PhD prototype, 2004-2007.
Rhub was designed for lightweight, group-oriented social coordination and sharing, mostly by way of SMS messages. I designed, implemented and evaluated it as part of my PhD studies (2004-2007). There was also a sophsticatd website for rhub, and you could also interact with it via instant messaging protocols and email.
A few core principles evolved in rhub:
- Group-oriented perspective of socialising
- Lightweight, ad-hoc: reduce barriers to entry
- Cross-media: add value to technologies people have already appropriated
- Rapid agile, iterative design
Some historical contextualisation is necessary. When rhub was being designed, iPhone and Twitter didn’t exist and Facebook was just becoming available. It was the days before apps and the explosion of social and mobile systems.
While it was possible to send messages directly to a person, rhub’s core value was in group messaging. For example, if you’re in a group of tennis buddies called ‘tennis’ you can send a message to them all by SMSing rhub:
tennis: Anyone want to play pairs this afternoon?
Rhub would receive this message and forward it to the group members, via SMS, instant messaging or a notiﬁcation if they were browsing the website. Replying to a group message would distribute the reply to everyone - allowing people to stay in touch without having to negotiate technology use.
Interestingly, a form of micro-coordination quickly evolved. People were able to organise events at the last-minute, and ad-hoc changes could be made with the minimum of hassel. For example, friends used rhub to converge on a destination for going out on a Friday night, and then when one of them arrives early and sees a large queue to get in, notiﬁes everyone who are then able to converge at another location.
This kind of communication was simply not possible at the time rhub was made.
Another aspect of the ‘push’ messaging was that the group had much better awareness of shared activities. If you weren’t going out, you could check up on the messages in the morning to get a sense of what people were up to. The constant buzzing of phones was the source of some annoyance as well. One user coined the term “rhub rage” for when you get annoyed by others sending too many messages.
Throughout the design of rhub, thought was put into how to make it as simple as possible to participate, and start using the system. Because the system was used by a relatively small number of people (180ish), it was possible to design it without worrying too much about abuse. For example, in the interests of reducing use friction, you were automatically added to a group if invited.
Rhub was also novel in that it spanned a variety of technologies. A single group conversation could span web, SMS, MSN Messenger, email and MMS.
Rather than be the site where social activity is suppose to take place, rhub is designed to support social activity where it happens best: the everyday, physical world. That is, rhub aims to ‘grease the wheels’ of socialising, making it easier for friends to arrange activities and maintain awareness, and once they are together, for the technology to recede into the background. Post-activity, rhub lets people collect follow-up comments, photos and so on.
Rapid Agile Iterative Design (RAID)
The design of the system was led and informed by the use of the system in a iterative feedback loop. Especially for social systems, a longitudinal approach is necessary in order for users to build try and appropriate it.
This approach demands careful consideration that a broad enough design space was explored and that the design proceeded in a properly-informed manner. These days, this approach is actually rather common in industry, with the idea of launching a “minimum viable product”, but in 2003, it was a novel idea.
Other interesting things…
I experimented with other features and ideas in the live system using the RAID approach to see whether there was any value in the idea and how it might be designed.
(Again, much of these features are taken-for-granted now)
- Presence: set your location to a place, notify friends or people nearby, send messages to a place
- Message ﬁltering: limit which messages you receive using a simple syntax
- SMS interface: a powerful syntax for using rhub through simple text messages
- Discussions: allows users to tune in and out of topical messages
- Sharing: locations, bookmarks, photos were shareable and taggable within groups
- “Design from the Everyday: Continuously evolving, embedded exploratory prototypes.” Heyer, C. and Brereton, M. (2010) In Proceedings of Designing Interactive Systems 2010 (DIS′10), Aarhus, Denmark. ACM, New York, pp. 282-291. ACM
- “Cross-channel mobile social software: an empirical study.” Heyer, C., Brereton, M., and Viller, S. (2008) In Proceeding of the Twenty-Sixth Annual SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI′08), Florence, Italy. ACM, New York, pp. 1525-1534. ACM
- “Perpetual and Pervasive Contact in Social Groups.” Heyer, C. (2010). Social Interaction in Spatially Separated Environments (at UBICOMP′10), Copenhagen, Denmark.