Unremarkable Computing and the Household

Position Paper for CHI 2002 New Technologies for Families Workshop

Peter Tolmie, James Pycock, Tim Diggins, Allan Maclean and Alain Karsenty

Xerox Research Centre Europe
Cambridge Laboratory

61 Regent Street




In this paper we outline some research we have conducted in family homes that has led us to place emphasis upon the ways in which to make computing ‘disappear’ it is necessary first of all to make it ‘unremarkable’.  We detail two instances that we found particularly illuminating in this respect and discuss the ways in which they pre-eminently unremarkable.  Out of this we make some tentative observations about the implications of that for the design of future technologies for the home.


Ubiquitous Computing, The Disappearing Computer, Ethnography, Domestic Technology, Augmentation


Many recent initiatives, ideas, and research agendas have been focused upon ways in which to have technology increasingly ‘disappear’ from sight and become embedded within other artefacts that retain the computing power whilst losing the appearance of a computer.  Examples in this arena abound, ranging from Mark Weiser’s early notion of ‘invisible in use’[8], through notions such as calm computing [9], ubiquitous computing [7], and the computational augmentation of everyday artefacts [4], and to ongoing exercises such as the EC’s Disappearing Computer initiative [2].

In a totally different vein of interest social scientists studying people’s engagement with technology have recurrently confirmed an observation first offered by Harvey Sacks in the early 1970s:

“This technical apparatus is, then, being made at home with the rest of our world.  And that’s a thing that’s routinely being done, and it’s the source for the failures of technocratic dreams that if only we introduced some fantastic new communication machine the world will be transformed.  Where what happens it that the object is made at home in the world that has whatever organization it already has” ([6] 548-9).

Much of the research implicated in the above perspectives has been conducted in work settings rather than home settings.  However, it is clear that in environments where rationales of productivity and efficiency are not at the fore, and where aesthetic configuration is given considerably greater emphasis, how technology looks, where it is placed, how ‘visible’ or ‘invisible’ it is, how to hand it is, and how much work it takes to make it work [1], are all clearly significant.  Furthermore, they are unlikely to be significant in the same ways as they are for workplace technologies.  But what does it take for a computer to ‘disappear’? And how do technologies get ‘made at home’?


Under the auspices of an EC-funded project (called MiME [5]) in the Disappearing Computer initiative we conducted several ethnographic studies of family life during the summer of 2001.  These were fully-fledged ethnographies with the researcher spending long periods in the family home shadowing the activities of family members and recording them for subsequent analysis.  The aim was to capture as much as possible, without pre-supposition about what might or might not be of interest, and there was certainly no emphasis placed upon how people interacted with and around any particular set of technologies.  Instead we wanted to understand family life as best we could from the point of view of those living within the family, and to arrive at a point where we could comprehend their own, in situ logics and rationales.

Although we therefore did not set out with the above questions informing the conduct of our research it became apparent to us as we analysed aspects of the data that some of our observations were able to speak to such interests.  In particular we found reflections upon the way people actually accomplish routines to be significant in this respect, although the import is broader.


To cut to the chase let us say that one of the prime ways in which things may be ‘lost to view’ and ‘made at home’ is through the orientation people adopt to them as unremarkable.  That is, it is less a perceptual matter (though we wouldn’t want to utterly deny the importance of that in some respects) and more a matter of orientation.  In everyday life there are innumerable things that we engage with, that we do, that other people do, that we never trouble to concern ourselves with or pass comment upon.  Everyone just gets on with doing them as though they were the most ‘natural’ thing in the world.  That is, in the course of whatever they are doing, people find these things naturally accountable [3] – they require no special account for why things are done that way or look that way and would never normally think to provide some account for them.   And it is in just such circumstances that things are most ‘invisible’, ‘unnoticed’, ‘ignored’, ‘not attended to’, or whatever, and most ‘made at home’.

We fell into these reflections in the context of observing routines because some of the things we were seeing were at first sight particularly remarkable to us, yet utterly unremarkable to those who were engaged in their realisation.  For instance, in one family a mother and her neighbour had arrived at a seemingly elaborate, yet beautifully simple and obvious method for notifying one another of their imminent departure to school to pick up their children, so that they could walk there together. 

  Figure 1: “That was good timing”


The arrangement worked in this way:  Whoever was ready first and out first knocked on the door of the other, but didn’t wait for a reply. Instead they just slowly started to walk up the road.  The other mother whose door had been knocked on similarly opened the door a crack to acknowledge the fact they had heard it, but didn’t necessarily leave immediately but rather gathered together their bits and pieces to get ready to go to the school.  Then they walked out and caught up with their neighbour.  We inhabit a world where our usual understanding of what happens when someone knocks on a door is that they wait for an answer and the person inside opens the door to see who is there.  In this case those expectations were thoroughly transcended and to us, at first sight, quite remarkable.  Yet for the two mothers this was a thing they did every school day, never paused to comment upon, and that was eminently logical.  But it was not a thing that they could engage in at just any time of day or on any day of the week.  It was quite specifically unremarkable to them within the context of their ‘going to school’ routine.  So a refinement we need to note here is that things are not by their nature naturally accountable or unremarkable.  Rather they are unremarkable within some particular course of action.  No-one comments upon them because they are grammatically appropriate.  The full force of this was brought home to us when, on one occasion, they both exited from their front doors at the same time, thereby obviating the need for their messaging activity but only pausing to comment thus: “that was good timing”, for it was, of course, that coincidence of action that the knock on the door had evolved to support.

In another instance we were observing a mother who was working at home early in the morning on her computer.  During the course of our observations an alarm clock upstairs began to ring.  Yet, despite this being something specifically remarkable to the ethnographer witnessing it, the mother ignored the alarm and carried on working on her computer, not even pausing in her keystrokes.  Yet five minutes later she stopped work and went to the foot of the stairs and called up to her children to check they were getting up.  For her, once again, the actual device and its audibility were wholly unremarkable.  Yet it served as a resource for bringing about subsequent things, such as getting up and going to school.  Once more this is something that is situatedly sensible but, were it to happen at another time, for instance in the middle of the morning once the children had gone to school, it would cease to be grammatically appropriate and would instead become something that she herself might well comment upon.


We have, then, reached a point where we are proposing that one of the most important things for any technology to accomplish in the context of the household, if it is to be genuinely ‘made at home’ and ‘invisible in use’, is that it be able to become so completely appropriate within the grammar of some course of action that it is utterly unremarkable.  If it obliges interaction with it such that you yourself are obliged to take specific note of that interaction, or if your interaction with it is at all notable to others, then it cannot really be said to have ‘disappeared’.  So a device may not be literally ‘seeable’ yet, if it obliges you to take pause mid-conversation and wave vigorously at your ceiling, then it is every bit as remarkable as some chugging mainframe that occupies half of your living room.

Design in such circumstances is obviously challenging.  Yet clearly these observations do enable us to offer certain insights.  For instance, if we reflect upon our first example of the knock on the door, there is a tangible artefact, a door, and an action performed upon it, a knock.  Yet to seek to support such things technologically purely on those terms, for instance, most crudely, be trying to provide for a more effective way of knocking, would be to completely miss the point.  For it is clear within this example that the knock on the door is an action that signifies.  How one might then understand what one should augment technologically rides, crucially, upon an understanding of what actions one is augmenting, and where what one should augment is clearly the action and not just the device. 

Another point worthy, perhaps, of reflection is that within the examples recounted above there are certain nodal occurrences, such as the ringing of the alarm clock or the knock upon the door, upon which the subsequent realisation of action might be said to turn.  It might then be the case that a deeper understanding of such nodal moments and their grammatical significance within some course of action might well offer something to the design of ubiquitous computing.  For instance, might such moments be particularly useful to detect?  And, if one is going to augment action, are these the moments when augmentation might be most effectively realised?  All of these are matters requiring considerably more research and exploration of their implications but we would argue that a proper understanding of how things come to be unremarkable in action is important to any future debate.


We have in this position paper noted a burgeoning interest in how technologies might be made to ‘disappear’ and become woven into the fabric of people’s lives.  Our research has led us to put forward the suggestion that understanding how people orient to things as unremarkable is central to accomplishing any realisable ‘disappearance’ of technology.  We have supported this with several examples where the possibility for things to be unremarkable turns upon their placement and implicativeness within some course of action.  We have therefore argued that augmentation of devices should be centred upon augmenting actions, and actions that are locally intelligible as appropriate, rather than devices per se.  Whilst this does not offer immediate design solutions we see it as an important element in ongoing research across a range of initiatives and in particular those that are increasingly coming to focus upon design for the home.


The research was conducted in part for the MIME Project (IST FET 2000 26360) in the EC’s Disappearing Computing programme.


[1]     Bowers, J, ‘The Work to Make a Network Work: Studying CSCW in Action, Proceedings of CSCW ’94, Chapel Hill: ACM Press, 1994

[2]     The Disappearing Computer Initiative, http://www.disappearing-computer.net/, 2001

[3]     Garfinkel, H., Studies in Ethnomethodology, Englewood  Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1967

[4]     Gellersen, H-W., Beigl, M., Krull, H, “The MediaCup: Awareness Technology Embedded in a Everyday Object”, Gellersen, H-W (Ed), Handheld and Ubiquitous Computing, First International Symposium, HUC'99, Karlsruhe, Germany, September 27-29, 1999, 308-310

[5]     MiME (Multiple Intimate Media Environments) Project Website, http://mime.cs.nott.ac.uk/, 2001

[6]     Sacks, H, Lectures on Conversation, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992

[7]     Weiser, M, “Ubiquitous Computing #1”, http://www.ubiq.com/hypertext/weiser/UbiHome.html, 1988

[8]     Weiser, M, "Creating the invisible interface: (invited talk)", Published in  Proceedings of the ACM symposium on User interface software and technology, November 2 - 4, 1994, Marina del Rey, CA USA

[9]     Weiser, M & Brown, J S, "Designing Calm Technology", PowerGrid Journal, v1.01, http://powergrid.electriciti.com/1.01 July 1996.