Socio-Digital Systems

Elegant technologies for complex lives

Socio-Digital Systems (SDS) aims to use an understanding of human values to help to change the technological landscape in the 21st century. Beyond making us all more productive and efficient, we ask how we can build technology to help us be more expressive, creative, and reflective in our daily lives.

Our group considers a broad range of human values, aims to understand their complexity, and puts them front and centre in technology development. An important aspect of this endeavour is the construction of new technologies that, in turn, we ourselves can shape. In so doing, we may create new ways that help us to actively realise our aspirations and desires, to engage with or disconnect from the world around us, to remember our past or to forget it, to connect with others or disengage from them. Important here are technologies which ultimately make our lives richer, and which offer us choice and flexibility in the things that we do.

SDS does this through the bringing together of social science, design and computer science. We believe that by understanding human values, we open up a space of new technological possibilities that stretches the boundaries of current conceptions of human-computer interaction.

Socio-Digital Systems is one of three groups in the Computer-Mediated Living research area at Microsoft Research Cambridge.


Current Themes

This group develops its work through themes that represent interlocking sets of social and technical concerns. Currently, SDS is investigating the following.

Theme: Beyond Search

When we think of the experiences that search engines are designed to support, criteria such as speed and efficiency instantly come to mind. However, one of our main interests is in how Web use is intertwined with daily life, and understanding the activities in which search engines play a role. Within this larger, human-centred context, we find that the richness of Web use, and the activities in which search features, point to many other human values to design for in addition to fast, relevant search. More...


Theme: Interacting without Touching

Through our bodily relationship and actions with objects, places, and each other, we are able to express and create a rich variety of meaning. Gestures, movement trajectories, spatial positioning, and proximity are all means through which we communicate, interpret, and control our world. With the emergence of ever more sophisticated sensing techniques we are able to interact in new ways with the digital world without touch. These new mechanisms open up opportunities for exploring new genres of experiences and applications in a variety of new contexts where touch-based interactions alone may neither be possible, desirable, or as engaging. The important concerns for this theme are to understand the properties, challenges, and social consequences of touchless body-based interactions and how to design experiences with these mechanisms that achieve value and meaning for people in everyday contexts. More...

Theme: Human-centred System Architectures

Recent technological advances in computing are allowing massive redesign of processing, storage, and network capabilities and architectures. All of this is often encapsulated in the term cloud computing. These changes often seem distant from human affairs. Indeed, when someone posts to their social network, when they create and store a Microsoft Word file, or when they take and send digital images from their mobile phones, it is rare that they think of the cloud as they do it. People may not even care where the file in question resides. They might not care that it is a file. But sometimes these computational issues do matter to them. When someone hands over a digital picture, say, they may want that digital object, that file, to really move from their own device to another’s. They are giving it; they are not giving another rights to access it, to go to the cloud and view it. When they delete a digital file they might really want that file to cease to exist; they don’t want to find that others have copied it and made it their own. This theme is investigating how the design of computer architectures in the cloud and elsewhere can be altered to more effectively bind the social and the computational together, making them allies rather than distinct, separate phenomena. More...

Theme: [Big] Data Studies

Data is all the buzz. It's being seen in everything and found everywhere. From the human genome to our personal tweets, from the vastness of the universe to our planetary ecosystems, we're imagining just about anything can be subject to the analytical tools of a new data science. But what are the consequences of this vision of a data-rich world for those of us on the street; what impact, if any, does it have on our everyday experiences and with the things that matter most to us. Here, we aim to reflect on the rise of (big) data and investigate what it does mean for us, and what it could come to mean. More...




Current Projects

Projects are specific pieces of work that we've researched and built. They often fit into one of the themes, described above.

Project: Five Modes of Web Use

Most tools for searching the web are built around the idea of purposeful or task-driven web use, where people seek out the answers to questions they have, or gather information for a particular information need. Our fieldwork suggests that while this purposeful use is obviously an important aspect of web use, there are four other modes in which people engage with the web. These are opportunistic use, in which web use s a form of past time, orienting, where users browse a routine set of sites to ‘warm up’ for the day, respite, where users flick to certain sites as a way of breaking from other activities, and lean-back, where the web becomes a conduit for media such as radio, video or games. These modes were developed from qualitative analyses of user behaviour, but we are currently using visualisations of user logs, and developing ways of inferring mode from user behaviour, in collaboration with the Machine Learning group.

Project: Domesticating Search

Designing web-connected technologies for home life raises a number of questions regarding the material landscape of the home, the relationships between household members, and the links between home and other spheres, such as work. As part of a design exploration of how to design web-connected artefacts specifically for the home, we have developed a number of concepts in collaboration with Aalto University's School of Arts, Design and Architecture. These include Tokens, which brings the web into the physical landscape of the home through the use of tangible handles to web content; Hole in Space, which creates a live connection from the home to a remote place that family members wish to feel connected to; and Manhattan, which displays local events around a household as a tangible interface.

Project: Time

Within HCI, time is treated in various ways. It can be quantified and measured, indicating speed, efficiency, or delay. Alternatively, it can be positioned as an experiential aspect of everyday life, with recent efforts in HCI focusing on how we might design slow technologies, or design for the busyness that is inherent to modern life. Through a recent study of a timeline creation tool, Project Greenwich, and in an upcoming CHI 2013 workshop, we are attempting to unpack these different ways of thinking about time, drawing a distinction between time as experienced, and time as counted by a ticking clock or measured by a computer algorithm.

Project: Touchless Interaction in Surgical Settings

Surgery is increasingly reliant on medical imaging to “look” inside the body with minimal physical invasion. However, a surgeon’s interaction with images is constrained by their need to maintain sterility. Re-scrubbing is time consuming, and instructing others to manipulate equipment interferes with a surgeon’s interpretation of the images. Working with two partner hospitals, we are developing two systems for manipulating image data. One is in partnership with vascular surgeons at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ hospital in London, and the other with neurosurgeons at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge. Both systems support surgeons to manipulate 3D renderings in ways which are sensitive to their existing practices and teamwork. This study is funded by MS Connections in collaboration with the Computer Vision group and Lancaster University. View Project Page with Machine Learning and Planning group.

Project: Technology and the Modern Wedding

A wedding is arguably one of the most transformative and meaning-laden events in an individual’s life. Weddings can be incredibly rich spaces for exploration due to the unique ways that social, psychological, and material processes unfold amidst powerful cultural traditions. This major life event is increasingly transformed by technologies for preparing, capturing, and remembering the ritual. We are studying how people use technology in relationship to their weddings, and identifying ways that novel technologies could potentially contribute to the human values underpinning this event. Understanding how technology is transforming weddings, and marriages more generally, is a critical part of developing a more holistic research and design framework for technology’s evolving role across the life course.




Some Recent Publications



    Issue 3 of our free magazine is all about Search & Web Use

    Each issue of "Things We've Learnt About..." summarises the work of the Socio-Digital Systems team around a specific theme. Issue 3 is all about SEARCH & WEB USE. It's packed full of insights and ideas that explore why we do the things we do online, all presented in way that we hope is interesting, insightful and inspirational. And most importantly, succinct. Get it here!


    Being Human Report

    Socio-Digital Systems, along with 40 or so of the world's best HCI researchers, have put together a report for anyone interested in the ramifications of our digital future and in ways society must adjust to the technological changes to come.


    Recent Press Coverage


    Contact Us

    Socio-Digital Systems
    Microsoft Research
    21 Station Road
    Cambridge CB1 2FB
    +44 1223 479700


    The Socio-Digital Systems group are always looking for interns and Post-docs. For more information, visit Microsoft Research Careers.