autonomy 2

While in Toronto for CHI2014 I attended a day-long workshop about autonomy in design and how to design for autonomy. Personal autonomy is seen as important for health, with individuals able to make informed decisions about themselves and act on them independently. Mental and spiritual well-being depends on being able to live autonomously, long term illness or incarceration are well researched examples of situations with reduced autonomy and consequent loss of self determination. Social groups should be able to gather openly and organise around common goals, they should also be able to act upon those goals. Autonomy is crucial for a well-functioning society and people should be able to make moral decisions freely and without constraint for an effective justice system. Some psychologists consider the development of personal autonomy to be ‘the main feature of the final level of moral development’.

My own interest in autonomy stems from the observation that web based interactions involve the large scale accumulation of data about users. The data is fed back to private corporations and analysed for what commercial opportunities it might yield. The speed of interactions, fragmentation of task and attention, and complexity of algorithmic processes all serve to conceal the meaning and implications of our actions from ourselves. The ability to make sense of digital experiences depends then on a level of autonomy that seems to be missing. The workshop at CHI was led by Rafael Calvo, an associate Professor at RMIT in Sydney and Daniel Johnson at QUT in Brisbane. They’re both involved in a research group called Positive Computing with Yvonne Rogers, an important voice in global HCI. Rafael spoke about an app he’s been working on related to young diabetics. As they enter teenage years young people with diabetes transition to self-supported medicating, they visit the hospital less and are required to take more individual responsibility for their own treatment. They must be more autonomous. The app allows for self-motivated compliance. We carried out a series of ranking exercises that worked as data collection for their research. The instruments were posters to which we attached the dreaded annotated post-it notes (I have a particular aversion to any exercise that involves post-its). They were accessible and engaging if a little orthodox in structure.

The workshop introduced me to two new ideas. CAMPER is an acronym that describes the elements of autonomy important in design. Competence – can I do this task? Autonomy – do I have power to influence the outcome? Meaning – does the experience employ my unique strengths for a task greater than myself? Positive emotions – does it make me feel good? Engagement – is it absorbing, creating flow? Relatedness – does the experience allow me to connect with others (what psychologists call a ‘secure relational base’). In any given system or design these factors should exist in harmonious synthesis. The other idea we covered was Self Determination Theory (SDT). SDT is a range of ideas centred on how people are motivated towards actions (an interesting echo from Activity Theory). Motivation can be intrinsic – I do things purely for the pleasure of doing them such as art, games and sports, or extrinsic – I study to get good grades, or to avoid punishment. Some current interesting research asks how to transform extrinsically motivated tasks into intrinsically motivated ones. Good teachers have traditionally been effective at this.

Overall the workshop was illuminating but for me perhaps too focused on autonomy for medical and well-being contexts. I would have liked to broaden the discussion into meaning making and design. My workshop paper is here. Control and Freedom- Designing for Autonomy




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