Colloquium Details

When Protocols Meet People: Interface Design For Home Networks

Speaker: Marshini Chetty, Georgia Tech

Location: Warren Weaver Hall 1302

Date: March 30, 2012, 11:30 a.m.

Host: Denis Zorin


We are increasingly dependent on a working Internet connection and when the network is functioning normally, we hardly notice the underlying infrastructure. Yet, when the connection breaks, we are reminded of how this complex ensemble of protocols and bits can easily fail. Unfortunately, although communication networks were designed for robustness and scalability, usability was never a primary concern. As a result, along with increased broadband Internet access around the world, the average person is faced with being a network operator in the home. Users must deal with the underlying network protocols and arcane technologies when all they really want is for the network to “just work”. Designing an interface for a computer network therefore raises design concerns that are common to many complex computer systems: How to expose the right level of visibility and controls for user needs. Keeping the network as a black box and limiting controls makes it harder for users to understand and manage the system, while too much visibility and control can make a system overwhelming to operate, understand, and troubleshoot.

In this talk, I will describe two systems that I have built for deployment in real user homes that explore the parameters for visibility and controls in computer networks. My first system, Kermit, explores questions of visibility and control around network performance. I will briefly describe how I identified problems with performance that home users face through studies of real-world households, how I addressed these issues with the design of a working system, and the results of an in situ deployment of Kermit. This study showed that users respond positively to personalized visualizations of the network and controls over performance that more closely match their needs for managing their households.

My second system, uCap, investigates issues of visibility and control around network policies, particularly under constrained Internet conditions such as living with a bandwidth “cap” or limit on downloads per a month. I will describe how users struggle with managing a bandwidth cap because of a lack of visibility and control over how bandwidth is used by various members of the household and different Internet applications. I will then describe how these findings informed the design of uCap, a system to help households manage bandwidth caps by providing better visibility and control over bandwidth usage in a home. Both of these systems demonstrate how changing the parameters of visibility and control for complex computer systems can improve the user experience. I will conclude with an agenda for applying lessons from these studies more broadly across the design of other complex infrastructures.

Speaker Bio:

Marshini Chetty is a postdoctoral researcher in the College of Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology, where she recently graduated with her Ph.D. in Human-Centered Computing. Her research in human computer interaction and ubiquitous computing focuses on home networking, sustainability, and international development. She received her Bachelors of Science and Masters of Science degrees in Computer Science from the University of Cape Town. Marshini was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, a Google Anita Borg Scholarship, a GVU Foley Scholar award, and an Intel Ph.D. fellowship for her research. Her work has been featured in technical blogs, notably Slashdot, Ars Technica, Network World, and BoingBoing! and she received a CHI Best Paper Award in 2011.


Refreshments will be offered starting 15 minutes prior to the scheduled start of the talk.

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