When Protocols Meet People: Interface Design For Home Networks

Lecture / Panel
For NYU Community

Speaker: Marshini Chetty, Georgia Institute of Technology


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.


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.