Simon Fraser University

Inventing a better mouse trap

Oct 31, 2002 , vol. 25, no. 5

By Howard Fluxgold
New technological advances may no longer be the sole preserve of engineers or scientists in white lab coats thanks to Roman Onifrijchuk and his team.

Onifrijchuk, a senior research fellow at the New Media Innovation Centre (NewMIC) at Harbour Centre and adjunct professor at SFU's school of communication, heads a team of SFU graduate and undergraduate students working on a systematic way to anticipate the effects of technological innovation in human terms.

“We're working with industry and communities to develop more systematic ways of thinking about the effects of new media innovation. How might technologists design to solve actual problems, anticipate real user needs and ameliorate undesirable design effects? We're interested in how media change affects people's experiences of and orientations to what matters in their lives,” he says.

A large amount of marketing and user research has been done, Onufrijchuk says, but until now “there's been no systematic way to understand it.” Planners, policy makers, designers, and critics often get overwhelmed by data.

NewMIC is dedicated to researching human factors in technology innovation. Onufrijchuk says he and his team are “working with industry planners, policy makers, designers, and communities, to turn their data into intelligence, and scan for the unforeseen and overlooked.”

What have they learned so far about the kinds of technology people want and need? “High ambivalence out there,” Onufrijchuk says. “Everybody wants to be able to contact anybody they want anytime. But they would rather not be available to everybody all the time.” This implies significant design challenges.

The research methodology is a synthesis of qualitative and quantitative approaches organized around a set of constants in the ways people are oriented to various factors in their lives. “The constants are organized in an ethos protocol,” says Onufrijchuk. For now they're calling their method the “techno-anthropological design assessment” or “TADA” for short. “Working titles,” Onufrijchuk notes.

“What we are looking at is an effort to increase the awareness of specialists about how interconnected human experience is with this world and how many things have to be taken into account if we are to take a holistic approach to producing technologies,” Onifrijchuk says.

Both Sony and TELUS have tried his methodologies with positive results and publication in academic journals is on the horizon.

Onifrijchuk concludes, “This is not the discovery of the wheel. It's just saying, ‘Let's be systematic about the kinds of questions we ask ourselves when we function as moral, responsible and accountable actors in the domain of innovation.' ”