07 Aprile 2008

SUSTAINABLE INTERACTION DESIGN. An interview with Eli Blevis

The electronic industry has an increasing responsibility in the production of toxical components and e-waste. Careless strategies are leading to irresponsible designs such as the growing number of products (heart rate monitor for sports/fitness, digital thermometers for measuring fever, active RFID, toys,...) which are sealed to deliberately prevent the user to change the battery. As a result, when the battery needs to be replaced, the user is forced to throw away the product (although it could perfectly function with a new battery) and buy a new one.

200pxportraitblevisclrsmall_2 One of today’s sessions (called Green Day) at CHI 2008 has been devoted to sustainable design and users’ perception of sustainability. To understand the latter Kristin Hanks and colleagues at the University of Indiana Indiana University has studied more than 400 students in the 18-21 age range, belonging to the so-called Net generation, a significant producer of e-waste. The results of the research, presented during the afternoon at CHI 2008 are not encouraging. I’ve asked a few quick questions to one of the authors (Eli Blevis, see picture on the left):

How much sustainable is the electronics industry today?
”It could be a lot better. Major issues include: e-waste, frequent obsolescence, early disposal, toxic material components, concealment of energy use, power used by computer servers, and the ways in which computers do not promote sensible energy use—for example, a laptop could be designed to set its energy savings mode itself based on user behaviors, rather than expect users to select the most efficient settings.”

What are the "material effects of interactive technologies"?
”The material effects are the possible consequences resulting from the invention and disposal of interactive technologies. Last year, we described these effects in a specific paper on sustainable interaction design. In short, they include disposal, salvage, recycling, remanufacturing for reuse, reuse as is, achieving longevity of use, sharing for maximal use, achieving heirloom status, finding wholesome alternatives to use, and active repair of misuse.”

Based on your research, what are the attitudes of the Net generation towards sustainability issues?
”There is some concern about global warming, but concern doesn’t always translate into action. For example, survey participants who stated that they were concerned about the environment, did not claim different behaviors with respect to consumption than people who stated a lack of concern for the environment. One telling result is that
38.2% of participants had owned 4-8 cell phones in their lifetime, the more striking given that the average age of the participants was only 19.7 years.“

How did you reach these findings with users? Did you find any surprising behavior?
“We did a survey of 435 undergraduate students and we found lots of interesting behaviors. We invite readers to take a look at our CHI2008 paper because it is important to see these behaviors in relation to one another, and not reductively.”

How do you think we should design devices and applications to take into account your findings ?
“In the paper we present today, we have given a chart (see figure below, click to enlarge) to suggest different approaches for different kinds of people. It is a good summary of our advice and it is explained more fully in the paper as well as in a short article.”

 © 2008, Il Sole 24 Ore. Web report from CHI 2008.


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