it is about the activities people do that are meaningful in social, cultural and historical contexts. Specifically, through identifying the breakdowns and focus shifts in socially bound activities, AT can be used to highlight where opportunities exist for both learning and the design of new mediating artefacts. To conclude, it is worth noting that the design considerations presented in this paper are an example of the first steps towards designing a solution. Through both an analytical process and later through constructing prototypes, AT also offers a means of interpreting and ‘designing’ interaction at a finer level of detail. AT can be used to analyse the low-level actions and operations performed when interacting with a tool, whilst still framing the interaction within the social context. The key is to work through the three levels of abstraction – activity, action and operation – and to understand the relationships within and between the various components of the activity system. This enables a consistent approach for assessing the progress of evolving solutions. In future work, the aim is to collect further more detailed descriptions of the mobile-phone-mediated activities that young people perform. From these data, specific design suggestions will be determined that provide a basis for building prototype devices. The solutions will be evaluated in the field in an attempt to determine if and how young people use them to demonstrate their social networks. The results will become part of the amassed data on young people and their relationships with mobile phones. The data will be fed into the presented depiction of the activity system. Thus, it will be used to complete the circle of design: to see how a designed solution shapes activity, where contradictions occur, and where learning and space for new design solutions arise from the contradictions. References

1. Cole, M., Engeström, Y. & Vasquez, O. A. (1997). Mind, Culture, and Activity: Seminal Papers from the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 2. Engestrom, Y. & Middleton, D. (1996). Cognition and communication at work. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 3. Ling, R. & Yttri, B. (1999). Nobody sits at home and waits for the telephone to ring. Perpetual Contact Workshops. 4. Nardi, B. A. (1996). Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 5. Valentine, G., Skelton, T. & Chambers, D. (1998). Cool places: An introduction to youth and youth cultures. In (Eds, Skelton, T. and Valentine, G.) Cool Places: Geographies of Youth Cultures. Routledge, London. 6. Wertsch, J. V. (1991). Voices of the Mind: A Sociocultural Approach to Mediated Action. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.