Lab in the Wild asks: What's your Internet like?

Aug 06, 2012
The Lab in the Wild project will administer an ongoing series of voluntary tests designed to elicit information about various users’ “online culture.” Credit: Illustration by Caroline Perry, Harvard SEAS Communications

One size fits all? Not on the Web. Users from different countries and cultures actually interact with information in different ways.

To explore how people click and tap through the vast network of online offerings, a team of from Harvard have launched the "Lab in the Wild".

The project, led by Katharina Reinecke and Krzysztof Gajos, both at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), will administer an ongoing series of voluntary tests designed to elicit information about various users' "online culture."

Drawing on past aggregate data, the simple and fun tests provide instant feedback, so test takers can see how they are similar to or different from other groups of users based upon their country and culture.

Ultimately, success for the project will depend upon the researchers gathering and analyzing results from thousands of users globally.

"Although people on the web are often thought to merge into a homogeneous online culture, they still differ," says Reinecke, a postdoctoral researcher in the Intelligent Interactive Systems group at SEAS, led by Gajos. "We are seeking to answer questions like: How does your cultural background influence how you perceive and process information? Which types of websites do you find most appealing, trustworthy, and intuitive? In short: What would the Internet look like if you designed it?"

To see the differences first hand, participants in the Lab in the Wild project can compare their own ideas on what makes a website beautiful with what others think. For example, not everyone likes the simplicity associated with many German websites or the colorful busy designs common in South Korean pages.

Participants can also test whether they are more sensitive to a focal object (as most Americans are) or more attuned to the broader context (as many Japanese are).

Similar to the popular TestMyBrain website that aims to collaborate with "" to learn about how the brain works, the Lab in the Wild is designed to understand how people around the world differ in the way they think, perceive information, and use technology. In fact, the researchers are collaborating with the Vision Lab at Harvard University, led by Ken Nakayama, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology, which runs the TestMyBrain project.

Of course, personal preferences are often simply that -- personal, and unrelated to national culture. One of the aims of the researchers is to shed light on how culture and other factors shape such predilections and to use the data to build better, more intuitive user interfaces.

"Previous research has already found huge differences in what people find appealing online, and it has provided hints about what kinds of websites and workflows they can work with most efficiently," explains Gajos, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at SEAS and an expert on personalized user interfaces. "We want to build on that in order to make computers adapt to people's needs and preferences rather than the other way around."

A recent study by collaborators from Gajos' lab, the University of Zurich, and the online scheduling company Doodle.com, has suggested that cultural differences exist in the way cultural groups want to use calendar management tools. In countries that are believed to have more collectivist and group-oriented cultures, study participants were much more likely to mutually agree on specific dates versus those in more individualist societies. For example, U.S. participants in the study seemed to be the least influenced by the availability of others. In addition, participants who lived in fast-paced environments were more likely to book meetings well in advance.

In another experiment about online look-and-feel preferences, Reinecke found that while Swiss participants generally preferred a simple user interface with very few colors, Rwandan and Thai participants chose much more colorful and complex designs, adding more icons and information. Moreover, participants were able to work more efficiently with interfaces that were adapted to their preferences.

The Lab in the Wild is an attempt to expand on smaller efforts like these and obtain more statistically reliable samples.

"Computer science research on user interface designs often concentrates just on Western audiences, which can alienate overseas users," says Reinecke. "To create truly responsive, intelligent designs that won't get lost in translation, so to speak, it's important that we gather input from a global audience."

Explore further: WEF unveils 'crowdsourcing' push on how to run the Web

More information: To test your "online culture," visit labinthewild.org

Related Stories

Recommended for you

WEF unveils 'crowdsourcing' push on how to run the Web

9 hours ago

The World Economic Forum unveiled a project on Thursday aimed at connecting governments, businesses, academia, technicians and civil society worldwide to brainstorm the best ways to govern the Internet.

Study: Social media users shy away from opinions

Aug 26, 2014

People on Facebook and Twitter say they are less likely to share their opinions on hot-button issues, even when they are offline, according to a surprising new survey by the Pew Research Center.

US warns shops to watch for customer data hacking

Aug 23, 2014

The US Department of Homeland Security on Friday warned businesses to watch for hackers targeting customer data with malicious computer code like that used against retail giant Target.

Fitbit to Schumer: We don't sell personal data

Aug 22, 2014

The maker of a popular line of wearable fitness-tracking devices says it has never sold personal data to advertisers, contrary to concerns raised by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer.

Should you be worried about paid editors on Wikipedia?

Aug 22, 2014

Whether you trust it or ignore it, Wikipedia is one of the most popular websites in the world and accessed by millions of people every day. So would you trust it any more (or even less) if you knew people ...

How much do we really know about privacy on Facebook?

Aug 22, 2014

The recent furore about the Facebook Messenger app has unearthed an interesting question: how far are we willing to allow our privacy to be pushed for our social connections? In the case of the Facebook ...

User comments : 0