Family Technology: Rebuilding a Plane in Mid-flight and Why Fix What Ain’t (Too) Broke?

Venkatesh, A. 1985. A Conceptualization of the Household/Technology Interaction. In: Elizabeth C. Hirschman & Morris B. Holbrook (eds.), Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. XII, 1985, pp.189-194.

I found this paper to be valuable in how it acknowledges the fit of technology into a home and examines different dimensions of family technology. Venkatesh introduces a number of different lenses for looking at a household. One can see the household as a social space, an activity space, or a technology space. Household technology space is a process and a set of dimensions: A device can be expressive or instrumental. Task-orient or pleasure-oriented. Etc…

W.r.t. process, I find it interesting how Venkatesh characterizes the family as, using my own words, being in an established pattern of technology use. Or, “most household technologies are geared towards the production process rather than the consumption process”. That is, a family, likely, has found some way to use technology in everyday life. Why add anything new? Venkatesh (1996) states that

Computers can enter the technological space in two ways:

  • By competing with the entrenched technologies,
    performing the existing tasks better or more efficiently)
    and at less cost
  • By permitting activities not possible through
    these entrenched technologies, creating new realities
    and possibilities only computers are capable
    of creating

Agreed. It’s hard to develop computing-technologies for homes because homes are always “working”.

  • 1. It’s hard to find the right time to introduce new technology for a family

Imagine developing an email client for a company. The ideal point to introduce your new email client is at the beginning of a project. Families do not work that way. They grow in a continous, organic mess. Depending on the functional goal of your design, it can be almost impossible to find the equivalent of a “new project cycle” to introduce new computing-technology. Exceptions exist: if you develop education software for grade 5, you can adopt the software when your child enters the fifth grade.

  • 2. If you’re trying to develop computing-technology to enhance everyday life, most families already “got it together”.

Venkatesh describes a family as an organization that is focused on production, not consumption. I speculate that families are this way because they don’t have time to reflect and choose among solutions or products. Life advances tirelessly and families simply have to operate: bills, members, school, work, chores, etc… Adding new technology to the mix (no matter how helpful), is not necessarily the obvious choice. Sometimes, it is risky to do. Why fix something that’s not (all that) broken?

… hmmm, I thought I was going to post about something else. (The characterization of technology as a consumer item). Oh well, maybe next time.


Venkatesh, A. 1996. Computers and other interactive technologies for the home. Commun. ACM 39, 12 (Dec. 1996), 47-54.


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Filed under CHI, cscw, Home, Rhythms

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