Technologies for Families

Catherine Plaisant, Allison Druin, Hilary Hutchinson

Human-Computer Interaction Lab, University of Maryland,

College Park, MD, USA

{plaisant, allisond, hilary}




In this workshop, we propose to bring together researchers from industry and academia to discuss the design of new technologies for families. We will focus on both design techniques and the technologies themselves. Through discussions and brainstorming we hope to discover new ideas, which can be disseminated more broadly.


family, home, user interface, disappearing computer, cooperative design, participatory design, probe.


Mobile phones, video games and the Internet have already changed the way families stay in touch, coordinate daily tasks or family events or even spend time together.   There is increased interest from commercial companies and academic research labs in the development of new technologies for the home in general, and for families in  particular, from applications to share digital photographs to specialized family message boards or monitoring devices for the elderly.  

A small number of papers on this topic started to appear in CHI 2001 [e.g. 6,12].  In addition, the University of Maryland organized an initial small workshop in June, attracting 12 participants from industry and academia working on this new topic for CHI (see [14]).   We see two components to this topic: 

In this workshop, researchers involved in both of these areas will seek to address a number of questions. Can we develop technologies for families? What brings families together (celebrations, meals, chores, playing, etc.)? Can we develop innovative artifacts that support the needs of co-located and distributed intergenerational user? How to design for and with families? How can these technologies be embedded in our homes? Can they become a part of the very fabric of everyday family life? 

The participants of this workshop will prepare position statements before the conference.   The workshop will start with demonstrations and interactive presentations, followed by discussions and brainstorming in small groups.  We will document the workshop with video to facilitate a post-workshop report disseminated in appropriate forums.


The idea of working with users to design new technologies has a long history in the HCI community, with methodologies including contextual design [18], cooperative design [1], participatory design [5], and cooperative inquiry [3].  All of these methods enable adults or children as users to partner in developing new technologies.  One of the more recent techniques for understanding users’ needs comes from Gaver’s work with cultural probes – maps, postcards, disposable cameras, and other materials “designed to provoke inspirational responses from elderly people in diverse communities” [4]. These probes were distributed to a group of elderly people, who returned them filled with informal information about their lives and cultures.

In this tradition of co-design, the InterLiving project [7], a part of the Disappearing Computer Initiative [15], has begun to partner with families in Sweden and France to develop embedded technologies to improve communication, collaboration, and creativity among distributed families. Thanks to our initial work in this area [17], we know more discussions are needed to better understand how to meet the design process challenge with families.


Designing technology for the home is different than for the workplace. People have goals other than improving productivity or efficiency when using technology in the home. The HomeNet study found that interpersonal communication (e.g. email) is more popular than information or entertainment applications [8]. Home users are also likely to be less tolerant of ugly, utilitarian designs and hardware or software failures. Finally, they are more diverse than the target audiences of many technology products [13].

Despite these differences, households and designers of household technologies continue to treat home technologies as work-related devices. The social spaces in the home where family members spend most of their time interacting (e.g. kitchen, den) are separated from work spaces (e.g. “home offices”) where PC’s are kept [10,16]. Thus, technologies such as email that home users appear to want to use to stay in touch with remote friends and family can have the unwanted side-effect of keeping them isolated from their collocated family members, perhaps even causing declines in psychological and social well-being [9].

To avoid this problem, technologies can be embedded in more social areas of the home, or made lightweight and portable so they can be carried where people wish to use them. The evidence for home users’ desiring such technologies is compelling. In a recent study by MediaOne Labs, home users given portable, wireless, Internet-enabled tablets cited portability and the ability to multi-task as the nicest features of the tablet as compared to a PC [11].

The Casablanca project used ethnographic field studies and consumer testing of design concepts to gauge home users’ interest in new technologies [6]. One of these devices, a simulation of a ScanBoard, allowed users to post messages using a writable LCD screen networked to other family members, as well as scan in photos, drawings, and other paper artifacts. Users appreciated the ability to keep in touch with or monitor family members in a fun, low-cost, simple way, and specifically liked the ability to share via scanning and to communicate in more expressive ways. The Casablanca project also revealed that users wanted devices that respected privacy, did not create new obligations, and offered multiple communication modes. One of the technology probes being developed in the InterLiving project, a family message board, seeks to address these concerns by using a pen-based note interface that supports both synchronous and asynchronous communication [b]. Mynatt et al. have been working to address privacy issues with technologies such as the digital family portrait for checking up on elderly relatives [12]. All of these are good starting points for further discussion.


As technology becomes more entrenched in our everyday lives, it is our responsibility as researchers to understand the needs of today’s distributed, multigenerational families before we blindly start building technologies for them. By bringing together researchers from a variety of institutions and industries, we hope to further our understanding and discover new directions for research in this exciting area.


[1]     Bjerknes, G., Ehn, P. and M. Kyng. Computers and Democracy: A Scandinavian Challenge. Aldershot, UK: Alebury, 1987.

[2]     Browne, H., Bederson, B., Plaisant, C. and A. Druin. “Designing an Interactive Family Message Board as a Technology Probe for Family Communication.” Univ. of Maryland Tech. Report CS-TR-4284, Sept. 2001.

[3]     Druin, A. “Cooperative Inquiry: Developing New Technologies for Children with Children.” Proceedings of CHI ’99. (1999), ACM Press, 592-599.

[4]     Gaver, B., Dunne, T. and E. Pacenti. “Cultural Probes.” Interactions 6 (1). (1999), ACM Press, 21-29.

[5]     Greenbaum, J. and M. Kyng. Design at Work: Cooperative Design of Computer Systems. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991.

[6]     Hindus, D., Mainwaring, S., Leduc, N., Hagstrom, A. and O. Bayley. “Casablanca: Designing Social Communication Devices for the Home.” Proceedings of CHI ’01. (2001), ACM Press, 325-332.

[7]     InterLiving Project,

[8]     Kraut, R., Mukhopadlhyay, T., Szczypula, J., Kiesler, S. and W. Scherlis. “Communication and Information: Alternative Uses of the Internet in Households.” Proceedings of CHI ’98. (1998), ACM Press, 368-375.

[9]      Kraut, R., Kiesler, S., Mukhopadlhyay, Scherlis, W. and M. Patterson. “On Site: Social Impact of the Internet: What Does It Mean?” CACM 41 (12). (1998), ACM Press, 21-22

[10]  Mateas, M., Salvador, T., Scholtz, J. and D. Sorenson. “Engineering Ethnography in the Home.” Proceedings of CHI ’96. (1996), ACM Press, 283-284.

[11]  McClard, A. and P. Somers. “Unleashed: Web Tablet Integration into the Home.” Proceedings of CHI ’00. (2000), ACM Press, 1-8.

[12]  Mynatt, E., Rowan, J., Jacobs, A. and S. Craighill. “Digital Family Portraits: Supporting Peace of Mind for Extended Family Members.” Proceedings of CHI ’01. (2001), ACM Press, 333-340.

[13]  Scholtz, J., Mateas, M., Salvador, T. and D. Sorenson. “User Requirements Analysis for the Home.” Proceedings of CHI ’96. (1996), ACM Press, 326-327.

[14]  “Technology for Families”, HCIL 18th Annual Symposium and Open House Workshop.

[15]  The Disappearing Computer Initiative,

[16]  Venkatesh, A. “Computers and Other Interactive Technologies for the Home.” CACM 39 (12). (1996), ACM Press, 47-54.

[17]  Westerlund, B., Lindquist, S., and Y. Sundblad. “Cooperative design of communication support for and with families in Stockholm: communication maps, communication probes and low-tech prototypes.” 1st Equator IRC Workshop on Ubiquitous Computing for the domestic environment, Nottingham 13–14  Sept. 2001.

[18]  Wixon, D. and K. Holtzblatt. “Contextual Design: An Emergent View of System Design.” Proceedings of CHI ’90. (1990), ACM Press, 329-336.


Copyright is held by the author/owner(s).

CHI 2002, April 20-25, 2002, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.

ACM 1-58113-454-1/02/0004.