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Director Harrison on zoom fatigue in Wall Street Journal

June 10, 2020

In May, HCD Director Steve Harrison was extensively quoted in an article in the Wall Street Journal on “zoom fatigue”.

Sheltering-in-place and everyone’s discovery of teleconferencing systems such as FaceTime, Skype, and especially Zoom has created a situation where people are now holding meetings with one-another in place of more natural forms of social connection that families, friends, acquaintances and just people encountering each other in the course of the day have evolved over generations. The Wall Street Journal article is about the mismatch between the design of Zoom and how we are using it.  

This research has been a long-term project of Steve Harrison bringing together a number of disciplines as well as a particular approach to human centered design.

He started this work in 1988 at Xerox PARC, at that time the most famous place in the world for human-computer interaction, where the graphical user interface was invented.  His work (then and now) is concerned both with the technical design of such systems and, more importantly, how these technologies invite interpersonal connection.  Meaningful interpersonal connection is made up of many different situations, such as: seeing a person’s expression during a conversation (as in Zoom), overhearing activity of colleagues in a hallway, watching grandchildren have lunch, being able to gesture when sketching over a cocktail napkin, catching a whiff of a lover’s perfume, knowing what the current hot topic is amongst fellow students, and knowing that your kids’ grandparents are hearing the same music at the same time as your kids.

From the beginning, that research was concerned with meetings, but went beyond meets to a concern with how people stay connected over time.  The original research focused on what we called “media space” — the “space” created by mixing audio, video and social computing.

Since coming to Virginia Tech in 2003, he has edited and published two volumes on the topic: 
1) Harrison, Steve, Media Space: 20+ Years of Mediated Life,  Springer Science and Business.  2009.
2) Neustaedter, C., Harrison, S. and Sellen, A. Connecting Families: The Impact of New Communication Technologies on Domestic Life (Computer Supported Cooperative Work) Springer, 2013

More recently, he and Deborah Tatar have supervised graduate work that examines and enlarges shared simultaneous listening, trying to find appropriate balances between sharing and privacy.  One project (conducted by Dr. Michael Stewart, now an Assistant Professor at JMU) created a mechanism for middle schoolers to listen simultaneously to the same music, but is careful to avoid creating other social distractions that their parents might not want. Another (by Dr. Javier Tibau, an Assistant Professor at ESPOL in Ecuador) used dedicated music boxes to connect families with very young children and their parents in American to grandparents at Central or South America.  Families can create and decorate Card Song that even quite young children can use to play the same music at the same time on speakers in each household.  But this design avoids privacy violations because only the music is shared.  People use it together with Zoom or other connectivity technologies for focused interaction.  A recent Masters student of mine, Melanie Trammell, drilled down on what people want from connectivity, investigating how students infer elements of other student’s identities when communicating at a distance.  Notably, all three are holders of the HCD Certificate.