Archives for posts with tag: reading group

At this week’s lab session we were discussing a paper put forward by Marianna – Dual processing streams in chemosensory perception, from Frasnelli et al*. As the title may suggest, this is somewhat outside our normal fare. It is a short paper on the processing of smells and the areas of the brain used in the process. Marianna’s current area of research is in taste and smell elements of HCI, and as such she is using papers like this to give herself a background in the understanding that has been reached on these senses in other disciplines.

Short papers are not necessarily the most accessible way into a new area, with little space for defining concepts for the beginner. This was therefore a surprisingly taxing read, with a certain amount of googling of terms happening on the side. The paper basically tested and showed that the processing of the chemical sense of smell demonstrates a sub-division of processing between localisation and identification, and that this processing separation is similar to that seen in processing the physical senses, such a vision and hearing.

The main reaction of the group was “so what?”. By which we didn’t mean that this was unimportant, just that we couldn’t see what we, in the field of HCI, could do with this information. Marianna’s response was two-fold: first, she wants to know not only what the other sciences know about the senses, but also what they don’t concern themselves with. In this case, the experimenters were very interested in where the smell gets processed, but she is much more interested in how the participants make sense of that smell. Secondly she is looking for new techniques to try (although this paper’s procedure is not something she would use!), as these areas are so new to HCI. And finally she is interested in potentially feeding back to neuroscience. For example, in some cases, explicitation interviews (a technique that Marianna has used with some of her experiments on touch) have been carried out alongside the fMRI scans, and these have helped to explain some of the differences in processing found between the participants.

The discussion as ever veered through a range of topics – some more closely related to the original paper than others! One of Marianna’s interests is in trying to generate taste and smell sensations by stimulating other, more HCI-compatible, senses. We felt that at least this paper suggested that the processing pathways were not entirely dissimilar, so there may still be a chance of this working! Other group members were interested in seeing how the pathways might change if people were missing a sense – e.g. Marianna had interviewed someone born without a sense of taste. There were some questions around the differences in gender and the effects that may have, although given our lack of knowledge of the field there is a good chance that these questions have already been answered.

It was fascinating to read something so far from our normal focus, and to try to understand how we could perhaps bring it into our area. All in all, a very interesting read and discussion.

*Frasnelli, J., Lundström, J. N., Schöpf, V., Negoias, S., Hummel, T., & Lepore, F. (2012). Dual processing streams in chemosensory perception. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6(October), 288. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00288


Starting this week with the news updates, the HCT lab is part of one of four larger sub-groups within the Department of Informatics at Sussex. Until recently this group has been known as Interactive Systems, but Judith reported a proposal to change this name going forward to “Interactive Design and Applications for Society”, or IDeAS. This met with general approval from the lab group members, and we will wait to see if it is adopted by the larger group.

Ben reported that he has been made “President-elect” of the International Society for Artificial Intelligence in Education, with his term of presidency due to start in 2015. Much kudos and congratulations for that, and we’ll have to hope the power doesn’t go to his head.

The lab meeting this week was used as a reading group, with Judith leading the discussion on “Uncomfortable Interactions“, by Benford et al*. This paper discusses the role of uncomfortable interactions within HCI, making the point that traditionally HCI has sought to reduce the pain of interactions whilst in other areas (notably art, films and occasionally education) painful experiences can be extremely powerful. The authors identify different kinds of discomfort – physical yes, but also cultural or control. This is an idea that some of the members of the group working on the African Farmer Game are becoming more familiar with, as the game does tug on some emotional strings of the players, frequently leaving them in a less-than ideal situation. Without this outcome, the power of the gaming experience for the entire group of players would be much reduced.

The discussion covered a many points. The perception of what is discomforting varies wildly from individual to individual, whether via an interface or in a social situation – e.g. the group’s experience of working with children on the autistic spectrum with their needs for calm and predictability may cause something to be an extremely uncomfortable experience for them. This in turn leads to questions about the ethics of the situation, which were covered in the paper but obviously sparked many personal viewpoints within the group.  We also noted a lack of the educational examples – the authors appeared to be firmly embedded in the performance side of uncomfortable interactions, but as mentioned above there is a lot of scope for a controlled level of discomfort in learning situations. And finally, the group felt it would be good to get a clearer view of the type and sense of discomfort that was being designed, and how those aims have influenced the interface design decisions made.

Overall, the group agreed that this was a very well-written paper that began to explore some very interesting points.

*Benford, S., Greenhalgh, C., Giannachi, G., Walker, B., Marshall, J., & Rodden, T. (2012). Uncomfortable interactions. Proceedings of the 2012 ACM annual conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI  ’12, 2005. doi:10.1145/2207676.2208347

Ostensibly this meeting was to discuss the paper that Ben had forwarded around the group on Grounded Theory. Actually this paper was more of an entry point for discussion. Nick Collins (a colleague from Music Informatics) has recently started some qualitative research, and was looking to discuss some of his reservations about the methods that he was having.

In a way, this made starting from Grounded Theory an interesting choice. Whilst many of the group members have conducted qualitative research, none of the group who were present have actually used Grounded Theory itself. So although we did spend a little time discussing the area the more interesting discussion came when we started talking more specifically about Nick’s current research interest and problem, and how the group’s experience could help.

Nick is doing a series of semi-structured interviews, the questions for which came from the results of a previous online study. Judith suggested that perhaps he should look at Thematic Analysis as an approach, but Katy has had some trouble finding a good reference for how to go about that.

Lesley uses an iterative approach to coding, starting potentially with very low level coding (examples used were “red flower” and “my mum said” – which did make sense in the context, honest!) and use those to then create higher level categories (e.g. “External objects”, “other people”) and recode. She says she tries not to have any preconceived ideas about what she’s looking for, but accepts that on some level she does.

Bias (which is introduced by the preconceptions) came up repeatedly. It seems that different studies have quite different approaches to this problem. Some work around it by having a large number of coders and looking for a high degree of inter-coder reliability. Others use two coders, who only confer when there is a disagreement. Still others use a single coder (and it was a real shame that Gareth wasn’t here at this point) who provides a single clear viewpoint. As always, the problem is finding the approach that is most appropriate for each particular study.

A related question was when to start looking at the data. Nick was very worried about looking back on it too soon, in case it changed the way he conducted later interviews. Lesley had examples where tweaking the questions on the way through had uncovered important information that would otherwise have been missed, although the change had to be documented when writing up the study. She also said that when you carry out your own interviews to code you can’t help but know what’s been said previously. Judith queried about the difference between knowing what had been said and reflecting on it, forming further ideas about it. The group consensus seemed to be that leaving it as long as possible before that happens would be preferable – which may explain why none of us have used Grounded Theory!

All in all it was a good discussion of the practices that the group have used when conducting research in the past. We hope Nick found it useful and not too overwhelming. We also hope that he might find time to come back and tell us about what he finds.

This week we had a paper to review, courtesy of Edgar. The paper was “Using HCI Techniques to Design a More Usable Programming System” by Pane, Myers and Miller*, which was recently jointly awarded the “Most influential paper from approximately one decade ago” at the IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing (VL/HCC) 2012. That alone makes it worthy of reviewing, but a number of the group also have an interest in visual languages and designing systems to help novice programmers.

The paper gives quite a high level account of the design and initial testing of the HANDS programming system. The design is aimed at children of grade 5 and above, which Judith kindly translated for those of us not familiar with the US grade system as age 10 and over. The authors begin by undertaking a user study to see how non-programmers approached problems they designed, and what sort of constructs and language were used. The programming language and environment were then designed together, with the visual metaphors aiming to underpin the coding structure. This design was then re-tested.

The group (as ever) had a lively debate about the code structure they hit upon, some people saying they hadn’t simplified enough, others (Ellie!) saying that it looked a little ambiguous in places. Some people questioned the methodology (always). Eventually (via Jim) we hit on an apparently old question that is at the heart of the visual languages research: are you trying to come up with something to teach people how to go on and learn other programming languages? Or are you trying to create a new, complete, usable language?

After we finished with the paper we had a slight extension to the meeting. Katy had asked us to provide a student with some feedback on a paper prototype for a visual programming learning tool he (Chris) is designing. It was a lovely prototype, with some really nice touches. It followed on really well from the paper, and hopefully he got some useful feedback and ideas on what to do next. It will be great to see where he takes it.

Sadly no cake this week, but none of us were quite desperate enough to defrost the cakes in the freezer! Fortunately no one was harmed as a result of the lack of sugar (some slightly elderly mini-rolls were “tidied”). Next week we will have to remember biscuits…


*Pane, J.F., Myers, B. a. & Miller, L.B., 2002. Using HCI techniques to design a more usable programming system. Proceedings IEEE 2002 Symposia on Human Centric Computing Languages and Environments, (Hcc), pp.198–206. Available at:

Today the lab meeting was more of an extension of the lab reading group, reviewing and discussing ideas from “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines” by Jan Meyer and Ray Land*.

Threshold concepts came to the attention of the group via a comment Liz made on Ben’s talk on learning to program. This paper identifies a threshold concept as a core concept that involves a change in perspective, as opposed to a core concept that doesn’t involve that shift, that without understanding the learner will be unable to access further parts of the task. We started out by spending a lot of time discussing the examples used, as there are many scattered throughout the paper. The group agreed that the examples were quite difficult to understand, perhaps because they were threshold concepts we hadn’t quite grasped!

Jim commented that the concept of a threshold concept is actually intensely personal – what is difficult to understand for one person is straightforward to another, and as such, how useful is the concept? The paper appears to have gathered data from experienced teachers, who are picking areas that they see students having trouble with, so in this case the information is targeted more at the teacher than the student – kind of a danger sign, alerting the teach that some topics may need more time than others. As such, it may be useful to work out what kind of problems missing these concepts may have further down the line.

There was a lovely quote apparently from Veterinary Sciences: “where students encountered severe conceptual difficulty such areas of the curriculum were quietly dropped”, which led to us wondering what kind of things were dropped and how important they might be (and lead to the title of this post – is telling a horse from a goldfish a threshold concept?!).

Section 4 in the paper was all about forms of “troublesome knowledge”, using a pre-existing definition of knowledge that is counter-intuitive, alien or incoherent, and discusses the forms that that kind of knowledge can take. This caused some confusion, as some of the terms used in the paper were familiar to members of the group from cognitive science but were being used in ways that didn’t quite fit their definitions. A great example of one of the sections on troublesome language! This section led to an interesting discussion on whether we agreed or disagreed with the distinctions and the terminology used.

Another query that the group raised was who controlled these thresholds? They seem to only be identified as such after you’ve been through one, which often serves to bring the way you think or see the world closer to the accepted norm for a particular group or community of practice. The way that you “know” things then becomes as important as what you know – so it is more important to be able to understand why things work is more important than just knowing that they do, as this may limit your ability to apply in different situations.

(I’ve realised how difficult it is to talk about these things in the abstract! That explains all of those examples in the paper… )

As always, a lively and interesting discussion. After the meeting, Edgar found the following video that has a clearer sense of what the “threshold concept” may be (although different from the one portrayed in the paper):

Liz has provided us with further papers, and a link to some research done in 2006-7 at Cambridge on teaching threshold concepts.

(In less lofty news, Ellie did remember cakes!)

Next week we have Jim talking us through his new area of research. Lesley has told us there may be some cake in the lab freezer. Is next week the time to find out? Be there…

*Meyer, J.H.F. & Land, R., 2003. Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the discipline. … Student Learning: Improving Student Learning Theory …, pp.1–16. Available here  [Accessed November 5, 2012].