Update your Facebook status: social comparison and the availability heuristic

[Update: This post uses an older Facebook UI as an example. Also see more recent posts on activity streams and the availability heuristic.]

Over at Captology Notebook, the blog of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, Enrique Allen considers features of Facebook that influence users to update their status. Among other things, he highlights how Facebook lowers barriers to updating by giving users a clear sense of something they can right (“What are you doing right now?”).

I’d like to add another part of the interface for consideration: the box in the left box of the home page that shows your current status update with the most recent updates of your friends.
Facebook status updates

This visual association of my status and the most recent status updates of my friends seems to do at least a couple things:

Influencing the frequency of updates. In this example, my status was updated a few days ago. On the other hand, the status updates from my friends were each updated under an hour ago. This juxtaposes my stale status with the fresh updates of my peers. This can prompt comparison between their frequency of updates and mine, encouraging me to update.

The choice of the most recent updates by my Facebook friends amplifies this effect. Through automatic application of the availability heuristic, this can make me overestimate how recently my friends have updated their status (and thus the frequency of status updates). For example, the Facebook friend who updated their status three minutes ago might have not updated to three weeks prior. Or many of my Facebook friends may not frequently update their status messages, but I only see (and thus have most available to mind) the most recent. This is social influence through enabling and encouraging biased social comparison with — in a sense — an imagined group of peers modeled on those with the most recent performances of the target behavior (i.e., updating status).

Influencing the content of updates. In his original post, Enrique mentions how Facebook ensures that users have the ability to update their status by giving them a question that they can answer. Similarly, this box also gives users examples from their peers to draw on.

Of course, this can all run up against trouble. If I have few Facebook friends, none of them update their status much, or those who do update their status are not well liked by me, this comparison may fail to achieve increased updates.

Consider this interface in comparison to one that either

  • showed recent status updates by your closest Facebook friends, or
  • showed recent status updates and the associated average period for updates of your Facebook friends that most frequently update their status.

[Update: While the screenshot above is from the “new version” of Facebook, since I captured it they have apparently removed other people’s updates from this box on the home page, as Sasha pointed out in the comments. I’m not sure why they would do this, but here are couple ideas:

  • make lower items in this sidebar (right column) more visable on the home page — including the ad there
  • emphasize the filter buttons at the top of the news feed (left column) as the means to seeing status updates.

Given the analysis in the original post, we can consider whether this change is worth it: does this decrease status updates? I wonder if Facebook did a A-B test of this: my money would be on this significantly reducing status updates from the home page, especially from users with friends who do update their status.]

Naming this blog “ready-to-hand”: Heidegger, Husserl, folk psychology, and HCI

The name of this blog, Ready-to-hand, is a translation of Heidegger’s term zuhanden, though interpreting Heidegger’s philosophy is not specifically a major interest of mine nor a focus here. Much has been made of the significance of phenomenology, most often Heidegger, for human-computer interaction (HCI) and interaction design (e.g., Winograd & Flores 1985, Dourish 2001). And I am generally pretty sympathetic to phenomenology as one inspiration for HCI research. I want to just note a bit about the term zuhanden and my choice of it in a larger context — of phenomenology, HCI, and a current research interest of mine: cues for assuming the intentional stance toward systems (more on this below).

The Lifeworld and ready-to-hand

Heidegger was a student of Edmund Husserl, and Heidegger’s Being and Time was to be dedicated to Husserl.1 There is really no question of the huge influence of Husserl on Heidegger.

My major introduction to both Husserl and Heidegger was from Prof. Dagfinn Føllesdal. Føllesdal (1979) details the relationship between their philosophies. He argues for the value of seeing much of Heidegger’s philosophy “as a translation of Husserl’s”:

The key to this puzzle, and also, I think, the key to understanding what goes on in Heidegger’s philosophy, is that Heidegger’s philosophy is basically isomorphic to that of Husserl. Where Husserl speaks of the ego, Heidegger speaks of Dasein, where Husserl speaks of the noema, Heidegger speaks of the structure of Dasein’s Being-in-the-world and so on. Husserl also observed this. Several places in his copy of Being and Time Husserl wrote in the margin that Heidegger was just translating Husserl’s phenomenology into another terminology. Thus, for example, on page 13 Husserl wrote: “Heidegger transposes or transforms the constitutive phenomenological clarification of all realms of entities and universals, the total region World into the anthropological. The problematic is translation, to the ego corresponds Dasein etc. Thereby everything becomes deep-soundingly unclear, and philosophically it loses its value.” Similarly, on page 62, Husserl remarks: “What is said here is my own theory, but without a deeper justification.” (p. 369, my emphasis)

Heidegger and his terms have certainly been more popular and in wider use since then.

Føllesdal also highlights where the two philosophers diverge.2 In particular, Heidegger gives a central role to the role of the body and action in constituting the world. While in his publications Husserl stuck to a focus on how perception constitutes the Lifeworld, Heidegger uses many examples from action.3 Our action in the world, including our skillfulness in action constitutes those objects we interact with for us.

Heidegger contrasts two modes of being (in addition to our own mode — being-in-the-world): present-at-hand and ready-to-hand (or alternatively, the occurant and the available (Dreyfus 1990)). The former is the mode of being consideration of an object as a physical thing present to us — or occurant, and Heidegger argues it constitutes the narrow focus of previous philosophical explorations of being. The latter is the stuff of every skilled action — available for action: the object becomes equipment, which can often be transparent in action, such that it becomes an extension of our body.

J.J. Gibson expresses this view in his proposal of an ecological psychology (in which perception and action are closely linked):

When in use, a tool is a sort of extension of the hand, almost an attachment to it or a part of the user’s own body, and thus is no longer a part of the environment of the user. […] This capacity to attach something to the body suggests that the boundary between the animal and the environment is not fixed at the surface of the skin but can shift. More generally it suggests that the absolute duality of “objective” and “subjective” is false. When we consider the affordances of things, we escape this philosophical dichotomy. (1979, p. 41)

While there may be troubles ahead for this view, I think the passage captures well something we all can understand: when we use scissors, we feel the paper cutting; and when a blind person uses a cane to feel in front of them, they can directly perceive the layout of the surface in front of them.

Transparency, abstraction, opacity, intentionality

Research and design in HCI has sought at times to achieve this transparency, sometimes by drawing on our rich knowledge of and skill with the ordinary physical and social world. Metaphor in HCI (e.g., the desktop metaphor) can be seen as one widespread attempt at this (cf. Blackwell 2006). This kind of transparency does not throw abstraction out of the picture. Rather the two go hand-in-hand: the specific physical properties of the present-at-hand are abstracted away, with quickly perceived affordances for action in their place.

But other kinds of abstraction are in play in HCI as well. Interactive technologies can function as social actors and agents– with particular cues eliciting social responses that are normally applied to other people (Nass and Moon 2000, Fogg 2002). One kind of social response, not yet as widely considered in the HCI literature, is assuming the intentional stance — explanation in terms of beliefs, desires, hopes, fears, etc. — towards the system. This is a powerful, flexible, and easy predictive and explanatory strategy often also called folk psychology (Dennett 1987), which may be a tacit theory or a means of simulating other minds. We can explain other people based on what they believe and desire.

But we can also do the same for other things. To use one of Dennett’s classic examples, we can do the same for a thermostat: why did it turn the heat on? It wanted to keep the house at some level of warmth, it believed that it was becoming colder than desired, and it believed that it could make it warmer by turning on the heat. While in the case of the thermostat, this strategy doesn’t hide much complexity (we could explain it with other strategies without much trouble), it can be hugely useful when the system in question is complex or otherwise opaque to other kinds of description (e.g., it is a black box).

We might think then that perceived complexity and opacity should both be cues for adopting the intentional stance. But if the previous research on social responses to computers (not to mention the broader literature on heuristics and mindlessness) has taught us anything, it is that made objects such as computers can evoke unexpected responses through other simplier cues. Some big remaining questions that I hope to take up in future posts and research:

  • What are these cues, both features of the system and situational factors?
  • How can designers influence people to interpret and explain systems using folk psychology?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of evoking the intentional stance in users?
  • How should we measure the use of the intentional stance?
  • How is assuming the intentional stance towards a thing different (or the same) as it having being-in-the-world as its mode of being?


Blackwell, A. F. (2006). The reification of metaphor as a design tool. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact., 13(4), 490-530.
Dennett, D. C. (1987). The Intentional Stance. MIT Press.
Dourish, P. (2001). Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. MIT Press.
Dreyfus, H. L. (1990). Being-in-the-world: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I. MIT Press.
Fogg, B.J. (2002). Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do. Morgan Kaufmann.
Føllesdal, D. (1979). Husserl and Heidegger on the role of actions in the constitution of the world. In E. Saarinen, R. Hilpinen, I. Niiniluoto and M. Provence Hintikka, eds., Essays in Honour of Jaakko Hintikka, Dordrecht, Holland: Reidel, 365-378.
Nass, C., and Moon, Y. (2000). Machines and Mindlessness: Social Responses to Computers. Journal of Social Issues, 56(1), 81-103.
Winograd, T. and Flores, F. (1985). Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. Ablex Publishing Corp.
  1. But Husserl was Jewish, and Heidegger was himself a member of the Nazi party, so this did not happen in the first printing. []
  2. Dreyfus (1990) is an alternative view that takes the divergence as quite radical; he sees Føllesdal as hugely underestimating the originality of Heidegger’s thought. Instead Dreyfus characterizes Husserl as formulating so clearly the Cartesian worldview that Heidegger recognized its failings and was thus able to radically and successfully critique it. []
  3. It is worth noting that Husserl actually wrote about this as well, but in manuscripts, which Heidegger read years before writing Being and Time. []

Expert users: agreement in focus from two threads of human-computer interaction research

Much of current human-computer interaction (HCI) research focuses on novice users in “walk-up and use” scenarios. I can think of three major causes for this:

  1. A general shift from examining non-discretionary use to discretionary use
  2. How much easier it is to find (and not train) study participants unfamiliar with a system than experts (especially with a system that is only a prototype)
  3. The push from practitioners in the direction, especially with the advent of the Web, where new users just show up at your site, often deep-linked

This focus sometimes comes in for criticism, especially when #2 is taken as a main cause of the choice.

On the other hand, some research threads in HCI continue to focus on expert use. As I’ve been reading a lot of research on both human performance modeling and situated & embodied approaches to HCI, it has been interesting to note that both instead have (comparatively) a much bigger focus on the performance and experience of expert and skilled use.

Grudin’s “Three Faces of Human-Computer Interaction” does a good job of explaining the human performance modeling (HPM) side of this. HPM owes a lot to human factors historically, and while The Psychology of Human-Computer Interaction successfully brought engineering-oriented cognitive psychology to the field, it was human factors, said Stuart Card, “that we were trying to improve” (Grudin 2005, p. 7). And the focus of human factors, which arose from maximizing productivity in industrial settings like factories, has been non-discretionary use. Fundamentally, it is hard for HPM to exist without a focus on expert use because many of the differences — and thus research contributions through new interaction techniques — can only be identified and are only important for use by experts or at least trained users. Grudin notes:

A leading modeler discouraged publication of a 1984 study of a repetitive task that showed people preferred a pleasant but slower interaction technique—a result significant for discretionary use, but not for modeling aimed at maximizing performance.

Situated action and embodied interaction approaches to HCI, which Harrison, Tatar, and Senger (2007) have called the “third paradigm of HCI”, are a bit different story. While HPM research, like a good amount in traditional cognitive science generally, contributes to science and design by assimilating people to information processors with actuators, situated and embodied interaction research borrows a fundamental concern of ethnomethodology, focusing on how people actively make behaviors intelligible by assimilating them to social and rational action.

There are at least three ways this motivates the study of skilled and expert users:

  1. Along with this research topic comes a methodological concern for studying behavior in context with the people who really do it. For example, to study publishing systems and technology, the existing practices of people working in such a setting of interest are of critical importance.
  2. These approaches emphasize the skills we all have and the value of drawing on them for design. For example, Dourish (2001) emphasizes the skills with which we all navigate the physical and social world as a resource for design. This is not unrelated to the first way.
  3. These approaches, like and through their relationships to the participatory design movement, have a political, social, and ethical interest in empowering those who will be impacted by technology, especially when otherwise its design — and the decision to adopt it — would be out of their control. Non-discretionary use in institutions is the paradigm prompting situation for this.

I don’t have a broad conclusion to make. Rather, I just find it of note and interesting that these two very different threads in HCI research stand out from much other work as similar in this regard. Some of my current research is connecting these two threads, so expect more on their relationship.

Dourish, P. (2001). Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. MIT Press.
Grudin, J. (2005). Three Faces of Human-Computer Interaction. IEEE Ann. Hist. Comput. 27, 4 (Oct. 2005), 46-62.
Harrison, S., Tatar, D., and Senger, P. (2007). The Three Paradigms of HCI. Extended Abstracts CHI 2007.

Using a Wizard of Oz technique in mobile service design: probing with realistic motivations

As I’ve blogged before, I spoke at the Texting 4 Health conference on the topic of research methods for mobile messaging. One method I covered was an interesting use of Wizard of Oz techniques for designing mobile services. I’ve since started getting some of this material in writing for the Texting 4 Health book. Here is a taste of that material, minus the health-specific focus and examples.
Just like the famous Wizard of Oz, one can simulate something impressive with a just a humble person behind the curtain — and use this simulation to inform design decisions. When using a Wizard of Oz technique to study a prototype, a human “wizard” carries out functions that, in a deployed application or service, would be handled by a computer. This can allow evaluating a design without fully building what can be expensive back-end parts of the system (Kelley 1984). The technique is often used in recognition-based interfaces, but it also has traditional applications to identifying usability problems and carrying out experiments in which the interaction is systematically manipulated.

Wizard of Oz techniques are well suited to prototyping mobile services, especially those using mobile messaging (SMS, MMS, voice messaging). When participants send a request, a wizard reads or listens to it and chooses the appropriate response, or just creates it on-the-fly. Since all user actions in mobile messaging are discrete messages and (depending on the application) the user can often tolerate a short delay, a few part-time wizards, such as you and a colleague, can manage a short field trial. As you’ll see, this can be used for purposes beyond many traditional uses of a Wizard of Oz.

Probing photo consumption needs with realistic motivations
One use for this technique in designing a mobile messaging service is a bit like a diary study. In designing an online and mobile photography service, we wanted to better understand what photos people wanted to view and what prompted these desires.1 Instead of just making diary entries, participants actually made voice requests to the system for photos – and received a mobile message with photos fitting the request in return. We didn’t need to first build a robust system that could do this; a few of us served as wizards, listening to the request, doing a couple manual searches, and choosing which photos to return on demand. Though this can be done with a normal voice call, we used a mobile client application that also recorded contextual information not available via a normal voice call (e.g. location), so that participants could make context-aware requests as they saw fit (e.g. “I want too see photos of this park”)

In this case, we didn’t plan to (specifically) create a voice-based photo search system; instead, like a diary study, this technique served as a probe to understand what we should build. As a probe it provided realistic motivations for submitting requests, as the request would actually be fulfilled. This design research, in additional to other interviews and a usability study, informed our creation of Zurfer, a mobile application that supports exploring and conversing around personalized, location-aware channels of photos.
It is great if the Wizard of Oz prototype is quite similar to what you later build, but it can yield valuable insights even if not. Sometimes it is precisely these insights that can lead you to substantially change your design.

This study design can apply in designing many mobile services. As in our photos study, participants can be interviewed about the trigger for the requests (why did they want that media or information) and how satisfied they were with the (human-created) responses.2

Kelley, J.F. (1984). An iterative design methodology for user-friendly natural language office information applications. In ACM Trans. Inf. Syst., vol. 2, pp. 26-41.

  1. This study was designed and executed at Yahoo! Research Berkeley by Shane Ahern, Nathan Good, Simon King, Mor Naaman, Rahul Nair, and myself. []
  2. Participants were informed that their requests would be seen by our research staff. Anonymization and strict limits of who the wizards are is necessary to protect participants’ privacy. Even if participants are not informed that a wizard is creating the responses until they are debriefed after the experiment, participants can nonetheless be notified that their responses are being reviewed by the research team. []