Milestone 5




“The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes ‘sight-seeing.’” – Daniel J. Boorstin

We define “travelers” as those who spend time immersed in cultures outside of their own, who often encounter new settings, situations, and things, and who actively seek to learn about these unfamiliar settings. Such travelers might include those who live, work, or study abroad, as well as those who relocate to other countries. Traveling to cross culturally usually involves a certain period of acclimation, during which, one learns to navigate the nuances of new cultural behaviors, becomes familiar with new foods, animals, and objects, and adapts to living in a new physical environment. This period of acclimation can be exciting and enjoyable for some, and slower and more difficult for others, especially if they are unprepared or not knowledgeable about this new culture. There exists an opportunity for the creation of a tool which helps travelers transition into new environments more smoothly.

Enter, VIA. VIA is a mobile phone application which augments this period of acclimation after a traveler has first entered a new culture. VIA is designed to help users navigate the nuances of unfamiliar cultural settings by providing users with tips and information regarding unfamiliar norms, behaviors and objects. In doing so, users are better able to learn, adapt and adjust to unfamiliar cultural settings. VIA encourages travelers to become more engaged with local cultures, enhances the experience of traveling, and promotes positive cross-cultural communication and relations.



In order to gain a deeper understanding of how people typically make sense of new objects and unfamiliar environments, our group conducted a formative study involving a cultural probe and interviews, to understand human behaviors and patterns while in the midst of unfamiliarity.

The design of our formative study was laid on the foundation of these core research questions.

  • How do people make sense of new surroundings — including new things, people, and behaviors?
    • What contextual factors contribute to how and when people first notice something new?
    • What makes people want to know more about that new thing?
    • What is the first visceral reaction when someone encounters a new thing, people, or behavior?
    • How do people go about learning about new objects, situations, and behaviors? What actions do they take?
    • How do people adapt to new situations, behaviors, and contexts?

The cultural probe elicited the in situ learning and making sense of the objects (including food and other tangible articles) and environments (social situations which involve others and the behavior of others). For cultural probes we were unable to send our participants to foreign countries, which we would have preferred, so we used proximal environments and situations.

Each participant of our cultural probe was asked to spend time in unfamiliar environments. Half of the participants were asked to interact with unfamiliar objects, and the other half were asked to spend time in an unfamiliar social setting. They were asked to complete a seyt of tasks during the activity and post it.. Examples of these tasks were:

“Unfamiliar Objects” Tasks:

  • Take photos (when appropriate) whenever you see something new/interesting. Write short caption or Tweet us your first impression #warwick612
  • Fill out a “customs declaration” card, documenting your observations about these new objects.
  • Complete a storyboard illustrating – how you might go about finding out information about an unfamiliar, yet interesting, object.

“Unfamiliar Environment” Tasks:

  • After spending time in an unfamiliar environment, write a postcard to a friend who is planning on visiting that same environment you visited — prepare him for his visit.
  • Write down three questions you had about this new social setting.

Each of these tasks helped us understand the steps that individuals take for making sense of unfamiliar surroundings. Additionally, each participant was asked to collect artifacts from these unfamiliar environments.

We recruited six participants for the cultural probe. They were between the ages of 20-30 and were from varied cultural backgrounds. The recruitment was done both by email and by asking our friends.

Each cultural probe was accompanied by a follow-up interview session. We quizzed the participants on the artifacts they collected. Additionally, we asked them questions about their experience at this new environment, and what was their strategy to make sense of their surroundings. Some of the open-ended questions were like:

  • “What struck you most out of what you experienced there?”
  • “Tell me about your first impressions.”
  • “What process or strategy did you take to find out more information about this unfamiliar object?”

After the interviews, we synthesized affinity notes from the collected data. We then distilled these affinity notes to come up with major findings. Each of these findings presented constraints and opportunities that needed to be addressed in the design.

The findings and corresponding design implications:

Finding 1
Different people have different levels of tolerance for ambiguity when it comes to discovering new objects and environments.

Design Implication
Although this was something that we were expecting at the beginning of our research, it identifies the types of users that our system should cater to. Either we can come up with a system that caters to both kinds of users or simply stick to one, thereby disregarding the other group completely.

Finding 2
Process of making sense of new objects and environments is iterative, deductive and takes the form of hypothesis testing. We found that everyone typically uses similar strategies when forming hypotheses, but when it comes to testing those hypotheses, people use very different strategies.

Design Implication
Our designs can support this process of hypothesis testing. We should be careful that we don’t completely take away or distract from the experience of discovering new things, but instead find ways to support and augment this experience.

Finding 3
There are nuances that exist between the processes of making sense of new objects, foods, etc., and making sense of unfamiliar behaviors and situations.

Design Implication
From our study we concluded that there is the need for immediate intimation in case of unfamiliar social situations when compared to coming across unfamiliar objects. But this intimation has to be subtle and non interruptive of the social experience.

Finding 4
Feedback in social situations may be delayed, incomprehensible, or non-existent, or an individual may be unaware of whatever feedback exists due to ignorance/unawareness of the larger situation.

Design Implication
This, again, was something that we had a fair idea about prior to the cultural probe. What was striking about this was the level of importance and the number of times that the participants mentioned as to how they had to wait awkwardly trying to devise strategies to understand the situation better.

Finding 5
The use of multiple senses is important for experiencing a situation and exploring the object as well as recalling it later.

Design Implication
This was something that was not consciously thought by us but was rather the direct outcome of the research. Hence it would be interesting to see how we can use multisense recall in our designs to help people make sense of new objects/situations they encounter.

Based on these design implications, each team member ideated three concepts for the proposed system. The team then discussed these concepts at large during the brainstorming session. Each concept was evaluated against these six dimensions: plausibility (how feasible in the idea is), demonstrability (how effectively can we demonstrate the concept), acceptability (self+social), usefulness (how useful would it be to the user), pleasurability (how much fun will the user have in using the system), and convenience (how convenient is it for the participant to use the system).  The result was a refined scope and concepts.

The three concepts that we chose were:

Informative Display

Information Map

Scavenger Hunt

For more detailed formative study, findings, concept ideation and refined concepts, see Milestone 2.



Following our formative study, where we investigated how people make sense of new and unfamiliar surroundings, our design concepts went through several more rounds of brainstorming, discussion, and refinement. The end result was an amalgamation of our earlier ideas, coupled with design implications taken from the formative study, measured against self-defined values of demonstrate-ability, feasibility, and innovation. The outcome, dubbed “VIA,” was a mobile platform that would provide information and tips about cultural norms and behaviors to users in situ . This way, a user could be better prepared and informed as to acceptable interactions with others in an unfamiliar culture — something that, from our formative study, participants identified as difficult to learn.

For our experience prototype, we conducted several user enactments to test a low fidelity version of VIA in a simulated, fictitious culture with fictitious norms, to see how users reacted to using VIA situationally. Participants were asked to navigate the norms of an unfamiliar culture with the aid of VIA. By creating a fictitious culture, it was guaranteed that  each participant would be unfamiliar with that culture’s behaviors. Furthermore, this allowed us to better control the norms and behaviors of the simulated environment, minimize noise which might have resulted from participants’ prior knowledge of existing cultures, and allowed us to focus on understanding the variables we adjusted with respect to the system’s design.

The fictional culture we created was the island country a Capella. In Capella, the norm when dining out, is to tip one’s waitress at the beginning of a meal, as an unspoken agreement of how much the diner wishes the waitress to attend to him throughout the meal. The higher the initial tip, the better the service. When visiting a local Capellian citizen’s home, the strictly acceptable behavior is to present your host with a gift of flowers, else the host might consider the guest ungrateful.

We mapped out the user enactments using a speed dating matrix and systematically varied different aspects of VIA, including the system’s level of proactivity, the level of ambiguity in the information provided, as well as the setting of the scenarios themselves. Our research questions included:

  • What is the ideal level of proactivity for system to intervene with advice about correct cultural behaviors?
    • Does the level of proactivity vary between social situations with lower risk (dining at a restaurant), versus social situations with higher risk (offending an important business client)?
  • What is the ideal level of ambiguity in the information/advice that the system provides the user?
    • Does the level of ambiguity vary between social situations with lower risk (dining at a restaurant), versus social situations with higher risk (offending an important business client)?

For more details and storyboards regarding our user enactments, see Milestone 2.5.

After the completion of the user enactments, followed by participant interviews, we analyzed the collected data and found that, in general, participants preferred different levels of ambiguity, proactivity and timing (meaning when information is provided), depending on the context of the situation itself. That being said, while there was an even split of preferences between low and medium proactivity, there was a unanimously negative reaction to the scenarios where VIA exhibited high proactivity. With respect to level of ambiguity, participants preferred information that was concise, directive and had a high level of clarity when provided information about norms and behaviors. When provided information regarding objects, participants’ preferences about ambiguity varied depending on their personalities. Overall, participants reacted positively to VIA, thus validating its usefulness in the context of learning and acclimating in unfamiliar cultures.

It was clear that the most important design implication which resulted from our findings was that VIA needed to be adaptive. VIA needed to vary its level of proactivity, ambiguity, and timing, depending on the current context of the user. Therefore, with input from our participants, we devised the concept of “impact level.” A situation’s defined “impact level” refers to the level of repercussions on oneself and surrounding others if one or more norms were to be broken. Depending on a situation’s current impact level (high, medium, or low), VIA would vary its proactivity, ambiguity, and timing, accordingly, in order to provide the user with optimal levels of information.

Detailed findings, design implications, and definition of “impact level” may be found in Milestone 3.



This envisionment video demonstrates one traveler’s journey to a new country, and shows how VIA assists them along their way by providing them with relevant and timely information. VIA starts working from the moment they plan their departure, to their arrival back home and all the moments in between. One aspect of VIA that this video captures that our previous demos did not is the ability for VIA to help prepare a user for an upcoming trip to an unfamiliar place. However, the video does not completely represent VIA’s adaptability and ability to adjust its proactivity based on specific situations.



VIA is a mobile phone application which helps users navigate unfamiliar cultures and norms. VIA provides users with helpful tips and information regarding the behaviors, norms, and other aspects of unfamiliar cultures, so that users are able to better learn, adapt, and acclimate into new environments.

The information that VIA provides users comes from a variety of sources. The predominant information source will be crowd-sourced data from other travelers, though VIA may also aggregate data from search engines such as Google, Wikipedia, or Yelp. VIA will tailor the information that each user sees by finding tips from others “like the user,” or voted popular by “others like the user.” (For instance, from other travelers who are also from the user’s home country.) This way, the user sees relevant data from others with whom he shares common ground, and who might be familiar with the social contexts the user is experiencing. Furthermore, information presented about normative behaviors will be clear, concise and directive. (Milestone 3, Finding II) Information presented about objects (food, etc) may be less directive, and more neutral and exploratory, so a user may decide for himself how he wants to proceed when encountering a new object. (Milestone 3, Finding II)

VIA is an intelligent, adaptive, mobile system which will provide users with just the right type of information, at just the right time. First, through a combination of mobile sensing technologies and machine-learning techniques, (such as GPS, calendar info and Google search info, etc) VIA will be intelligent enough to understand when a user is about to enter, or is currently immersed in, a possible unfamiliar cultural environment. Based on this information, VIA will determine what type of information to push to the user, and at what level of proactivity, and at what time. VIA operates using two levels of proactivity: low (user initiates action by opening the application and searches for information) and medium (VIA alerts the user by sending a standard push notification). The type of information (this includes what type of content, the specificity of that content, etc) level of proactivity, and the timing of the information delivery is determined based upon a situation’s “impact level.”

A situation’s “impact level” (a term coined by one of our participants) refers to the level of repercussions, consequences, or effects on other people, if any norm(s) were to be violated. For example, tipping the incorrect amount in the United States might be considered “low impact,” as the only consequences that might result are poor service and a mildly offended waitress. Tipping a waitress in New Zealand, however, might be considered a  “high impact” situation, as tipping (according to the experiences of P3) might be taken as a sign for sexual solicitation. A situation’s “impact level” may be determined by a number of factors. Further work and research needs to be conducted in this area, but these factors could include: repercussions, immediacy, level of specificity and level of difference. (Milestone 3, Finding III)

Therefore, a situation with a higher “impact level” would indicate to VIA to use a medium level of proactivity, and to provide more directive information compared to a situation with a lower “impact level,” which would require less proactivity from VIA. Moreover, the proactivity of VIA for any one given situation will also adapt based on how familiar the user is with the new norm. Upon first entering a restaurant in an unfamiliar country, VIA might alert the user proactively of acceptable tipping behaviors in that country. Once the user has entered his second and third restaurants, however, VIA should decrease its level of proactivity.



Although we explored most of the aspects of VIA, there were still some limitations in our research and prototyping. First of all, the initial data gathering was difficult. Due to the scope of the project, and factors such as the time and money, we were not able to ask our our initial interviewees to go abroad and test how they would have encountered a new culture or environment. Therefore, we could only ask our participants to go to local foreign markets and other unfamiliar locations to gather information about how they would behave in these similar situations. The information we collected may be biased because participants may behave differently when they are truly abroad.

The second concern was about the reliability of the crowdsourced data. Crowdsourced data could present a bias because people have different opinions towards same culture. If crowdsourced data is not validated by an authorized system, people may be misled by inappropriate information. Also, users may face majority and minority influence while they are reading crowdsourced data. It is always easier to trust the comments or information that most people vote on regardless of its authenticity. In addition, the crowdsourced data may contain spam and trolling issues by public users, such as advertisements, abusive expressions, and etc, which may damage the environment of VIA’s community. Moreover, information from “users like me” may be also biased. Even people from same regions and cultural background may have different knowledge and understanding of the new environment, so the information coming from similar users determined by the system may lead the user in the wrong direction.

Our third concern is that, if VIA is so good and helps users in every situation they need, could there be a possibility that users become too reliant on VIA instead of thinking critically by themselves. Although all kinds of pervasive designs are to help people live more easily and without any hassles, in the case of VIA people may lose their own joy of discovering new things. They are less likely to think creatively while travelling to a different country. They may not want to spend time thinking of what they need in this trip because they know VIA will always intimate at the right time. It is a common controversial social issue for the modern technological products.

We also face some technical issues in the design of VIA. The sensors to detect the context of situation are difficult to realize. If the sensors don’t decipher the situation correctly and push information in, it may ruin the experience for the user.



Thus by proposing VIA, we aim to alleviate the difficulties that travelers face on their journeys to different unfamiliar environments and help them make the transition into a newer culture smoothly.

What VIA does cleverly over other means to learn about an unfamiliar culture is that it gives the user the necessary information at the right time. VIA is careful enough not to interrupt the experience of the user in the new environment rather judge the impact of the situation and provide necessary feedback based on the same. VIA would do this by being context aware using location, movement and other kinds of data through normal phone sensors. Not only does VIA, help the user acclimatize himself with a new environment but a user can also ask VIA questions about his surroundings or any culture he wants to learn from. Over a period of time, VIA learns much more about the traveler and would be able to help the traveler in a more personalized basis.

Finally, we would like to reiterate that VIA is a one stop shop for any traveler, preparing him before the travel, helping him and guiding him through different cultures and by giving him just the amount of information he desires in any particular instance.


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