Special Seminar: Nitin Sawhney "Conducting HCI Research in the Wild: Distributed Cognition and Situational Awareness in Human Centered Design"

This talk is arranged at the Department of Computer Science and it's open to everyone free-of-charge.

Conducting HCI Research in the Wild: Distributed Cognition and Situational Awareness in Human Centered Design

Nitin Sawhney


We are seeing a dramatic shift in the nature of computing in our everyday lives, increasingly entering people’s homes, bodies, and public spaces, while transforming lifestyle choices and the critical ways in which we act in the world. How do we conduct participatory research and human-centered design to better engage the complex interactions situated in naturalistic settings and the new kinds of socio-technical practices emerging? In the mid 1990’s Edwin Hutchins posited Distributed Cognition as an integrated framework to reorient how we make sense of the embodied, socially-distributed, and cultural contexts of interactions between people and technologies in the wild (i.e. in environments beyond the lab or workplace). His field research, while initially conducted on the decks of ships and in airplane cockpits, is just as relevant for Human Computer Interaction (HCI) research today.

In this presentation, I will describe the opportunities and challenges of leveraging Distributed Cognition for HCI research, using several illustrative projects using digital augmented tools to support everyday note-taking practices, wearable audio computing and interactive community portals for situational awareness, and civic media and mobility data in urban contexts. Through this work I consider the role of cognitive, sensory and networked ethnography in HCI research, while examining the tensions between undertaking computational, machine learning, and human-centered inquiry to critically interrogate seemingly intractable problems in the wild.


Nitin Sawhney is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at The New School. His research, teaching, and creative practice engages the critical role of technology, civic media, and participatory research for human centered design in contested spaces. Nitin completed his Ph.D. at the MIT Media Lab in 2003, where he conducted research on distributed design collaboration and developed audio-based wearable computing platforms. He co-founded Akaza Research, a software startup, to develop open source repositories for public biomedical research with support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and led new product development at Cytel, Inc. for adaptive clinical trials. Nitin was awarded a Visionary Fellowship at MIT for the Jerusalem 2050 Project in 2008. He has taught at the MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology (ACT) in 2010-2011 and was a research affiliate with the MIT Center for Civic Media. He established the Engage Media Lab at The New School to support participatory media, research and civic agency among youth and marginalized communities. He is an associate editor for the International Journal of Child Computer Interaction. In 2018-2019, Nitin was awarded a Faculty Fellowship with the Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography & Social Thought (GIDEST), supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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