I attended an interesting talk today by Dawn Nafus, an anthropologist working at Intel. She presented on a mixed methods study that explored notebook and ultra-mobile PC use. As part of the research, she and her colleagues observed that rather than facilitating work to minimize busyness, technology was actually used more often to intentionally add to our activities, filling gaps, expanding and shrinking until interupted. Users prized the small form factor because the technology more readily defered to external contingencies — it was easier to look over the screen to see what was occuring on TV and to also attend to the activity of family members.
I found two findings particularly interesting. First, activities using technology often did not tightly integrate with other activities occuring at the same time. Thus, while various TV programs might pop up onto the screen URL’s to gather additional information, people weren’t surfing to those sites. They were instead doing unrelated research to fill the voids when the TV broadcast was of minimal interest.
Second, 50% of activity on notebooks and Ultra-mobile PCs were 2-3 minutes in length, with the time on ultra-mobile PCs shorter than on notebooks. The shortness wasn’t because the screens were smaller and harder to read, but because they were easier to ignore. The suspicion is that computing is becoming ubiquitous, but in so doing, it was becoming less the point of activities, and more a support to the rest of our lives. I find that highly comforting in an odd sort of way!
But more than just being a comfort, I think it provides an intriguing suggestion that we need to be developing community technology centers (CTC) differently. Right now, they are developed with the idea that people are coming to the CTC for the technology. As such, traditional desktop or tower cases and larger LCD monitors dominate. Maybe the CTC of the future instead needs to be a place with lots of tables and chairs that can easily be rearranged, and laptops for checkout. Stop making the technology the point and instead turn the places back to COMMUNITY centers with access to technology to facilitate community work.