GROUP workshop: Toward opportunity in conflict

At ACM GROUP’s Technology on the Trail Workshop, Lindah Kotut and Mike Horning led an activity on the theme “Who’s out there? What are they doing?” that morphed into “Opportunity in conflict”.  The goal of the session was to explore the people that take technology onto trails, toward looking for conflicts that arise among groups of people and the opportunity in conflict.

Participants in the workshop drew from a large set of hiker roles, looking at tensions within the groups (e.g., hunters who use advanced weapons vs those who don’t think that gives animals a fair chance) and between groups (e.g., people looking for solitude, and those looking to play music with friends).  Lindah took the lead in identifying several tensions that seemed to pop up repeatedly:

  • presence vs distraction: Many people from most of the groups seek to escape technology by heading into wilderness, but they often are drawn to use technology to check that one important message or take that one essential picture.  There’s value in these things, but it may not be worth the distraction.
  • experiential vs practical: The line between these is often blurred, such as the desire for a family to document a trail experience in photos, and the competing desire to simply enjoy the experience.
  • professional vs amateur: There was a perceived value in professional use of technology, somehow making it forgivable to use, whereas the needs of amateurs did not seem as important.
  • known vs unknown: Our group struggled with ways of knowing about professions outside of our scope, whether the uses of technology were as helpful and/or arduous as they seem.  It’s hard to understand professions related to rescue, science, and hunters without representatives from those groups in attendance.

This workshop effort represents one step in understanding who’s on the trail.  It was encouraging to make progress on opportunities, not just resolutions.  This work continues, with a next step to appear in the HCI Outdoors Workshop at the ACM CHI Conference in May 2018.

GROUP workshop: Crowds on the trail

A work session at the ACM GROUP Technology on the Trail Workshop featured the theme “Crowds on the Trail”, led by Tim Stelter.  Tim explored how citizen science efforts can be used to inspire modest and appropriate tech uses on trails and in other outdoor settings that will be minimally intrusive to those doing the work but helpful to scientists who need to collect information.

Tim started by presenting two similar examples of signage meant to inspire photo taking which have prompted very different reactions.  The “change bracket” signs encourage people to take timestamped pictures of an area of ecological interest, while the “photo frame” signs sought to provide a fun addition to a favorite viewing spot.

Both photos are shown below, with links to the articles that featured them.

One of the “Change Bracket” signs designed and deployed by the Nerds for Nature group to track recovery from wildfires and other habitat changes.  The sign and accompanying bracket encourages hikers in an area to take a picture, positioned on a post-mounted bracket, that captures an area recovering from wildfires.  Hikers post the pictures to social media, and scientists use timestamped images to track recovery over time.  Image from Dan Rademacher.
A frame was added to an overlook at the Garden of the Gods to encourage picture-taking for personal enjoyment.  Some people enjoyed the frame, but protests over the lack of input to the addition to the park and the changes caused by the sign to the view of nature resulted in its removal.  Image from KKTV, reproduced per their terms of service.

Differences in the preparation and instantiation of these signs contributed to their very different reception by visitors.  The “change bracket” group was well-integrated within the park and community, seeking guidance at every stage of integration.  Their sign clearly reflected a purpose rooted in common good, and contributions from participants are visible on social media.  The “blue frame” group did not seem to take public opinion into account, and their sign changed the nature of an established overlook.  The sign was intended for fun, with minimal societally-useful purpose.

Tim couched the discussion within the principles of the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), which describes a spectrum of public participation that increases decision impact.  Spectrum levels include: inform, consult, involve, collaborate, and empower.  A breakdown at any level can result in a corresponding breakdown in trust and participation.  Tim led a discussion that looked at citizen science examples through the lens of this spectrum, noting that efforts like the “blue frame” group failed in the inform and involve levels.  The discussion led to a prototype ideation activity in which breakout groups designed a citizen science project and prototype that supports the levels.  Group ideas included a solar charging station that asked hikers to do a task while they were charging their devices, a flow control plan designed to discourage hiker bubbles that overcrowd shelters, and a Yelp for hikers device for identifying (and, thus, tracking) animals.

The framework proved useful, leading to discussion about its relationship to motivation of use, and of other factors that contribute to motivation.  When I discuss the change bracket project with groups, I ask for a show of hands indicating who would be willing to take part in this daily when on a hike, and generally almost every hand goes up.  I then ask who would do it hourly, and there are far fewer hands.  Motivation will have its limits, and the “asks” can’t grow too large.  Tim continues to explore these issues…input welcome!

GROUP workshop: Lunchtime walk

Melanie Trammell and Steve Harrison led a pair of work sessions at the ACM GROUP Technology on the Trail Workshop focused on a things that could be learned on a lunchtime hike at the Ding Darling Wildlife Nature Preserve at Sanibel Island.  Workshop participants were encouraged to bring their favorite piece of hiking technology to the conference and use it on the hike–sharing their data during a discussion period afterwards.  Most of the remainder of this writeup comes from Melanie, lightly edited and somewhat compressed.

Hike participants were encouraged to take on roles that had been discussed in previous activities that matched their general character and interests, and to choose to some kind of technology or absence of for capturing data on the walk. In addition, members were asked to have their walk into the trail to be framed as a wide eyed experience and their journey back as more of a touristic endeavor. Lastly, the neighboring workshop on refugees heard about this initiative and joined in for these directions and the actual walk.

Steve Harrison led the discussion session, asking participants “What did you do?” and “What did you see?”.  Participants talked about their goals and interactions with others, and how they went beyond just the things they saw to focus on smells and tech-enhanced seeing.   From this, Harrison went on to explain that these two questions are very popular ones used to explain how we make sense of our experiences. Still, are they the right questions for sense-making on the trail? To better answer this, Harrison presented different ‘cuts’ or other categories one can use to describe and understand experiences like individual vs shared experience, sharing experience, data collection, narrative, mediating experience, movement vs location, time and the context we come from. After this he opened the floor up to anyone who had particular aspects of their experience that they would like to share.

At this point Scott McCrickard brought up how he was most interested in pictures that focused on his family, not necessarily primarily focused on the wildlife. In fact his favorite picture was everyone looking at the wildlife. From this, he moved to questioning why others always take pictures of the same things (e.g., vistas, or famous buildings) when it is already highly represented in more professional ways. Melanie contested this point, trying to articulate that taking a picture, even of a highly represented thing, is meaningful. Thus postcards don’t have the same value as a picture that originates from oneself. Yet for McCrickard, the value was the people in the picture.

Others weighed in as well.  Brian McInnis commented on this balance between nature and family.  Birgit Krogstie put forth the notion of physical limitations of roaming due to mud and other obstacles in her position paper, and Michael Horning wondered what contrasts we could list through comparing this experience with that of her Norwegian walk. Shuo Niu shared a picture of him near an alligator in the everglades and connected it to his experience with the informational sculptures of scat. He first noticed these small sculptures and upon opening them learned about the creature that creates them. 

Participants seemed to mold the discussion and activity to the dimensions of technology on the trail that was interesting to them. In some ways this can be powerful; in other ways it leads to little overlapping discussion and high attention on the same items. This can be seen in that participants didn’t always position their experiences in the ‘cuts’ that Harrison proposed or structure the activity with a first wide eyed pass and second touristic one that was posed in the directions. In addition, participants were not asked to explain the role that they took and how that impacted both their experience and choices on the walk, and no member chose technology different than a camera (other than the absence of technology altogether). Lastly, it seems that this session raised more questions than answers, though there were some interesting observations on values that are listed below.

Interesting Observations

  • Some people value representation of people greater than the representation of the place, and vice versa (McCrickard vs Abigail)
  • Some artificial and low technology is acceptable and valuable (Shuo)
  • Some value education (Tim and Shuo)
  • The ‘different’ and ‘new’ can be valuable (Lindah and Mike) but others value the familiar (McCrickard)
  • Challenge can be valued (Shuo, Lindah, Abigail)
  • Familiarity may lead to taking on a different role (Mike)
  • Some goals (Abigail) do not benefit from some reflective technology (camera)
  • We are intellectuals – thus much of our conversation cuts right to the deep things
  • Topics that were not brought up
    • Who are the other people on the trail?
    • What do tourists do?

Generated and Still Present Questions

  • Are cameras used just as a reflective device? And if so, is it to reflect later or reflect in the moment?
  • What are the ‘right’ questions to make sense of a hike/hiking experience?
    • What did you do?
    • What did you see?
  • Why do we take pictures of the same famous thing? Is a postcard as valuable or functional as taking a picture yourself? When we take a picture, what role or reason is motivating us?
    • You are nature looking at them
    • Documenter for private or public record
    • For the current moment
    • Is the role you play derived from the task or the audience  of the artifact, or both?
  • How does ‘free to roam’ impact sense making and our sensibilities on the trail?
  • How does (if at all) technology affect the ways we tell stories about our experiences?
  • How is technology and the processes around them managed within a group on the trail?
  • How do people navigate importance/value of place vs people?
  • How does technology change planning?
  • How does technology change adventurous attitudes?
  • If technology is only giving us representation of the trail, what gets dislocated?
  • Is the purpose of technology in sense making an epistemic action? Or something else?
  • How does transportation (to and from the hike) qualify as technology on the trail?

To recap this session of our workshop and capitalize on any revelations since then, we held a reporting out session on February 7, 2018 with most members of the original session. We focused on presenting the above takeaways, discussion about any post-realizations and a mini activity to further our understanding of pictures as representation of experience.


After presenting the values and questions we inferred at our workshop, Tim brought to light some thoughts he had post-shop. This included the intersections of nature and man-made structures – how there was a walkway through a swamp, with signs and other infrastructure to also control the kinds of human interaction that were taking place. As a group we mused how postmodern perspectives come into play here, along with how features around a place can influence the creation of a trail. For instance, in Ding Darling Wildlife Reserve there are many dangers like quicks and alligators. Does this lead to creating a trail that is more regulated? Are other places (such as Norway with Birgits ‘every man’s right’) less dangerous and thus supports less regulation of traversal and other norms of trails?

From this, we moved on to question what is a trail in general. For instance, sidewalks on Virginia Tech campus have their own origin stories and norms. Overtime, weathered dirt paths on the Drillfield will often get paved to become more official trails. Also the corps of cadets have strict rules about how to walk a sidewalk when it comes to rank (right side, 90 degree turns) and the uniform (cannot walk and text). However, some areas utilize the same physical trails for different activities – like Pandapas Pond combining walking, horses, biking all on the same trail. Along with this, we also mused on the western phenomena of naming things.


Next, we asked everyone from our workshop to pick a picture that represents your experience of our walk through Ding Darling Wildlife Reserve. With it, participants used it to describe their experience to us all. From their stories we had to pick apart the different elements of their narrative.  Mike’s story was about critique, whereas Scott’s story was about warmth. Some involved goals being achieved, and that goals are emergent (i.e., only one person set out with a goal, and even then it changed). For Shuo’s story we see that the intended goal for the clay poop sculptures was achieved! In addition, we mused on how age affects people’s attitude towards objects. Thus it is likely this technology worked for Shuo because older people tend to gravitate toward competitive objects, while younger people tend to gravitate toward action objects. This idea of mementos to remember a place was also talked about briefly, detailing the different artifacts we favor for this function (magnets, postcards, ornaments).

In the end we concluded that the only similarity between all of these experiences was the physical location and that everyone chose (more or less) pictures as their representation. Other than that, the way they described their experience showcases the variety of needs, values, expectations etc. that lends to differing technologies.

GROUP workshop: Overview

The Technology on the Trail 2018 Workshop was held as part of the ACM GROUP 2018 Conference in Sanibel Island, Florida, USA on January 7.  A large group of Virginia Tech faculty and students joined with researchers from Brigham Young University, Cornell University, and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology to engage in a series of activities to further our understanding of tech on trails.

For most of us, this was a first trip to GROUP, held every other year in warm and sunny Sanibel Island, Florida, in January–a time when it’s cold and snowy elsewhere (including at home in Blacksburg, where snow cancelled K-12 schools).  Unfortunately, the snow meant delays for some workshop participants, though our crazy contingent drove the 13 hours from Blacksburg and weren’t affected by airport delays.

We wanted our workshop to engage around core ideas taken from the position papers, so we eschewed the usual morning presentations and squeezed in a collection of four activities (with linked summaries) throughout the day:

  • Who’s out there? What are they doing? [facilitators: Mike Horning, Lindah Kotut] examined conflicts among the groups of people that make use of trails.  We built on our prior efforts at identifying hiker roles, covering the walls with sticky notes, then sought to identify the roles and conflicts within and across groups.
  • Lunch and the lunchtime hike and Reflecting on data [facilitators: Steve Harrison, Melanie Trammell] asked participants to use the lunch break, and the fortuitous conference location, to explore the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, bringing favorite technologies to be used on a hike through the refuge. Afterwards, we examined the data collected during our hikes.
  • Crowds on the trail [facilitator: Tim Stelter, Scott McCrickard] brainstormed ways that hiking crowds can contribute to common goals while remaining true to the oft-cited desire for solitude and personal reflection.

It was great to have a big crowd of VT people at the workshop.  In addition to the workshop participants, VT Ph.D. student Andrey Esakia presented our FitEx/FitAware work, and incoming VT postdoc Jacob Thebault-Spieker presented some crowd work from his dissertation.  So Virginia Tech had good representation at GROUP…and hope to do so again in future years!

Hiking the Appalachian Trail: Reflections and Experiences

At the conclusion of the Technology on the Trail Workshop, I had the pleasure of spending my spring break out on the Appalachian Trail (AT) with my hiking companion, Herb Stelter.  The workshop impacted my approach to my week out on the AT.  I engaged in interesting discussions on how people interpret being out in nature and its space, how we can utilize technology to outdoor teaching with kids, and whom would benefit having technology out on the trail.  

Two of our guest speakers, Ellie Harmon and Alan Dix, both accomplished extended hiking feats for which they reflected on technology use.  Ellie noted that during her Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike in 2013 she noted that smartphone devices were everywhere and being used for music, maps, communication, and more–particularly in comparison to her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail just five years earlier.  Alan hiked the perimeter of Wales with an expressed purpose of collecting vast amount of data using various technologies.  However, he found most technology was more trouble than it was worth–with the exception of his audio recorder, which he stated was the only reliable piece of technology that didn’t die on him constantly.  Of course, not everyone will want an audio recorder; it worked well for Alan’s (and my) self-reflection goals. The takeaway message is to choose technology that is simple, reliable, and does an important task well.

I modeled my hike into three phases to reflect the Technology on the Trail’s high level focus:  Preparation, Experience, and Reflection.  

The preparation of the my hike was the most important step out of the three, given my lack of experience in multi-day hiking situations.  It was important to have safety as a top priority while hiking the AT.  During the preparation there were many meetings with self-identified hikers to offer their opinions on what was best to prepare. Understandably, with all these opinions there were a lot of contradictions about “best” options for a new hiker such as myself.  While my hiking companion Herb dealt with planning out the exact route and testing the hiking gear, I identified and purchased the technology to take based on criteria like power usage, weight, cost.  Here is a list of the technologies taken on the trail:

  • Garmin Fenix 3 HR Watch with GPS
  • GoPro HERO Session
  • Sony Audio Recorder
  • ETON FRX-BT All-Purpose Device
  • RAVPower & Anker external battery pack
  • Motorola Droid Turbo 2 & Kyocera Brigadier E6782 smartphones

The experience was a 6-day hike in the first week of March 2017 that lasted for 53 miles, avoiding all towns and urban areas.  The section of the AT was in the Shenandoah Valley, an average of 2900 feet above sea level.  The temperatures were between 9 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the trip, pushing the limits of the operating temperatures of the technology.  Physical artifacts of the experience included pictures, videos, audio recordings, GPS coordinates, and memories.  All are important for developing an understanding for interpreting an experience especially when reflecting on these artifacts to potentially come across a new perspective–in this case, how technology positively and negatively influenced my hike.

The reflection can be summarized in some key findings:

1) Design of technology for outdoor use needs attention.  For example, we noted some issues with the Garmin Fenix where in certain scenarios that our wrists would hit a button on the watch. Perhaps this was due to the more physical nature of our movements while hiking, as we did not notice this during our testing phase.

2) Be mindful to choose/create technology that is noninvasive of the experience.  Both physical and software side need to appropriately minimize flashing lights, noises, other distracting notifications unless their utility far outweighs the enjoyment of the nature experience.

3) The dynamics of group hiking versus individual hiking has an impact on hiking dynamics and can influence design choices for technology.   For instance, communication apps are geared towards group based activities while individual hiking don’t benefit such apps.

4) The view of usefulness of technology changes based on the current situation.  As mentioned above, the ETON radio provided moral boost by having music during the hiking portions of the day.  But when resting and setting up camp, the more leisurely environment saw the GoPro camera frequently used.

5) Leave time to do a day hike trying out all the gear.  During the hike (for a beginner) I would have saved myself a lot of trouble if I took the opportunity to spend a day with all the gear to get out all the kinks we came across during the hike.  This INCLUDES the use of the technology. I used it in my day-to-day life, but hiking puts forth far different situations.

For a more detailed account on this post, feel free to check out my extended abstract paper (and the other papers) accepted to the NatureCHI ’17 workshop. And you can read the Roanoke Times article about me and the Technology on the Trail workshop that appeared prior to my hike.

I want to thank Scott McCrickard, the Technology on the Trail Workshop guests (especially invited guests Alan Dix, Allison Druin, Ellie Harmon, and Norman Su), and Herb Stelter for the discussions and inspiring to take advantage of this opportunity.  I also want to thank Phyllis Newbill and ICAT for allowing the opportunity to present my experience of technology use on the trail at ICAT Day 2017.  And a big thanks to Matt Gentry from the Roanoke Times for doing an article on both Ellie Harmon, the Technology on the Trail Workshop, and myself.


Workshop Wrapup: Unpacking the Case of Hunters

Our Technology on the Trail Workshop featured a talk by Norman Su from Indiana University titled The Case of Hunters in the American Midwest: Examining and Designing the Resonance of Artifacts in Nature.  The talk was related to his similarly-titled upcoming paper, to be presented at CHI 2017.

Michael Horning from Virginia Tech served as discussant for the talk. Mike is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication with an interest in civic and information apps that help to support citizen engagement with news content. He had an up-front role in making comments and leading discussion for the talk, but also a behind-the-scenes series of communications with Norm about the paper.

A few highlights from their email exchange (posted with permission from Norm and Mike) that focused on the impact of constantly evolving technologies on hunters, particularly their interactions with each other. From Mike:

What I find interesting about your observations is that your findings suggest that users may actually live within worlds of constantly shifting ethoses, depending on the terms dictated by the hunting tradition. Do you agree? It seems to make the design challenges even more difficult.

Norm responded:

I think it is indeed interesting that we are not only talking about multiple users, but how each user themselves may “adopt” different practices reflecting different interpretations of fair chase. I suppose, at a fundamental level, it is perhaps just fun for hunters to don these different caps when hunting. Most hunters I encountered regularly hunted in multiple weapon/species seasons.

Technologies certainly alter the interactions between hunters and their prey.  As Norm noted in his talk, with modern technology you can hunt and kill animals that don’t even know you’re there. Mike connected that interaction with the “fair chase” notion introduced in Norm’s paper:

I see some parallels between your observations and Harrison and Dourish’s observation about Space and Place, where “space is the opportunity, and place is the understood reality.” Jacques Ellul’s concept of technique is perhaps also relevant here with the notion that every technological innovation alters in some way how we respond to the physical world either socially or cognitively. I am wondering if the term “fair chase” is self imposed by users or by traditions and technologies (in other words the places) that they find themselves in. I think this too has some interesting implications for design.

Norm noted:

I admit to being ignorant of Ellul, but I think certainly we can talk about space and place–in particular, I think use of particular technologies provides a different “filter” into the physical place. It might also be interesting to talk about technologies like weapons in terms of a medium that alters our perception of reality (e.g., a recurve bow filters our view of the world/opportunities to one within close proximity).

Mike identified some specific examples from his “youth” that highlighted some of the issues related to cheating and fair chase:

…you observe that hunters often rejected what I would call modern innovations in hunting technology (cross bows, drones, trail cams). I’m old enough to remember when muzzleloader hunters who were flintlock purists rejected modern inline muzzleloaders and when compound bows were considered “cheating” by recurve shooters. I bring these up as examples of technologies that began as unethical and have more recently moved to mainstream. It suggests to me that some of the “newer” innovations may as well. One question this may raise for HCI is the extent to which we should trust users with their own assessments, given that those attitudes may be more generational/experiential than cultural. Beyond hunting, I think this may also raise a larger question for other forms of outdoor sport as well. Many hikers, for example, may reject certain changes that future hikers eagerly embrace.

Norm responded:

I think there is also the conundrum of how to resolve the age old cycle of rejecting the new, eventual adoption of the new, and now the new becomes the old. The resolution is difficult in terms of design because I personally think design can’t dismiss these snapshots of admonishment, but at the same time, as you said, we also need to realize that assessments often become outdated.

At the heart of this debate seems to be values, and the consideration of values on the design process.  I agree with Norm that resolution is difficult in terms of design, but there are certainly ways that design can account for the tensions between changing technologies and human reaction.

Mike brings up one way that this can be addressed, through value sensitive design:

You also mentioned the theme of moving beyond value sensitive design. I think this is an interesting and important question. I would look forward to the discussion that comes from it. I could see this also being a good starting point for smaller group discussions during the talk. I thought about this issue as I read your interviewer’s comments. While their concept of fair chase resonated with my own experiences, you mentioned that the hunters acknowledge that they were not paragons of virtue. It does raise the question of whether value sensitive design is giving us a comprehensive view of users or more of their reflections on their ideal types of users. And if it isn’t accurate or is limited what are we missing?  Does a hunter, for example, who has not seen any success after two weeks of hunting give up on his/her concept of a fair chase and pursue less approaches? How can we design experiences that help hunters maintain their ideals?

Norm responded:

Ideal vs what is done in practice is interesting to consider. I might argue that perhaps hunters need to see that living up to an ideal is difficult but should nonetheless be aware of what that ideal is. It reminds me almost of something like what many religions preach that we should try to seek an unreachable ideal.

Mike closes by circling back to the core tension between people with different values, and hints at similar tensions in other Technology on the Trail domains.

at two points in your paper you discussed the design of what I’ll call restrictive or limiting designs. The first was related to technically mediated experiences that limit capabilities and power relationships with nature. Near the end of the paper, you discuss designs that address unethical behavior. This seems like an observation that may get at the heart of this tension that exists between the desire to commune with nature and the tendency to see technologies as intrusive on that experience. Perhaps users may be more willing to adopt technologies that create additional challenges or that in some way intensify their struggle with nature. Such technological designs wouldn’t violate the norms of fair chase or be seen as “cheating” in other contexts (e.g. hiking). I think it might be worth thinking about what designs that “limit” look like and how we go about identifying requirements for such a design.

Norm closes with:

I think if we create designs, we might ask how we can cater to people who only want to hunt on weekends vs those who basically live in large private lands for hunting.

Certainly there are similar tensions between thru-hikers and day-hikers on the Appalachian Trail and similar hikes, as well as the tensions between hikers and people who live in the towns along a trail.  Mike led an activity at the workshop that identified over 30 different roles for people on trails, many with overlapping values but many with values that lead to conflicts, too. All too often, design focuses on the target users, but one lesson from this exchange is the need to consider the great many stakeholders that are impacted by the introduction of any new technology–particularly in places where people often go to escape technology.

Workshop Wrapup: Used, Amused, and Confused

One the second day of TotT’s workshop, which brought together interested academics and students of different backgrounds to discuss tech on the trail research, I (Gracie) had an opportunity to present to everyone my ongoing thesis work. The spotlight was particularly unnerving since the returned data from the several completed probes had only just come in, so I hadn’t had a chance to do a deep dive analysis yet. Even so, both polishing a presentation and having discussions about my probes were a good way to start off my data analysis for my thesis.

As a reminder, the basic gist of my probe can be read here; this post will be long enough without rehashing all that.

To start broadly, the most challenging question I received from the audience while presenting boiled down to, “Why? What’s the point of this?” The other day, I attended my friend’s dissertation defense about using big data sets in introductory CS education, and he received a similar question from the audience. In his case, the room was discussing the limitations of CS education research in regards to having no experimental control group and being rife with other uncontrollable variables, and someone finally asked, “Why should we believe any of these results?” For my friend’s research, I think having a good course outcome for students is a valuable goal in and of itself, but it seems to me that the qualitative side of HCI (and of social research in general) is often criticized as being pointless or inconclusive. In my case, even if I can draw solid conclusions about how hikers feel about technology on the trail… so what? How does that help anyone?

When I was designing my study, it would’ve been easy to craft a list of specific questions to ask participants. Do you ever bring a smartphone on a hike, yes or no? Do you feel like people are overly dependent on GPS, yes or no? The thing about asking specific questions is that you get limited and often expected answers. Questions can be more open-ended, and they could be posed in an interview that allows some back and forth, but the problem is still that I’m creating these questions that are limiting the answers I get. How do I know what questions to ask? Before joining TotT, I never knew trial angels existed for thru hikers, so I wouldn’t have known to ask any questions in that vein. I don’t doubt there’s a wealth of other trail and hiking related knowledge that I haven’t been exposed to yet.

So how would cultural probes fix that? I’d never heard of a research method in this vein before coming to grad school here. (In fact, I hadn’t even really heard of Human-Computer Interaction despite doing Computer Science and Interactive Media in undergrad, but that’s a different discussion.) In my Models and Theories of HCI class, we spent a day talking about cultural probes as a way to creatively draw out a response to a particular prompt or idea. I loved the idea as soon as I read about it. Personally, I’m bad at speaking unprepared; I’m fine if I have a script or thought about it in advance, but for something like an interview, it’s difficult for me to shape a response with any depth on the spot. Even taking written surveys can produce the same problem as I continue to think of more things relevant to the survey questions long after taking them. Having a probe stay with me over a period of time as I continue to shape my answer solves those issues, as well as a few others.

A cultural probe can be shaped for its audience. And it can hit a wider audience with the flexible nature of the responses. Prefer to respond in writing? Go ahead. Prefer to record a video? Have at it. This is demonstrated well in my scrapbook responses, where one participant filled the pages with writing, and another pasted only photographs. Probes allow the questions to be fuzzier as well. One of the scrapbook pages is themed “Proof you were there,” which doesn’t suggest what form proof needs to take. The way that participants interpret and answer the questions will say a lot about what’s most salient to them regarding tech and the trail.

It also offers a lot more room for creativity, which is something I’m passionate about. There was a good example of this at the workshop as well. After my presentation, I divided the attendees into three smaller groups to have a hands-on look at my early data results. One group was given the responses for the Indoor Hike (2) and the Hike Club (1). Whenever I passed by, I heard this group discussing one particularly well written Indoor Hike response, and by the end, they were happy to share with me another odd Indoor experience: have someone act like a trial guide to a group, but have it be inside a mall, so they’re giving their group a running dialogue of the environment and flora/fauna of the mall. They suggested a few phrases that might be passed around and had a good laugh. Later, one of the participants and I were chatting, and the Nacirema article which really captures the idea of taking something familiar and making it “strange.” That was one of the main driving themes behind the Indoor Hike activity, so it was gratifying to hear it discussed.

So, what do I hope to get out of these probes? A lot of unique perspectives that I wouldn’t be able to get by just talking with someone. I want a broad range of thoughts and opinions. I want a better look at the diversity that exists in hiking and outdoor communities. And that knowledge should be fueling tech on the trail discussion, making our conversations more nuanced and our views more accurate. I don’t want anyone’s voice to get lost just because they didn’t thru hike the entire Appalachian Trail. And really, there’s no point in designing technology if we don’t even know who we’re designing for or what need we’re filling.