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Theme: Human-centred system architectures
Theme: Human-centred system architectures

Recent technological advances in location sensing, storage, mobile computing power, network connectivity, and cloud computing infrastructures enable new user experiences that impact traditional views of computer systems design.

For some tasks asking where processing takes place will become irrelevant, making computing more like a utility; while for other tasks the actual location of digital data remains emotionally significant. From a human perspective, though much of what is done with computing requires the utility of enormous processing power, those doings are not best thought of as merely utilitarian. When someone posts to their social network, or when they create and store a Microsoft Word file, or when they take and send digital images from their mobile phones, it is not the required processing power that is foremost in their minds. It is not the computer as utility that is at issue. People don't say 'I would have done this if it had been as simple as turning on and off a tap'. Other things matter. It is the management of social affairs, the completing of a work task for someone, or the giving and receiving of visual gifts between friends over coffee, that is at issue. Hence the human perspective on computing, on its role, design and functioning is crucial to computer systems design.

Research Questions:

  • What new forms of data storage systems are there?
  • How do digital files alter their form and functionality when they move from a PC-based data store onto web-based stores?
  • How do users understand and engage with different data stores? Are these engagements as effective as they ought to be?
  • Are user's conceptions about the 'moral' aspects of digital files (such as whether those entities are owned, for example, or need curating), adequately supported by current architectures?    


Current Projects:

  • What is a file?: For over 40 years the notion of the file, as devised by pioneers in the field of computing, has been the subject of much contention. Some have wanted to abandon the term altogether on the grounds that metaphors about files can confuse users and designers alike. More recently, the emergence of the ‘cloud’ has led some to suggest that the term is simply obsolescent. In this paper we want to suggest that, despite all these conceptual debates and changes in technology, the term file still remains central to systems architectures and to the concerns of users. Notwithstanding profound changes in what users do and technologies afford,  files continue to act as a cohering concept, something like a ‘boundary object’ between computer engineers and users. However, the effectiveness of this boundary object is now waning. There are increasing signs of slippage and muddle. Instead of throwing away the notion altogether, we have think new abstractions are needed, ones which reflect what users seek to do with their digital data, and which allow engineers to solve the networking, storage and data management problems that ensue when files move from the PC on to the networked world of today.
  • How do people curate their digital possessions?:  People are amassing larger and more diverse collections of digital things. The emergence of Cloud computing has enabled people to move their personal files to online places, and create new digital things through online services. However, little is known about how this shift might shape people’s orientations toward their digital things. To investigate, we have been comparing and contrasting how people think about their possessions, moving from physical ones, to locally kept digital materials, to the online world. Using these findings, we are investigating new designs for rendering digital objects, for displaying their status and properties.  
  • What will future data store systems need to do?:  We have been analyzing the Input /Output and network behaviour of a large class of home, personal and enterprise applications. Through user studies and measurements, we have found that users and application developers increasingly have to deal with a de facto distributed system of specialized storage containers/file systems, each exposing complex data structures, and each having different naming and metadata conventions, caching and prefetching strategies and transactional properties. Two broad dichotomies are emerging from this research. First, there is tension between the traditional local file system and cloud storage containers. Local file systems have high performance, but they lack support for rich data structures, like graphs, that other storage containers provide. Second, distinct cloud storage containers provide different operational semantics and data structures. Transferring data between these containers is often ‘lossy’ leading to added data management complexity for users and developers. This complexity in storage impacts the way users understand their data, nor is this complexity adequately dealt with current GUI design. We have been building and evaluating alternative storage systems that are allowing us to explore new design opportunities and user experiences.