Thesis Defense

  • Ph.D. Student
  • Human-Computer Interaction Institute
  • Carnegie Mellon University
Thesis Orals

Critically Exploring the Virtual Possession Design Space through Fieldwork and Constructive Design Research

Many disciplines have investigated how people modify and form attachments to their material possessions. As interactive technologies continue to become woven into the fabric of everyday life, people’s practices have expanded and today they are amassing ever-larger and diverse collections of virtual possessions. Virtual possessions include former material things that are becoming immaterial (e.g., books, music, photos); things that never had a lasting material form (e.g., electronic message archives); and also metadata traces that document people’s interactions with digital devices and services (e.g., photo location information, music play histories).

Over the past several years, the HCI community has begun to explore the intersection of virtual possessions with people’s everyday lives. This nascent body of work has largely focused on understanding and building tools to support people’s values and practices surrounding particular virtual things (e.g., photo collections, video, text messages). However, to date virtual possessions remain difficult to characterize, and little is known about what they are, and what they could—or should—be in the future.

This dissertation offers two core contributions to open up virtual possessions as a research topic for the HCI community. First, I describe and unpack virtual possessions as a class of artifacts for the HCI community to investigate. To do this, I draw on findings from qualitative field studies I have conducted with populations in the United States, United Kingdom, Spain and South Korea that investigated people’s perceptions of and relationships with their virtual possessions—how they become mundane parts of everyday life, how they are drawn on as resources for self-reflection and self-presentation, unexpected workarounds people devise to get a better ‘grasp’ on them, and how they become extraordinary.

The second contribution of this dissertation is new knowledge on how virtual possessions can be represented in radically different and potentially more valuable forms. To do this, I draw on several studies I conducted of design artifacts, environments and prototypes that, in different ways, explore new forms and behaviors of virtual possessions, and the potential technological futures they represent. This corpus of research will illustrate how the HCI community can move beyond studies of people’s current practices toward making radical conceptual leaps that engage users in dialogues about the largely unstructured virtual possession design space. Building on findings from my earlier fieldwork and design-oriented studies, I describe the long-term field study of the Photobox, a technology probe that in part aims to open up value construction activities with people’s Flickr photo archives. I conclude by synthesizing findings across both fieldwork and constructive design resear! ch projects to articulate a framework that offers a vocabulary for characterizing key experiential qualities of virtual possessions.

Collectively, these two contributions provide substantial new knowledge into understanding (i) what virtual possessions are as a class of artifacts and factors shaping people’s experiences with them and (ii) how the form, presentation and behavior of virtual possessions can be radically transformed to open up new and potentially more meaningful interactions with them in the future.

Thesis Committee:
John Zimmerman (Co-Chair)
Jodi Forlizzi (Co-Chair)
Abigail Sellen (Microsoft Research Cambridge)
Sara Kiesler

Thesis Document Draft

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