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Spirituality — there's an app for that! (but not a lot of research)


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The iTunes App Store contains over six thousand apps related to spirituality and religion. The ACM digital library, however, contains only 98 works that address this topic from the perspective of human-computer interaction (HCI). Despite high-profile calls for research in the area, the HCI community has produced only 19 research works focused on the topic, almost half of which are the work of one person and her colleagues. In this paper we provide an overview of the relevant HCI research in this area, a partial inventory of spiritually oriented apps in the iTunes US App Store, and a comparison of research and real-world developments. We discuss the gaps in the HCI literature on techno-spiritual practices and speculate about some of the difficulties and challenges that face the HCI community in conducting research in this area.

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Spirituality — there's an app for that! (but not a lot of research)

  1. 1. Spirituality:There’s an App for That!(but not a lot of research)Elizabeth Buie and Mark Blythe@ebuie @markblytheNorthumbria UniversityDepartment of Design
  2. 2. Great Exhortations Genevieve Bell, CHI 2010(keynote) Three main underexploredareas of HCI research:» Sex» Sport» SpiritualityThis paper looks at spirituality —HCI research vs. “in the wild”
  3. 3. “Spirituality” vs. “Religion” Spirituality» “…the essential, core, central, integratingdimension or domain of life … the deepest partof a person’s life” (Connelly & Light, 2003, p. 37)» A feeling of connection with something largerthan oneself Religion» Beliefs, practices and ethics» Often derived from a religious body or faithtradition» Formal worship
  4. 4. “Larger than yourself” can mean many different things.
  5. 5. HCI research:fairly sparse98mentionsof spirituality or religionin ACM Digital Library22focused on it19research works8by oneperson
  6. 6. Research: Three types of useInstitutional: Support religious institutions inspreading their message and fostering members’spiritual growthExample: Large displays for religious services inAmerican mega-churches (Wyche, Medynskiy & Grinter, 2007)Example: Ministers’ useof computer tech forpastoral activities (Wyche,Hayes, Harvel & Grinter, 2006)
  7. 7. Research: Three types of usePractical: Support spiritual practice withoutdirectly participating in the experienceExample: Sabbath home automation in OrthodoxJewish households(Woodruff, Augustin &Foucault, 2007)
  8. 8. Research: Three types of useExperiential: Directly facilitate subjectiveexperienceExample: AltarNation for shared meditation in anonline community (Hlubinka, Beaudin, Tapia & An, 2002)Example: Sonic Cradleto facilitate mindfulnessmeditation (Vidyarthi, Riecke& Gromala, 2012)
  9. 9. Apps abound!A wide variety of usesand purposes* These do not include apps tagged onlyfor specific faiths.More than 6000* iPhone &iPad apps tagged withspiritually oriented keywordsOver 1500* with 4-starratings or better (out of 5)
  10. 10. Examples of uses “in the wild” Sacred texts Meditations Daily inspirations, verses, prayers, devotionals Education (adults and children) and stories Personal spiritual growth Prayer exchanges Quizzes and games Individual leaders Memorisation aids TV/radio, music, news, magazines, podcasts
  11. 11. Use: Sacred textsBhagavad-Gita HebrewBible AcroBible Listen theHoly Quran
  12. 12. Use: MeditationsBIA MeditationCatholic Meditationsfor Lent
  13. 13. Use: Daily inspirations, etc.Daily LightDaily Satsang
  14. 14. Use: Education and storiesOT39 Old TestamentFlashcards SikhNet AudioStories for Kids
  15. 15. Use: Personal spiritual growthAwakening JoyMuslim Purification
  16. 16. Use: Prayer exchangesPrayerWorksPrayerPartner
  17. 17. Use: Quizzes and gamesTorahificBible Trivia
  18. 18. Use: Individual leadersEddie L. LongRadhanath Swami
  19. 19. Use: Memorisation aidsLDS Scripture PowerMemorizationDivine Names – Memorizethe 99 names of Allah
  20. 20. Use: CommunicationsTathaastu MagazineThe Bridge RadioHay House Radio
  21. 21. Summary: A Huge IncongruityTechno-spiritual apps far outpace HCI research.The iTunes App Store offers several thousandapps for spirituality & religion.Yet the ACM Digital Library contains fewer thantwenty research works on HCI and techno-spirituality.Why might this be?
  22. 22. Why might this be?????????????Irrelevant?Not funded?Difficult?Sensitive?Risky?Unscientific??
  23. 23. Why: Irrelevant? Academics and scientists are, overall, lessreligious than the general population. Are HCI researchers simply notinterested because spirituality andreligion don’t relate to our lives?
  24. 24. Why: Sensitive? Religion is among the topics “notdiscussed” in polite company. Spirituality and religion can be sensitivetopics to ask people about. Some religious leaders threaten harm topeople who portray their faith in waysthey dislike.
  25. 25. Why: Difficult? Studying subjective experience is hard,even with recent advances inmethodology. Objective observation must give way toempathy and relationship. Spirituality and religion can be difficultfor people to articulate.
  26. 26. Why: Professionally risky? Do HCI researchers worry about beingaccused of bringing a religious agendato our work? Mark and I confess to having more thana little sympathy with this concern. Yet we are confident that aprofessional, academic approach canovercome the objections.
  27. 27. Why: Unscientific? Is the study of HCI and religionsomehow different from otherqualitative research that we conduct? Do researchers think that studyingreligion might give scientific credibilityto the religious beliefs?It does not.
  28. 28. Why: Not funded? Research agendas often are set bygovernment councils, which determinewhat topics to fund. We can address spirituality within topicsthat are currently funded. Other sources of funding may be available.Funding alone is not the issue.
  29. 29. Inspiration, activities & plansInspiration: Kannabiran, Bardzell & Bardzell’sCHI 2012 paper on HCI and sexualityAdaptation: Omitted discourse analysis;added comparison with large collection of appsActivities: Adding apps tagged for specific faithtraditions; analysing inventoryPlans: Focus on highly rated experiential apps;analyse user comments and identify salientdesign features
  30. 30. The bottom lineAny aspect of life that uses technologyis fair game for HCI research.Any area of life that touches so manyof the world’s people and usestechnology so heavily can be a subjectfor HCI research.Indeed, it must be. 
  31. 31. Merci!Elizabeth Buie and Mark Blythe@ebuie       @markblytheNorthumbria UniversityPhotograph by Elizabeth Buie