Are we really multidisciplinary? TRIFoRM bridges some UCD gaps

As the TRIFoRM project draws to a close with results about the levels of trust which motivated users are willing to place in the technology they use, we are particularly mindful of one of the original goals of the ITaaU: to encourage and facilitate multidisciplinary interaction and collaboration. In a nutshell, we need to learn to work with each other, understanding different perspectives and views, and exploiting the final outcomes of truly cross-disciplinary insights. In that vein, TRIFoRM has uncovered another layer of complexity. It is not just about the engineers and researchers from ICT as well as the social sciences who work together to understand the problem and towards its successful resolution, but it’s about what the potential beneficiaries understand and how they react.


“Estirar de la soga” by Macobru – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Looking at trust and trustworthiness in ICT systems, it’s to be expected that HCI experts, technologists (especially in our case from the IoT and sensor networks) and social scientists would all need to collaborate and contribute to understanding the parameters around technology and service adoption. This cross-disciplinary engagement was needed, of course, to identify just what we need to look for in terms of a potential user’s propensity to trust and their behaviours towards technology: and this is one of the huge benefits of the collaborative networks building up around the ITaaU forum. Far less obvious, though, was the collaborative dimensions around the technical service we were investigating.

In TRIFoRM, we engaged with both clinicians and patients involved in the management of chronic pain. The technology component aims to provide monitoring and self-reporting capabilities on a smart phone or similar which would remotely upload data to a central server where those data would be aggregated such that the clinical team from the consultant to the specialist nurse would access to relevant long-term objective data to support and supplement direct patient contact. We should remember at this point that any such service would involve sensitive personal data. That in itself set off alarm bells: for the technologists, would the clients and servers as well as connections between them be robust enough to protect and maintain data integrity and prevent intrusion? For the social scientists, how could potential users be assured that the technology would appropriately manage such data? And for the end users themselves?

For chronic pain sufferers, there were no such issues. Anything which might help them as well as the medical team manage and relieve their condition would be welcome; data security was not an issue. But are they simply naïve to the risks associated with technology? After all, as our clinician pointed out: systems are only as secure as their users. The point is rather more to do with personal relationships. Overwhelmingly, users would trust the technology in the same way that they might trust the medical team. There is however an important caveat: trust transfer of this kind whereby benevolence is perceived in the technology as a result of confidence in the medical team would occur and persist solely if it added to and did not undermine the person-to-person relationships that the patients valued with the clinical team. In an interesting perspective on ease of use and utility, the other common trustworthiness feature associated with benevolence, our participants highlighted that technology might alleviate or compensate for the physical as well as cognitive limitations which their condition imposed.

At the recent ITaaU event in Southampton, the surgeon David Rew made the point that what he and his colleagues wanted was intuitive presentation of the complex patient data they needed to digest to support their patients; turning away to consult a computer screen was not an option. That is one very important factor. Patients themselves however want to support and enhance that relationship through technology too. What TRIFoRM has shown us and our colleagues is the importance of going beyond user centred design to look at the personal and social context of technology deployment and acceptance.