Case Study: A Message Board as a Technology Probe for Family Communication and Coordination

Position Paper for CHI 2002 New Technologies for Families Workshop


Hilary Hutchinson, Catherine Plaisant, Allison Druin

Human-Computer Interaction Lab
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742

{hilary, plaisant, allisond}




In this paper, we describe the design of an electronic family message board and the initial results of its deployment in three households. The message board was used as a “technology probe” to help understand the communication and coordination needs of a distributed, multigenerational family. Using this information, we are working with the family as design partners to design new technologies.


Technology for families, CSCW, cooperative design, participatory design, technology probe, remote awareness


Mobile phones, video games and the Internet have already changed the way families stay in touch, coordinate daily tasks and spend time together.   There is increased interest from commercial companies and academic research labs in the development of new technologies for the home.  

A small number of papers on this topic started to appear in CHI 2001 [e.g. 6,9].  In addition, the University of Maryland organized a workshop in June 2001, attracting 12 participants from industry and academia (see [11]).   We see two components to this topic: 

Our lab’s research in this area is a part of a European partnership called “InterLiving” [7]. This research focuses on developing technologies to improve communication and collaboration among distributed families. We are working with multi-generational families in Sweden, France and the US as design partners, using traditional ethnographic and participatory design methods in addition to what we have termed “technology probes” to explore the communication and coordination needs of distributed families.

One of these technology probes is a message board, a program designed to be used with a writable LCD display where family members can write notes to each other, much like paper sticky notes (see Figure 1). Local and remote family members can have boards in multiple locations (e.g. home, work, school), and all are networked together so that all the messages show up on all the boards in real time.

Below, we describe the related work in technologies for the^M home and users as design partners that motivated our conception of technology^M probes and our subsequent design of the message probe. We then describe the^M deployment of the message probe in the three households of our US family and^M some initial results.

Figure 1: Screen shot of message board


Designing technology for the home is different than for the workplace. People have goals other than improving productivity or efficiency. The HomeNet study found that interpersonal communication (e.g. email) is more popular than information or entertainment applications [8]. Home users are less tolerant of ugly designs and hardware or software failures, and they are more diverse than the target audiences of many technology products [10].

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 allowed users to post messages using a writable LCD screen networked to other family members, as well as scan  photos, drawings, and other paper artifacts. Users appreciated the ability to keep in touch with or monitor family members in a fun simple way. The Casablanca project also revealed that users wanted devices that respected privacy, did not create new obligations, and offered multiple communication modes.


The idea of working with users to design technologies has a long history in the HCI community, with methodologies including contextual design [13], 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. 

In the InterLiving project, we are expanding this methodology to include entire distributed, multigenerational families as design partners. Through initial brainstorming activities to workshop design sessions, we are learning about the communication and coordination needs of families in Sweden, France, and the US and teaching them how to work together with researchers to design technologies to support these needs [12].

One of the more recent techniques for understanding users’ needs comes from Gaver’s work with cultural probes – maps, postcards, 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. We extended the idea of a cultural probe to use technologies, rather than physical objects, to gain an understanding of communication needs, rather than cultural norms.


“Technology probes” are new or existing technologies or prototypes that act as catalysts for new design ideas. These probes are given to design partners to use over a period of time for everyday tasks. Researchers and design partners then study how and why the probes were used through logging and interviews, and then work together to design new technologies based on their findings. Technology probes have the following goals:

Unlike prototypes, technology probes are not changed through an iterative testing cycle. Rather, they are used for evaluation and inspiration and then discarded. Unlike cultural probes, technology probes are not used for the direct transfer of information. Technology probes provide some of this information through log files, but much of the information is obtained via interviews and  design sessions. For our technology probes, we focused on supporting family communication and coordination with input devices that typical families might not be familiar with.


The message board design builds on work from three fields. The technology is influenced by synchronous shared whiteboard projects in CSCW and asynchronous commercial communication software such as instant messaging. In an effort to keep remote family members connected, we were also influenced by research in remote awareness. Our interface design is based on past experience with zoomable user interfaces. For more details see [2].

We decided to build a message board based around virtual notes because of the popularity of paper sticky notes for informal family communications. We understood that we would lose the feature of being able to stick notes on anything anywhere in the house, but would gain an unlimited supply of notes and the ability to share them remotely with other family members.

With the potential for multiple remote family members to be viewing, manipulating, and writing on their devices simultaneously, there were a number of usability and synchronization issues to consider. Not only do family members at multiple locations share the message space, but also multiple family members at the same location share a single message creation and viewing device.

Thus, we chose to implement a bulletin board-like interface. All users share control of the notes in the message space. Anyone can write on or move a note in the space, regardless of who created it. New notes are immediately sent to all the devices in the family and are displayed in the same location on all devices. We did not want to force an organization of notes on users, but needed some way of arranging them initially. Thus, new notes are arranged according to their creation time in a grid.

Organization and personalization of notes beyond the default placement is entirely up to users. Notes can be dragged out of the message grid anywhere in the message space. Notes can also be dragged back into the grid, where they resume their place in the time-based order. As notes are added or removed from the grid, the grid reorganizes itself to fill up empty space.

This design also allows for some interesting interactions, which add to users’ sense of remote awareness. Two users can draw on the same note at the same time or one user could move a note that someone is in the middle of writing. There is also no erase or delete functionality – users simply add to existing notes, create new ones, and move old ones.


The U.S. family we work with consists of a nuclear family (mother, father, son – age 8, daughter – age 11) and two sets of grandparents, all living within about 5 miles of each other in suburban Maryland. We met with the family to describe the project in late September of 2001.  After obtaining their consent to participate, we had them create a family “communication map” with paper and markers to illustrate with who and how they communicate.

Next, we described the message board as a new way to communicate. We left them with paper sticky notes to write on whenever they thought of a message they might want to send to each other using the message board. The goal of this exercise was to think about family communication and how it might be accomplished through a new medium.

We met again a month later to collect and discuss the sticky notes and show them the message board. The family members varied widely in their use of the sticky notes. One grandfather wrote more than 50 notes. The other set of grandparents wrote 8 notes together, while the nuclear family wrote 13. Interestingly, nearly all the notes were written – no drawings.

The notes fell into 5 general categories: status updates (e.g. locations and health), minor news not worthy of a phone call (e.g. went to church this morning), feelings (e.g. cheer up your day), questions and reminders (e.g. call about furnace), and coordination (e.g. what time should we come for dinner?). For both sets of grandparents, news not deserving a call was the dominant category, while coordination was most important in the nuclear family. Based in these results, we were interested to see if and how they would differ in the real message probe.


We deployed the probe in the three households of our US design partners for a little over a month in February and March of 2002. Following the deployment, we interviewed them in their homes. We provided computers and high-speed Internet access via cable modem to both sets of grandparents; the nuclear family already had both. We also provided them with notebooks to write down comments.

While we wanted to provide all of the households with a writable LCD tablet, we were only able to afford one of these devices. One set of grandparents used this device, while the other households used monitors and pen tablets. While we wanted to encourage the families to put their computers in a location that everyone would use and to leave it running all the time, we had to be flexible to accommodate their concerns about space and aesthetics.

In the nuclear family, the computer is in the kitchen. It was used for many tasks, so the message board was not always running. One set of grandparents already had a computer in an office. We put another computer, tablet, and monitor in their living room, and they left the message board running all the time. The other set of grandparents did not have a computer but agreed to put a computer and LCD tablet in their basement. Like the nuclear family, they wanted to use the computer for other things, so they did not always have the message board running.

The deployment actually lasted 6 weeks due to problems with one of the modems. At the end of this period, we interviewed all three households in their homes. We also logged usage statistics and captured daily screen shots.


Note Content

The family created over 120 notes, but we considered only 82 of these notes since some were blank and some were practice notes written with the researchers present. In all of the households, someone checked the message board at least once a day. Like the paper notes, the messages were almost exclusively text. The exceptions were 3 tic-tac-toe boards and a smiley face. The two grandfathers wrote the most notes, followed by the father in the nuclear family. The two children wrote a few notes each and the grandmothers and the mother only wrote one or two each. The two sets of grandparents didn't communicate with each other at all; they each just wrote notes to the nuclear family.

We used the same 5 categories as the paper notes to classify the messages since they seemed to fit well. Status updates were the most numerous, but many of these had to do with technology problems. Minor news, feelings, and coordination were nearly as numerous, while there were only a few questions and reminders. The major differences between the paper and electronic messages were more status updates involving technology with the message board, and more feelings expressed with the message board. Taking into consideration the prolific numbers of minor news notes written by one set of grandparents and technology problem notes written by the other, feelings and coordination were very popular with the message board.

Nuclear Family Usage

The nuclear family is a busy household. Both parents work and the kids are involved in many activities. The parents rely on the grandparents to pick up the kids from school, so they talk on the phone to both sets of grandparents every day. The only one who used the message board regularly was the father, who also had to field tech support calls from his dad and angry calls from his father-in-law when his modem wasn’t working. The mother thought many of these calls were a waste of time and got her father upset.

The children indicated that they were frequently too busy to use the message board, and the mother preferred to use the phone. Their computer was rather slow, and the pen tablet was awkward to use. Other than more calls from the maternal grandparents, the message board didn't really affect their communication patterns. The main effect seemed to be that they were happy that the paternal grandparents were learning to use a computer.

Paternal Grandparent Usage

The paternal grandparents had no prior computer experience and were unsure about participating in the project. However, after a month with the computer, they were both hooked. They wanted to use it for more than just the message board, so this put a lot of pressure on their son to help them learn how to use it. But, this curiosity to do things like check their stocks on the Internet and play solitaire kept them interested.

Both remarked that the LCD screen flat on the table was easier to look at than the regular monitor at their son’s house, especially with bifocals. However, it was slippery to write on. The lack of a delete or erase button made the grandfather self-conscious about making mistakes, so he used the notebook to write out many of his notes on paper before he wrote them on the message board. They were a little disappointed that the grandkids didn't use it more. They noted that it was fun for writing unimportant things, but used the phone if they needed a quick response.

Maternal Grandparent Usage

The maternal grandparents had the most trouble with the message board. They required a new modem and a visit from the cable company to give them a new IP address, and had a problem with their pen tablet only working at night, likely due to electrical interference. Their notebook was filled exclusively with updates written by the grandfather about these problems. As a result, they had a relatively negative experience with the message board, but remained positive about the project and our research.

They generally talk everyday on the phone with their son, often to arrange pickups from school. The message board was not reliable enough to conduct this sort of time-sensitive coordination. So, it was more useful for fun, but less important communication. Like the paternal grandparents, they were a little bit disappointed that the grandkids didn't use it more.

Suggestions and Conclusions

The family had many minor suggestions about ways to improve the message board. Delete and erase functions were unanimously requested. The grandparents in particular were self-conscious about not being able to erase mistakes. Both sets of grandparents suggested being able to type messages with a keyboard since the pen was hard to use for everyone. The maternal grandparents also wanted a new message notification function. One of the children wanted to be able to record messages and attach them to notes. However, as a technology probe, the real goal of the message board is to elicit more general ideas, which we expect to elicit in our future design sessions.

The combination of technology problems and not having the message board visible all the time prevented the family from developing an adequate level of trust to send time-dependent messages. While we wanted the message board to function as a standalone appliance that was always accessible, this was not realistic for the nuclear family and might have been less useful to the paternal grandparents, who used the message board more because they were also able to use the computer to do other things.

Both sets of grandparents were disappointed that the grandkids didn’t use it more often, indicating that a technology providing more contact with the grandchildren would be useful. The main change in communication was that both grandfathers called the father more frequently because they had computer questions. The women seemed to strongly prefer talking on the phone to writing notes. Many of the communications via phone and message board involved coordination for childcare, indicating that this may be a promising area for new technologies.


Using the information gathered from the message board probe and our interviews, we will meet with the entire family together to brainstorm about new technologies for communication and coordination. We will make use of low-tech prototyping techniques, enabling the families to be design partners for the first time by creating models of technologies from everyday materials like cardboard, string, and markers. Based on the busy schedules of this family, particularly the nuclear family, we are anticipating that they may be interested in technologies to support coordination and calendaring involving the whole family.


We thank our colleagues in the InterLiving project at KTH, LRI, and INRIA and our family design partners for all of their valuable contributions to this research. This research was supported in part by the European Union-funded Disappearing Computer Initiative.


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Example screen shot taken during workshop with families in Europe

Photo taken during workshop with families in Europe


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