Teaching student tech designers to treat users more humanely

Here are a few college classes intended to help future tech designers keep the well-being of users in mind:

The class, which she taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and the MIT Media Lab, attempted to teach a sense of responsibility to technology inventors through science fiction, a genre in which writers have been thinking deeply about the impact of today’s technologies for decades. “It encourages people to have that long-term version that I think is missing in the world of innovation right now,” she says, “What happens when your idea scales to millions of people? What happens when people are using your product hundreds of times a day? I think the people who are developing new technologies need to be thinking about that.”

Students in Brueckner’s class built functional prototypes of technologies depicted by science fiction texts. One group created a “sensory fiction” book and wearable gadget that, in addition to adding lights and sounds to a story, constricts the body through air pressure bags, changing temperature and vibrating “to influence the heart” depending on how the narrative’s protagonist feels. Another group was inspired by a dating technology in Dave Eggers’s The Circle that uses information scraped from the Internet about a date to give suggestions about how to impress him or her. They created an interactive website about a friend using his public information to see how he would react to the idea. A third group imagined how a material that could transition from liquid to solid on command like the killing material “ice-nine” from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle could be used as a prototyping tool…

Neema Moraveji, the founding director of Standford’s Calming Technology Lab and a cofounder of breath-tracking company Spire, has a different approach for teaching students to consider the human impact of what they are designing. His classes teach students to create technology that actively promotes a calm or focused state of mind, and he co-authored a paper that laid out several suggestions for technology designers, including:

  • Letting users control or temporarily disable interruptions, the way that TweetDeck allows users to control from whom to receive notifications on Twitter.
  • Avoiding overload through the number of features available and the way information is presented. For instance, a Twitter app that opens to the least-recent tweet, “gives users the sense that they must read through all the tweets before they are done.”
  • Using a human tone or humor
  • Providing positive feedback such as “Thanks for filling out the form” and “You successfully updated the application” in addition to error alerts
  • Including easy ways to interact socially, such as Likes and Retweets, which allow people to interact without worrying about how they appear to others.
  • Avoiding time pressure when not necessary.
  • Incorporating natural elements like “soothing error tones, naturalistic animations, and desktop wallpapers taken from the natural world.”

These sound like interesting ideas that may just help designers think not just about the end goals of a product but also consider the user experience. Yet, I still wonder about the ability of tech designers to resist the pressure their employers might put on them. For example, putting these more humane options into practice could be easier when working for your own startup but would be more difficult if a big corporation is breathing down your neck to push the bottom line or end product. Think the Milgram experiment: can individual designers follow the ethical path? Perhaps some of this training also needs to happen at the executive and managerial levels so that the emphasis on protecting the user is pervasive throughout organizations.

Brit Derren Brown to test four sociology (?) theories on TV

If you search for YouTube videos of the famous Milgram Experiment, you’ll run into an interesting recreation on the BBC hosted by Derren Brown (see part one of three here). When I’ve showed this to students, they tend to ask why a TV performer gets to perform this experiment but no university IRB would likely allow this. I don’t know the answer to this. But, Brown is back with a new show where he is going to test four more sociological theories:

His new show, The Experiment, will see Brown trying out four sociological theories on unsuspecting citizens.

The performer said: “Three of them are relatively dark, looking into the darker side of human behaviour, and one of them is rather positive and jolly. The first one is called The Assassin.”…

He explained: “It’s whether or not it’s possible to hypnotise somebody to kill, to carry out an assassination. This is based on the testimonies given by political assassins who say they were brainwashed by the CIA.”

Some of the theories have their origins in academia, while some of them are developed by Brown himself. Which is even more concerning.

So perhaps this isn’t terribly sociological and is more entertainment/conspiracy theory. What would it take to get an American host to replicate some famous or intriguing sociological experiments on TV? What about things like the Ultimatum Game and how the results can differ across groups and cultures? Instead, we are stuck with weaker shows like What Would You Do. A show that could demonstrate that sociological studies are both intriguing and beneficial for society could go a long way toward boosting the image of the discipline.

Wired’s “seven creepy experiments” short on social science options

When I first saw the headline for this article in my copy of Wired, I was excited to see what they had dreamed up. Alas, the article “Seven Creepy Experiments That Could Teach Us So Much (If They Weren’t So Wrong)” is mainly about biological experiments. One experiment, splitting up twins and fixing their environments, could be interesting: it would provide insights into the ongoing nature vs. nurture debate.

I would be interested to see how social scientists would respond to a question about what “creepy” or unethical experiments they would like to see happen. In research methods class, we have the classic examples of experiments that should not be replicated. Milgram’s experiment about obedience to authority, Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, and Humphrey’s Tearoom Trade Study tend to come up. From more popular sources, we could talk about a setup like the one depicted in The Truman Show or intentionally creating settings like those found in Lord of the Flies or The Hunger Games.

What sociological experiments would produce invaluable information but would never pass an IRB?

More on examining six degrees of separation on Facebook

I noted earlier this week that Yahoo and Facebook are conducting an experiment to see how interconnected people are the world are. Here are some more information about the experiment that was revealed in an interview with Yahoo sociologist/research scientist Duncan Watts:

  • On the quality of Facebook’s data:

Cameron Marlow, Facebook’s research scientist and “in-house sociologist,” said that because Facebook’s social graph is essentially the best representation of real world relationships available, “our data can speak more definitively to this question than anything else in history.

Facebook has a treasure trove of information that could be the source of some fascinating research. Does this study signal the start of a new era where researchers will be able to have access to profiles? Will Facebook users, often worried about privacy, stand for this?

  • Watts on the problems in past replications of Milgram’s original experiment:

The problem that all of the experiments have had—and the problem that we’re trying to address with this one—is that you never really know what the ground truth is. You know that there’s some network out there involved that connects people, and you know that messages are being passed along on top of this network. The problem is because you can’t see the network underneath them, you don’t know whether people are making the right choices, you don’t know if the chains are as short as possible, and you don’t know why the chains that aren’t completing are stopping.

The major difference here is that Facebook [is] the network over which these messages are being passed. We can see through Facebook how everyone is really connected to everyone else. We can see whether people can actually find these short paths. In previous experiments you were missing this background picture, but now we have the background and we can run the experiment on top of it.

It sounds like past experiments allowed researchers to see the outcome – how many letters reached the target – but didn’t allow them to trace out the paths, either successful or unsuccessful. Being able to see behind the curtain could also reveal some insights about the speeds of certain networks.

  • On whether the data is representative:

There are two issues here. You might be concerned that the Facebook network is somehow an unrepresentative sample of the real social graph of the world. The other concern is the people participating in the sample might be an unrepresentative sample of Facebook. I’m not worried about the first concern. Facebook has 750 million users. If it works on Facebook, it’s increasingly difficult to argue that it wouldn’t work for the rest of the world. But the second problem is one that we’re concerned about. It’s really just a matter of getting a broad enough recruiting effort.

I bet there are people who could make a good case that this data is not representative. These same issues plague web surveys: who has consistent access to the Internet and who can be recruited? I would guess that Facebook still skews younger and more educated than the general population.

Watts suggests the results will be published in an academic journal. It will be interesting to read about the outcome and how this is viewed by academics.

Redoing Milgram’s degrees of separation experiment with Facebook

Stanley Milgram is best known for one particular experiment but another of his experiments is being replicated with new technology:

Yahoo and Facebook are setting out to test the hypothesis that anyone in the world is connected to anyone else in just six steps.

The experiment aims to prove or disprove that which was first suggested by Harvard sociologist Stanley Milgram when he asked 300 people to get a message to a Boston stockbroker using their personal networks.

Only about 60 of the messages reached their target, with the average number of steps in the chain being six – coining the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’.

Yahoo’s research department is aiming to replicate that experiment, this time using Facebook, which has 750 million users worldwide.

If you go to the official page, you can then choose to participate. But before you can, you have to agree to a “Terms of Use” and four other statements. This is essentially the “informed consent form” for the experiment.

Also, the “Terms of Use” provides this description of the project:

The purpose of this study is to test a long-standing theory in sociology that everyone on Earth is connected together in a giant social network. In this experiment, participants called “Senders” forward messages to their Facebook friends in an attempt to reach a given “Target” individual, about whom they are given certain identifying information, in the shortest number of steps possible.

I can’t say that I have heard this specific sociological theory but I would be interested to see the results.

If you want to read a short (several paragraph) description of Milgram’s initial experiment, find it here.

Since corporations like Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and others are sitting on treasure troves of data, can we expect to see more experiments like this in the future?

Report on how US helped Nazis after World War II

A recently released report suggests the United States helped a number of Nazis after the end of World War II:

The 600-page report, which the Justice Department has tried to keep secret for four years, provides new evidence about more than two dozen of the most notorious Nazi cases of the last three decades.

It describes the government’s posthumous pursuit of Dr. Josef Mengele, the so-called Angel of Death at Auschwitz, part of whose scalp was kept in a Justice Department official’s drawer; the vigilante killing of a former Waffen SS soldier in New Jersey; and the government’s mistaken identification of the Treblinka concentration camp guard known as Ivan the Terrible…

Perhaps the report’s most damning disclosures come in assessing the Central Intelligence Agency’s involvement with Nazi émigrés. Scholars and previous government reports had acknowledged the C.I.A.’s use of Nazis for postwar intelligence purposes. But this report goes further in documenting the level of American complicity and deception in such operations.

The Justice Department report, describing what it calls “the government’s collaboration with persecutors,” says that O.S.I investigators learned that some of the Nazis “were indeed knowingly granted entry” to the United States, even though government officials were aware of their pasts. “America, which prided itself on being a safe haven for the persecuted, became — in some small measure — a safe haven for persecutors as well,” it said.

Even today, everyone can agree on one group of people who were evil: the Nazis. Yet it appears the relationship between the United States, the supposed moral victors in Europe in 1945, had a much more complicated relationship with Nazis than is typically thought.

This reminds me of a chapter by sociologist Jeffrey Alexander. In this chapter, Alexander detailed how the United States was able to claim the moral high ground after World War II – after all, the US had rid the world of both the evil Nazis and Japanese. But by the mid 1960s, the United States could no longer claim this high ground with questions about whether the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan had been necessary and Milgram’s experiment suggested lots of ordinary people were capable of evil.

How much more interesting information like this is buried somewhere?