A human-centred approach to cultural heritage technologies


In our Zoom for Thought on July 7th, 2020, UCD Discovery Director Prof Patricia Maguire spoke to Luigina Ciolfi (pictured), Professor of Human-Centred Computing at Sheffield Hallam University, about “A human-centred approach to cultural heritage technologies”. In case you missed it, here are our Top Takeaway Thoughts. 

Let Users In


Human Computer Interaction (HCI) is all about involving end-users in the design process. Ciolfi collaborates not only with designers and developers, but also with museum visitors and communities to get their feedback on digital technologies used in exhibit spaces and to be part of the design process. Before Covid-19, her “codesign events” with user groups usually took place face-to-face in museums where she and her collaborators could observe their engagement with the technology. “Obviously with museums and cultural bodies being closed to the public it has been a huge challenge to rethink our research and try and keep those conversations going online.” 


Future Museums


While museums may reopen, “the way we might go visit them might be very different”. Most of Ciolfi’s work to date has been in-situ, working with physical objects, artefacts and technologies. Now the challenge is in bridging the gap between visiting the museum in person and online. She is in favour of “not just presenting the content and telling people what they have in storage, what they have in exhibitions, what is the history - but asking people questions about what it is that culture and heritage mean to you? And try and mediate some interesting discussions and conversations”.


Controversial Heritage


The recent Black Lives Matter campaign has proven that “heritage is not uncontroversial” with questions arising “about who gets a statue on the city square and what that should say about that person who is represented”. Ciolfi says well-designed and sensitive digital technologies should allow people to express their views, emotions and values, and also see other perspectives. “We need to do it in a way that is more meaningful than just commenting under a post on social media or pressing a ‘like’ button. I think there are interesting roles that curators and exhibition designers could have to facilitate dialogue that is meaningful and not a knee-jerk reaction to things.” 

Ahead of the Curve


Before Covid-19, Ciolfi was already researching how people work outside of traditional offices, such as “cafes, coworking spaces, planes, trains, but also working at home. And obviously we’ve all become pretty much homeworkers in the past few months so unexpectedly I find my research strangely fashionable”.  The challenge now in designing WFH apps, recommendations or customisations is that “people’s lives and circumstances are hugely different”.


Strange Role


Technology now plays “a strange role” between enabling us to work and also to keep in touch with family and friends. Boundaries are blurred between work and non-work time. It is “really difficult” to say when the working day is over, “especially if you have a zoom call with a friend or family member. How do I keep out notifications that might bring other work into it again?” Ciolfi has found that people “do a lot of extra work to keep work out of personal life. Because obviously we all need personal life that is protected time with our families”. 


Digital overload


Working remotely using new technologies and systems can be overwhelming but Ciolfi says we are “more skilled and competent” than we might judge ourselves to be.  “I think there are basic mechanisms that we put in place to cope. We filter things, we make decisions in terms of what to prioritise and what to leave on the back burner.”  She has seen people signalling in shared calendars with colleagues that they need time alone to concentrate on creative work. We strategise and overcome previous difficulties.


Artistic Solace


She praises the “huge amount of work” that cultural bodies have put into providing online materials and activities for people to keep them engaged and uplifted. “I really hope that this will be recognised and I really hope there will be support for the arts and culture to survive this really huge challenge that they’re facing.” 


This article was brought to you by the UCD Institute for Discovery, fuelling interdisciplinary research collaborations.