"Playing" with our users: ethics and playful interactions
Some days ago I was in ITAG conference in Nottingham and had the opportunity to be in the company of creative and delightful people. Some of them researchers, designers, specialists, IT users with disabilities, artists and IT thaumaturgists.
The very first keynote speach was from the amazing Dr Anthony Lewis Brooks (aka Tony) who has conceived the concepts GameAbilitation, ArtAbilitation, and Ludic Engagement Designs for All. While presenting some of his work on GameAbilitation and ArtAbilitation he brought up the subject of conducting research with users with disabilities, about what happens to our users when research is over, funds are gone and the curtain of experiments has fallen. Dr Brooks presented the case of a young user who while unable to move and communicate had to part with the test device that provided him with interactive playful experience. We’ve all been there but not all of us think about it.
The second day of the conference, Professor David Brown, David Stewart, head teacher of the Oak Field Special School, and students from the NICER group had also highlighted what it means for users with disabilities to be part of a research project and then lose the ability to use its hardware/software. Usually we might not even visit again, not even to present the results and thank them.
It got me thinking about my own research and about the projects I have been involved with, over the past few years. Expensive smartphones, pads and gadgets that we choose trying to be proactive and design software for the state of the art hardware. Super playful and engaging software, fun DIY electronics and imersive experience. They all go away when research is over.
Most of the times, we do have to take the expensive devices back with us since they were already too few to begin with. Unfortunately if donated in the school they are rarely being used by the students. In the case of virtual reality or artistic installations it is extremely difficult to provide such equipment to users. Last but not least we are not sure how the software will be used and if the experience will continue to be positive for the users.
Well this might be how research works and we do try to be ethical, explain terms and conditions to our users and then say thank you, we sometimes return to present the results, give more “thank you”s and promise that “if it becomes available/when they acquire such an expensive device/when such smartphones become cheaper/when we’ll have funds” they can have such an experience again and that we make sure to upload everything online for free and so on and so forth.
And sometimes we do actually try to leave devices, guidelines and software behind, though we never return to check how is being used and if is being used. We do our best and in the end of the day, well, it is research…
I should be OK with it. So where is the catch? The thing is that it would be OK for people without disabilities, for people that are not limited in communication and experiences, sometimes even confined in a house. For researchers that work with people with disabilities and in my case with playful interactions and positive immersive experience, we might have to think harder when we write project proposals or sketch our methodology. Devices, software and experience should be available to the users after the conduct of the research. If not due to restrictions, user should at least continue to be part of the research’s debrief and next steps.
While I was in Nottingham I realised that sometimes our research, our playful educational experience, our DIY VR helmet, our beta, glitchy, research-only game, might be an amazing experience for the users. An experience that they might want to have access and process in their own pace. Next time smartphones will not be that expensive and we might have to re-think developing software only for the state of the art devices. Next time we should keep our users in the loop. Next time I’ll need to try keep the games going, after we exit the stage to design new ones.