Dean Eckles on people, technology & inference

social responses to communication technologies

Source orientation and persuasion in multi-device and multi-context interactions

At the Social Media Workshop, Katarina Segerståhl presented her on-going work on what she has termed extended information services or distributed user experiences — human-computer interactions that span multiple and heterogeneous devices (Segerståhl & Oinas-Kukkonen 2007). As a central example, she studies a persuasive technology service for planning, logging, reviewing, and motivating exercise: these parts of the experience are distributed across the user’s PC, mobile phone, and heart rate monitor.

In one interesting observation, Segerståhl notes that the specific user interfaces on one device can be helpful mental images even when a different device is in use: participants reported picturing their workout plan as it appeared on their laptop and using it to guide their actions during their workout, during which the obvious, physically present interface with the service was the heart rate monitor, not the earlier planning visualization. Her second focus is how to make these user experiences coherent, with clear practical applications in usability and user experience design (e.g., how can designers make the interfaces both appropriately consistent and differentiated?).

In this post, I want to connect this very interesting and relevant work with some other research at the historical and theoretical center of persuasive technology: source orientation in human-computer interaction. First, I’ll relate source orientation to the history and intellectual context of persuasive technology. Then I’ll consider how multi-device and multi-context interactions complicate source orientation.

Source orientation, social responses, and persuasive technology

As an incoming Ph.D. student at Stanford University, B.J. Fogg already had the goal of improving generalizable knowledge about how interactive technologies can change attitudes and behaviors by design. His previous graduate studies in rhetoric and literary criticism had given him understanding of one family of academic approaches to persuasion. And in running a newspaper and consulting on many document design (Schriver 1997) projects, the challenges and opportunities of designing for persuasion were to him clearly both practical and intellectually exciting.

The ongoing research of Profs. Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves attracted Fogg to Stanford to investigate just this. Nass and Reeves were studying people’s mindless social responses to information and communication technologies. Cliff Nass’s research program — called Computers as (or are) Social Actors (CASA) — was obviously relevant: if people treat computers socially, this “opens the door for computers to apply […] social influence” to change attitudes and behaviors (Fogg 2002, p. 90). While clearly working within this program, Fogg focused on showing behavioral evidence of these responses (e.g., Fogg & Nass 1997): both because of the reliability of these measures and the standing of behavior change as a goal of practitioners.

Source orientation is central to the CASA research program — and the larger program Nass shared with Reeves. Underlying people’s mindless social responses to communication technologies is the fact that they often orient towards a proximal source rather than a distal one — even when under reflective consideration this does not make sense: people treat the box in front of them (a computer) as the source of information, rather than a (spatially and temporally) distant programmer or content creator. That is, their source orientation may not match the most relevant common cause of the the information. This means that features of the proximal source unduly influence e.g. the credibility of information presented or the effectiveness of attempts at behavior change.

For example, people will reciprocate with a particular computer if it is helpful, but not the same model running the same program right next to it (Fogg & Nass 1997, Moon 2000). Rather than orienting to the more distal program (or programmer), they orient to the box.1

Multiple devices, Internet services, and unstable context

These source orientation effects have been repeatedly demonstrated by controlled laboratory experiments (for reviews, see Nass & Moon 2000, Sundar & Nass 2000), but this research has largely focused on interactions that do not involve multiple devices, Internet services, or use in changing contexts. How is source orientation different in human-computer interactions that have these features?

This question is of increasing practical importance because these interactions now make up a large part of our interactions with computers. If we want to describe, predict, and design for how people use computers everyday — checking their Facebook feed on their laptop and mobile phone, installing Google Desktop Search and dialing into Google 411, or taking photos with their Nokia phone and uploading them to Nokia’s Ovi Share — then we should test, extend, and/or modify our understanding of source orientation. So this topic matters for major corporations and their closely guarded brands.

So why should we expect that multiple devices, Internet services, and changing contexts of use will matter so much for source orientation? After having explained the theory and evidence above, this may already be somewhat clear, so I offer some suggestive questions.

  1. If much of the experience (e.g. brand, visual style, on-screen agent) is consistent across these changes, how much will the effects of characteristics of the proximal source — the devices and contexts — be reduced?
  2. What happens when the proximal device could be mindfully treated as a source (e.g., it makes its own contribution to the interaction), but so does a distance source (e.g., a server)? This could be especially interesting with different branding combination between the two (e.g., the device and service are both from Apple, or the device is from HTC and service is from Google).
  3. What if the visual style or manifestation of the distal source varies substantially with the device used, perhaps taking on a style consistent with the device? This can already happen with SMS-based services, mobile Java applications, and voice agents that help you access distant media and services.


Eckles, D., Wightman, D., Carlson, C., Thamrongrattanarit, A., Bastea-Forte, M., Fogg, B.J. (2007). Self-Disclosure via Mobile Messaging: Influence Strategies and Social Responses to Communication Technologies. Adjunct Proc. Ubicomp 2007.
Fogg, B. J., & Nass, C. (1997). How users reciprocate to computers: an experiment that demonstrates behavior change . In Proceedings of CHI 1997 (pp. 331-332). Atlanta, Georgia : ACM Press.
Katagiri, Y., Takeuchi, Y., Nass, C., & Fogg, B. J. (2000). Reciprocity and its cultural dependency in human-computer interaction. In Affective Minds: Proceedings of the 13th Toyota Conference, Shizuoka, Japan, 1999 (pp. 209-214).
Moon, Y. (2000). Intimate Exchanges: Using Computers to Elicit Self-Disclosure from Consumers. Journal of Consumer Research, 26(4), 323-339.
Nass, C., and Moon, Y. (2000). Machines and Mindlessness: Social Responses to Computers. Journal of Social Issues, 56(1), 81-103.
Schriver, K. A. (1997). Dynamics in document design: creating text for readers. New York, NY, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Segerståhl, K., & Oinas-Kukkonen, H. (2007). Distributed User Experience in Persuasive Technology Environments. Persuasive Technology 2007, Lecture Notes in Computer Science. (pp. 80-91). Springer.
Sundar, S. S., & Nass, C. (2000). Source Orientation in Human-Computer Interaction Programmer, Networker, or Independent Social Actor? Communication Research, 27(6).
  1. This actually is subject to a good deal of cross-cultural variation. Similar experiments with Japanese — rather than American — participants show reciprocity to groups of computers, rather than just individuals (Katagiri et al.) []

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. []

Riskful decisions and riskful thinking: Donald Davidson and Cliff Nass

Two personal-professional narratives that I’ve been somewhat familiar with for a while have recently highlighted for me the significance of riskful decisions and thinking in academia. I think the stories are interesting on their own, but they also emphasize some questions and concerns for the functioning of scholarly inquiry.

The first is about the American philosopher Donald Davidson, whose work has long been of great interest to me (and was the topic of my undergraduate Honors thesis). The second is about Cliff Nass (Clifford Nass), Professor of Communication at Stanford, an advisor and collaborator. The major published source I draw on for each of these narratives is an interview: for Davidson’s story, it is an interview by Ernest Lepore (2004), a critic and expositor of Davidson’s philosophy; for Cliff Nass, it is an interview by Tamara Adlin (2007). After sharing these stories, I’ll discuss some similarities and briefly discuss risk-taking in decisions and thinking.

Donald Davidson is considered one of the most important and influential philosophers of the past 60 years, and he is my personal favorite. Davidson is often described as a highly systematic philosopher — uncharacteristically so for 20th century philosophy, in that his contributions to several areas of philosophy (philosophy of language, mind, and action, semantics, and epistemology) are deeply connected in their method and the proposed theories. He is the paradigmatic programmatic philosopher of the 20th century.

Despite this, Davidson’s philosophical program did not emerge until relatively late in his career. The same is true of his publications in general. Only after accepting a tenure track position at Stanford in 1951 (which was then still up-and-coming, though quickly, in philosophy) did he begin to publish (nothing was even in the “pipeline” previous to this). This began under the wing of the younger Patrick Suppes, with whom Davidson co-authored a book (1957) on decision theory. His first philosophical article appears in 1963 (which he authored alone only through an unexpected death). As Davidson puts it in an interview with Ernest Lepore, “I was very inhibited so far as publication was concerned” and was worried “that the minute I actually published something, everyone was going to jump on me” (Davidson 2004).

Then Davidson published “Actions, Reasons and Causes” (1963), twelve years after joining the Stanford faculty. It argues against the late-Wittgensteinian dogma that reasons are not also causes. It is only with this paper that there was a publication by Davidson that drew significant attention from the community (beginning with a presentation of the paper at a meeting of the American Philosophical Association). This paper has been hugely influential and alone identified Davidson as an important thinker in the field, though he was surprised the reception was not as overwhelming as he had thought: “I didn’t realize that if you publish, as far as I can tell, no one was going to pay any attention.” Many responses, both positive and critical, did eventually come, and Davidson went on to publish many highly influential papers, reaching the height of his immense scholarly influence in the 1970s and 1980s.

Clifford Nass is widely known researcher in the psychology of human-computer interaction (HCI). With Byron Reeves, he wrote The Media Equation (1996), which presents research carried out at Stanford University on how people respond in mediated interactions (e.g. with computers and televisions) by overextending social rules normally applied to other people. This hints at the (here simplified) straight, bold line of Nass’s research program: take a finding from social psychology, replace the second human with a computer, see if you get the same results. This exact strategy has been modified and expanded from, but the general consistency of Nass’s program over many years is striking for HCI: unlike in psychology, for example, in HCI there are many investigators seeking low-hanging fruit and quickly moving on to new projects.

Nass likes to refer to his “accidental PhD”, as he hadn’t intended to get a PhD in sociology. After working for a year at Intel, he was planning to matriculate in a electrical engineering PhD program, but an unexpected death postponed that. “[J]ust to bide my time and to have some flexibility, I ended up doing a sociology degree,” says Nass. He did his dissertation on the role of pre-processing jobs in labor, taking an approach that was radical in its elimination of a role for people and that connected with contemporary research by social science outsiders doing “sociocybernetics”. With such a dissertation topic (and the dissertation itself unfinished), finding a job did not seem easy at the outset: “It’s a nutty topic. I was going to be in trouble getting jobs. I had published stuff and was doing work and all that, but my dissertation was so weird” (Adlin 2007).

There was, however, a bit of luck, well taken advantage of by Nass: the Stanford Communication Department was under construction and looking to hire some folks doing weird work. So when Nass interviewed, impressing both them and the Sociology Department, he got the job, despite knowing nothing about Communication as a discipline and having been to no conferences in the field. After beginning at Stanford, Nass was seeking a research program, as clearly there was something wrong, at least when it came to getting it accepted for academic publication, with his previous work: “I was having a terrible time getting my work accepted. In fact, to this day I’ve still never published anything off my dissertation, 20-odd years later. Because again, no field could figure out who owned the material. I got reviews like, ‘This work is offensive.‘”

But Nass couldn’t settle on any normal research program. He wanted to examine how people might treat computers socially. Getting funding for this work wouldn’t have been easy, but he got a grant that the grant administrator described as the 1 of 35 given that they chose to give to the “weirdest project that was proposed”. It wasn’t all easy from there, of course. For example, it took some time to design and carry out successful experiments in this program — and even longer to get the results published. But this risk-taking in distributing this grant helped enable the work to continue.

Cliff Nass is very clear about the role riskful decisions, in admissions, hiring, and funding, played in his success:

I was very lucky. I fear that those times are gone. I really do fear to a tremendous degree that the risk-taking these people were willing to do for me, to give me an opportunity, are gone. I try to remember that. […]

I benefited from the willingness of people to say, “We’re just going to roll the dice here.”

Of course, it isn’t just Cliff who got lucky; in a big sense we all did. His work has been an important influence in HCI and has contributed to our stores of both generalizable knowledge and new lenses for approaching how we get on in the world.

What does it mean for academic research, and science generally, if this choice and ability to take these risks evaporates? There is incredible competition for academic positions now, more so in some fields than others. And the best tool in getting a job is a whole list of publications accepted in important, mainstream journals in the field. There is a lot written about the competition for academic jobs and criteria for wading through applicants to sometimes a safe option. There are case studies of families of disciplines; for example, a study of the biosciences argues that market forces are failing to create sufficient job prospects for young investigators (Freeman et al. 2001).

I won’t review them all here. Instead I suggest an article for general readers from The New York Times about state and regional colleges’ use of non-tenure track positions, which has an impact of the institutions’ bottom line and flexibility (Finder 2007). This is part of a wider trend in how tenure is used that also impacts the academic freedom and resources that scholars have to pursue new research (Richardson 1999).

Enabling riskful thinking
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht argues that “riskful thinking” is central to the value of the humanities and arts in academia. He defines riskful thinking as investigation that can’t be expected to produce results interpretable as easy answers, but that instead is likely to produce or highlight complex and confusing phenomena and problems. But I think that this is more broadly true. Riskful thinking is critical to interdisciplinary and pre-paradigmatic sciences, or disciplines long doing normal science but in need of a shake-up. These are situations where compelling phenomena can become paradigmatic cases for study and powerful vocabularies can allow formulating new problems and theories.

What threatens riskful thinking, and how can we enable it? What is so great about riskful thinking anyway, and what makes some riskful thinking so successful, while much of it is likely to fail? At Nokia Research Center in Palo Alto, our lab head John Shen champions the importance of risk taking in industry research, but also argues that risk-taking is often misunderstood and that it is only some kinds of risk-taking that are most important to cultivate in industry research.

Finally, a list of Davidson–Nass similarities, just for fun:

  • Both were hired to tenure track positions at Stanford, where they first did and published highly influential work
  • Both are easily and widely seen as highly programmatic, having defined a clear research program challenging to currently popular approaches and beliefs in their fields
  • Both had great difficulty finding early, publishable success with their research programs, even after ceasing their early work (Davidson: Plato, empirical decision theory; Nass: information processing models of the labor force)
  • Both had other draws and distractions (Davidson: business school, teaching plane identification in WWII; Nass: being a professional magician, working at Intel)
  • Both produced dissertations viewed by others in the discipline as odd (Davison: Quine “was a little mystified by my writing on this. He never talked to me about it.”; Nass: “my PhD thesis was so bizarre”)


Adlin, T. (2007). An interview with Cliff Nass. UX Pioneers.
Davidson, D. (1963). Actions, Reasons, and Causes. Journal of Philosophy, 60(23), 685-700.
Davidson, D., & Suppes, P. (1957). Decision Making: An Experimental Approach. Stanford University Press.

Finder, A. (2007, November 20). Decline of the Tenure Track Raises Concerns. The New York Times.

Freeman, R., Weinstein, E., Marincola, E., Rosenbaum, J., & Solomon, F. (2001). Careers: Competition and Careers in Biosciences. Science, 294(5550), 2293-2294.

Lepore, E. (2004). Interview with Donald Davidson. In Problems of Rationality, Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 231-266.

Nass, C., Steuer, J., & Tauber, E. R. (1994). Computers are social actors. In Proc. of CHI 1994. ACM Press.

Reeves, B., & Nass, C. (1996). The media equation: how people treat computers, television, and new media like real people and places. Cambridge University Press.

Richardson, J. T. (1999). Tenure in the New Millenium. National Forum, 79(1), 19-23.
Sanford, J. (2000, November 17). ‘Elementary pleasures’ and ‘riskful thinking’ matter to Gumbrecht. Stanford Report.

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