Some Strategies and Challenges

for the Design of Family Technology


Position Paper for CHI 2002 New Technologies for Families Workshop


Scott D. Mainwaring

People and Practices Research

Intel Labs


Over the last several years, my colleagues and I in the People and Practices Research group in Intel Labs have conducted a number of qualitative, fairly open-ended interview and observation studies within American, European, and Asian households, investigating their use of and attitudes about media and technology (for an early example, see Mateas et al., 1996).  In seeking to understand the potential for new users and usages of computing power, these studies have documented an amazing variety of individuals and households, of cultures and subcultures, of ways of incorporating (or not) technologies and media into everyday life.  In this position paper, I would like mention some themes that have emerged out of this diversity, and propose a possible framework for understanding different senses in which technology could be designed for families.


To begin, consider the following caricature of American home life:  Mom is in the kitchen, cooking dinner with the TV on in the background.  Dad is in the home office, downloading a new firewall program to his desktop PC to try out on the home network.  The teenage kids are upstairs in their rooms, supposedly doing homework on their PCs, but actually instant-messaging with friends while listening to MP3s downloaded off the net.  Individuals of differing ages, genders, and social roles, with very different tastes in media and attitudes towards computers, enclosed within but distributed throughout their house, doing their own things.  What would it mean to develop technology for this family, as opposed to simply these different (albeit related) individuals?  How might it get adopted, and for what reasons, serving what needs?


It could be objected that this family scenario promotes in a number of gender, age, and other stereotypes, and at best oversimplifies a complex situation, starting with its depiction of a “traditional,” married-with-children, relatively affluent American family.  This is a reasonable objection, and the scenario is guilty as charged.  Even staying within the U.S., there are a very wide variety of types of households, living arrangements, and patterns of technology use across age, gender, and other demographic variables.  According to the 2000 census, traditional families -- married couples with one or more children under 18 -- make up only 23.5% of U.S. households.  Non-traditional, extended, and dispersed families are increasingly important, and as are opportunities for technologies that can address their needs for managing and maintaining interpersonal relationships at a distance (such as that addressed by the Casablanca project at Interval Research Corporation; see Hindus et al., 2001).


Nevertheless, the traditional family sketched above is in some ways a useful starting point.  Here is a family all of whom are used to living with technology, whether it is something the kids have grown up with and use socially, the father has delved in to a hobby, or the mother is used to as a component in her multitasking.  Other starting points could provide many more additional challenges, but perhaps this scenario is initially challenging enough.  Furthermore, we continually find in our forays into middle America – not to mention other more conservative cultures – that, like it or not, gender and family role stereotypes are very much alive and well.  Many times, as visitors in their homes, husbands show us their gadgets and technological prowess, as wives look on with bemused expressions of tolerance – or interjections of frustration over complexity, expense, and using up time.  Interviewing the children about their PC use can be challenging, as they take it for granted and/or consider it part of their private, social lives.  But gender roles can be observed in earlier stages as boys show off binders of music CDs they’ve made from hours of Napster™ downloads, and girls show us how in The Sims™ it’s possible to build miniature houses and manipulate their tiny inhabitants.


Taking this stereotypically structured American family as a starting point, how could one go about designing technology for them, which they would use collectively as a family?  Here are some strategies to consider, each suggesting a different notion or level of “collectively”:


Shared devices.   One strategy is to design technology that different family members can use at different times.  Given divergence of interests and abilities within the family, these products often are multi-purpose, used by each individual for their own needs.  Though often not collective in use, they are often collective in justification:  the expense may be too much for one individual’s use, but acceptable when spread over the different beneficiaries.  There are many examples of this kind of approach to family technology:  the big TV valued by each family member as a means to access their own content, general purpose PCs valued by each family member for their own applications, shared telephone lines valued by each family member as a means to talk to particular others, etc.  But in many respects this is a degenerate case of “collective” use – with a few exceptions such as shared message boards or sometimes answering machines, these time-shared technologies are only begrudgingly shared, and are often subjects of contention.  When the cost drops so that each can have their own, that is likely the end result.


Shared infrastructure.  A variant of the time-shared technology strategy is to support multiple simultaneous use of a shared technology that acts as an infrastructure for potentially very different user experiences.  For example, in the introductory scenario of mom preparing dinner with TV in the background, while other family members are off at their PCs, all of these separate activities could in fact be simultaneously supported by a networked media server in the basement.  Though avoiding contention, and perhaps less prone to dissolution as costs drop, this strategy again offers a limited notion of collective use:  independent simultaneous use.  Of course, the house itself could be seen as just such an infrastructure for simultaneous independent use, and there are ways in which houses bring together families, even if members don’t ever see each other and don’t collaborate as equals.  For example, family members can do each other favors, leave gifts, divide up chores to keep the system orderly, etc.  Indeed, traditional family roles can be seen as providing a structure that, if not egalitarian, does provide a framework in which binds members together through interactions and obligations.  Analogs could develop in the home server / home network domain, with family members doing their part to keep the system functioning, and perhaps doing each other favors such as forwarding personally uninteresting content to a family member who would be interested.


Shared spaces.  Another related idea strategy is to design technology that allows family member to be copresent while engaged in separate activities.  This copresence could be literal, as when a couple sits together with the TV on with one of them actually watching it, the other reading the newspaper or using a laptop; or it could be simulated through some kind of presence technology, so that although the family is dispersed throughout the house, the are together on some kind of open channel and thus aware of one another.  Much work has been done in workplace environments on awareness and copresence systems (e.g., see Hindus et al. 1996), but there are significant challenges to adapting these technologies to the home environment, where privacy issues can be more severe and notions about “being at a workstation” take a different form.  The literal copresence route is perhaps a more satisfying destination – scenarios in which household members are all at their respective PCs, occasionally interacting electronically with one another, tend to seem a little sad.  An interesting area of research would be modifying technologies or spaces to support easy switching between copresent interaction and individual activities.  The pause-live-TV capability of digital video recorders (such as TiVo®) is one such enhancement, which could allow the couple in front of the TV to more easily switch back and forth between conversation and their separate media experiences.


Shared activities.  Moving beyond merely enabling family members to share space, this strategy seeks to use technology to engage them in a common activity.  Again, this technology could enable interaction at a distance (as when family members play a networked game from their individual rooms), or it could enable actual copresent shared activity (as when the family convenes in the home theatre to watch a movie they can all agree upon).   Enabling shared activities is perhaps the most straightforward of the strategies mentioned here for addressing collective use, and the range of possible shared activities is wide, ranging from the more utilitarian (shopping together, organizing family photos or videos together, doing chores together) to leisure activities (music and video, game playing, shared hobbies, creative activities).  And each of these activities could be supported in different ways by technology.  Coordination technology could help create windows of opportunity (allowing the family to find times to gather together – cell phones have been valuable in this regard).  Recommender systems could be designed with families in mind, facilitating negotiation over what to content to watch or what activity to embark on.  And systems could more directly support technology-mediated group interaction, designed in reaction against the obstacles that the traditional keyboard, mouse, and screen-based PC to multiple user use.  For example, our group at Intel (as have others) has experimented with tabletop and tangible interfaces, allowing people to gather around a technology-augmented surface, for photo sharing, music browsing, or game playing, among other activities.


To recap, the framework proposed can be depicted as follows:



Same system

Same time

Same space

Joint activity

1. Shared devices





2. Shared infrastructure





3. Shared spaces





4. Shared activities






The four strategies listed in the rows differ according to four features in the columns.  In shared device strategies, the same system is used at different times for non-joint activities, though possibly in the same space.  Shared infrastructure strategies are similar, but allow for simultaneous use of the device.  Shared space strategies locate multiple people in the same space at the same time, possibly but not necessarily all using the same system, with each person engaged their own activity.  And last, shared activity strategies bring together multiple people on a single system to act together, probably (though not necessarily) at the same time and the same space.


This framework invites a series of value judgments, ordering the strategies as shown from least collective (shared devices) to most collective (shared activities) in their character.  If the goal is “technology for families [to be doing things together]”, such an ordering is perhaps justified.  And it does seems to be the case that shared devices which do not in fact support joint activity embody an inherent conflict, often resolved by replicating the device so that it need not be shared.  Nevertheless, each strategy or mode of collective technology use has its place, has contexts in which it makes sense; all are ways for multiple members of a household to have a stake in technology.


Furthermore, even within a single family, life spans all of these modes – sometimes people need to be apart, sometimes together in a lightweight, space-sharing-only way, and perhaps least frequently engaged in some common shared activity.  (Indeed, it may be the rarity of occasions in which a family is all together in a joint activity that makes such occasions most valued.)  Such reasoning suggests that rather than a hierarchy of more of less valued modes of collectivity, this framework might more helpfully seen as a set of states that a system should be able to switch flexibly between.  This flexibility and flux, of coming together and moving apart, might better characterize “technology for families” than a more restrictive if idealistic notion of “technology for family togetherness”.




Hindus, D., Ackerman, M.S., Mainwaring, S.D., & Starr, B. (1996). Thunderwire: A field study of an audio-only media space. In Proceedings of CSCW 96 (pp. 238-247). New York: ACM.


Hindus, D., Mainwaring, S.D., Leduc, N., Hagstrom, A. & Bayley, O. (2001). Casablanca: Designing social communication devices for the home.  In Proceedings of CHI 2001 (pp. 325-332).  New York: ACM.


Mateas, M., Salvador, T., Scholtz, J., & Sorenson, D. (1996).  Engineering ethnography in the home. In Proceedings of CHI ’96 (pp. 283-284).  New York: ACM.





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