Designing to Reflect Our Better Nature

In DIS 2019, we presented a set of technologies designed in our research group where the focus has been on highlighting the nuanced but critical agency of people to shape interaction with their world using and through computers.

Our design stance emerged by critically seeing technology’s existing power and authority. Taken separately, design traits that promote agency are visible but not necessarily salient. This demo presents different technologies that approach this design direction from different angles and in different contexts. Through the demo of the following three systems, we hope to widen the discussion on the role of design to bring about a kind of power and authority that reflects us not as compliant consumers but more in terms of our better natures.


ThoughtSwap is a background technology that supports a larger social practice concerned with promoting conscientious discourse.
The goal is to get to unmediated face-to-face discussion. But a brief encounter with ThoughtSwap technology changes the infrastructure that enables the discussion.  Two key ideas are (1) provision of \emph{contained anonymity} and (2) reorientation from asking, “What do you believe?”, to asking “What does someone else believe?”

Contained anonymity means that, although the responses that people type are posted anonymously, everyone knows that they come from someone in the physically present group.  Swapping people’s thoughts is accompanied by the request that people defend not the thought that they contributed but someone else’s. Mutual interdependence is manifest in that each must rely on others to represent their point of view.


CritiSearch is a web-application that helps users take control over search results by enabling them to focus on the physical arrangements they see on the screen. They can mark hits with “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” as they sift through the results, without being accountable to the search engine. A sorting feature can pull helpful results to the top and drop unhelpful results down.

When a user runs a search query, the arrangement of the search results is decided by the search engine.  The accepted practice to change the arrangement is query reformulation. Rather than reflecting on their own search purposes, the user must speculate on the search engine’s rationale. CritiSearch’s light-weight structure supports user focus on their purpose without the system’s imposition.


FamilySong (FS) connects internationally-separated family members using synchronous playing of music.  FS changes power in the realm of music by allowing us to reconceptualize music as a shared, synchronous experience rather than an individual one.

Deborah Tatar (and ThoughtSwap) Honored with XCaliber award

XCaliber Award for Excellence in Technology Assisted Teaching and Learning

Established in 1996 by the Office of the Provost, the XCaliber Award is presented annually by Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies to recognize individual faculty members or teams of faculty and staff who integrate technology in teaching and learning. The award celebrates innovative, student-centered approaches.

This year, Deborah Tatar’s decade-long development and deployment of ThoughtSwap is honored with its remarkable utility in getting students to engage in conscientious dialog.


What I’ve Been Reading

Here is a note in the September-October 2017 issue of ACM Interactions.  A central tenet of HCI, which I have heretofore embraced, is the importance of focusing on the relationship between the person and the machine, treating the person as the most important informant about his/her self.  But is that still true when the human has little or no idea what the machine is inferring?  HCI as it is will always be important, but it needs to change to help users be aware of the larger trace they might be leaving.   We have a responsibility to help users see when they, as it were, have a smudge on their noses or, worse, are giving themselves a permanent Scarlet A!