Tom Erickson

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Picture of Tom Erickson

The face that crashed a Japanese face recognition system (it assumed that hair lines are located over the eyes -- those cultural assumptions will get you every time!)


What made Wells a true visionary was not so much his ability to predict so many of the technological marvels of the late twentieth century, but his prescience in setting them in a world where men were still wearing neckties. --Geoffroy Nunberg

Sorry. I don't understand the word sorry. --Computer error message.

Press Enter to Exit. --Computer 'help' message

Plans are worthless, planning is invaluable. --Dwight Eisenhower

Q: So, has success changed you?
A: Yeah, it's changed me. You know how when you're eating pistachios and you find one that's hard to get the shell open? Well, I don't bother with them anymore. --Bob Weir

Team building comes from the exchange of code. Team building comes from the exchange of code. When my code calls your code, we are a team. Before that, no team!
--Apratim Purakayasth

A few essays

You may be amused by part 2 of the story of my trip to Maui (The Key), or interested by my description of an area of Yoesemite that is recovering from a fire (After the Fire).

If you would like to stick your toe in more technical waters, you might like Ask Not for Whom the Cell Phone Tools (eventually published as Some Problems with the Notion of Context Aware Computing), a one page essay on cultural differences,[as pdf]and a poem on the state of theory in my field called Theory Theory, all of which have amusing bits.

In a more serious vein, you might be interested in reading about how telecommuting has impacted my life in Work and Spirit, On the Experience of Remote Meetings and, Some Notes on Telework.


I'm an interaction designer and researcher at IBM's T. J. Watson Research Center in New York, to which I telecommute from my home in Minneapolis. My research focuses on designing systems that enable groups of people to interact coherently and productively: originally focused on online systems, the scope of my work has expanded to include real world environments ranging from rooms to cities.

More generally, I am interested in topics such as conversatin (online and offline), genre theory, pattern languages, urban design, real and virtual communities, and the sociology of human-human interaction, all of which inform my approach to systems design. I've been at IBM since June '97; before that I spent 9 years at Apple, and before that 5 years in a now-defunct startup that competed with another startup called Lotus.

For fun I bicycle, hike and read. I can be reached at a gif of my email address.

My Work

Babble social visualization

Online Collaboration

Two themes pervade my work on online collaboration: persistence and visualization. The fact that online activity leaves traces that persist – meaning that they can be saved, searched, browsed, annotated and replayed – has radical implications for the future of online collaboration. I also believe that the ability of people to have convivial and productive online interaction is restricted by the lack of the cues that make our face to face conversation graceful and coherent. Much of my work has explored ways of using shared, minimalist visualizations (such as the one to the left) to give online participants a sense of who and how many are present, and what they're doing.

I've designed shared visualizations – which I refer to as social proxies –for chat, online meetings, auctions, queues, and other situtations. You can get a short overview here, or an in depth treatment here.

Downtown Chicago reflection

Cities, Crowds and Sustainable Design

The majority of the world's population now lives in cities, and their growth shows no signs of slowing. Both the pressures of continued immigration and the cumulative effects of unsustainable water, energy, and waste management policies create a vital need to address the problems of urban areas My current work at IBM is centered on "Smarter Cities." But whereas IBM's approach has to do with using sensors to gather information that allows urban systems to be analyzed and optimized, I'm interested in how to tap the local knowledge and expertise of urban inhabitants, and how to design systems that aid societies in shifting their collective behaviors – what I call "crowdshifting."

I've been working on residential resource consumption feedback systems and citizen engagement as part of the Social Infrastructures and Crowd Architectures projects. Externally, I also collaborate with the Group Lens lab at the Univeristy of Minnesota on their remarkable Cyclopath project (for which they deserve all the credit).

Tall pile of papers on edge of desk

Personal Information Management

My earliest work in HCI – carried out mostly during my tenure at Apple – was focused on personal information management. I'm interested in how people create personal systems – piles, files, annotations, etc. – to support their own knowledge work, and how technology might support those personal systems.

I've recently had the humbling experience of re-reading some of my early papers. One from 1991 predicted that one day it would be possible for ordinary people to access as many as 10,000 databases via the internet, and was quite concerned with the difficulty of query languages. On the other hand, I think my 1996 paper on "social hypertext" was pretty much on the mark regarding the social nature of onine activity, although unfortunately I totally missed the rise of online advertising which really altered the emergence of social features on the web. A nice recap of this line of work can be found in my slideshare presentation on Personal Information Ecologies.

Ray of light shining thru Oculus in Pantheon

Methods, Frameworks and Theory

My chief interest is what is going on in the 'real world,' but to come to grips with that a variety of conceptual tools are needed. Among my longest running interests in this area is the concept of pattern languages – see my Lingua Francas paper – and I maintain a directory of work on patterns in HCI. I also have had a long interest in the use of stories as a design tool – see this essay on storytelling – as well as scenarios and prototyping.

Although my work on Social Translucence has begun attracting attention a decade after its publication, I am ambivalent about the role of theory. I believe our field is too young for a grand overarching theory, but that more limited meso- frameworks and theories can be helpful as ways of enabling the discipline to take coherent approaches to particular problems and disciplines. I make this case in my essay Five Lenses for Interaction Design, and a bit more humorously in my poem, Theory Theory.

Selected Publications - Personal and Collective Favorites

Farrell, R., Lenchner, J., Kephart, J., Webb, A., Muller, M., Erickson, T., Melville, D., Bellamy, R., Gruen, D. Connell, J. Soroker, D., Aaron, A., Trewin, S., Ashoori, M., Ellis, J., Gaucher, B. and Gil, D. Symbiotic Cognitive Computing. AI Magazine, Vol. 37, #3, Fall 2016.

Erickson, T. Creating Kairos. Interactions, XXII.4, July/August 2015.

Erickson, T., Li, M., Kim, Y., Deshpande, A., Sahu, S., Chao, T., Sukaviriya, P. and Naphade. The Dubuque Electricity Portal: Evaluation of a City-Scale Residential Electricity Consumption Feedback System. Proc. CHI 2013. ACM Press, 2013. Best paper award and Computational Sustainability award.

Erickson, T. Empathy or Efficiency: A Tale of Two Parking Meters. [IBM's A Smarter Planet Blog]. August 3, 2012.

Erickson, T., Shami, N.S., Kellogg, W.A. and Levine, D.W. Synchronous Interaction Among Hundreds: An Evaluation of a Conference in an Avatar-based Virtual EnvironmentProc. CHI 2011. ACM Press, 2011. Best Paper Award.

Panciera, K., Priedhorsky, R., Erickson, T., and Terveen, L. Lurking? Cyclopaths? A Quantitative Lifecycle: Analysis of User Behavior in a Geowiki. Proc. CHI 2010. ACM Press, 2010. Best Paper Nominee.

Farrell, R. G., Danis, C. M., Erickson, T., Ellis, J. B., Christensen, J. E. Bailey, M. and Kellogg, W. A. A Picture and a Thousand Worlds: Visual Scaffolding for the Developing World. International Journal of Handheld Computing Research. 2010.

Erickson, T. ‘Social’ Systems: Designing Digital Systems that Support Social Intelligence. AI and Society, 23:2, 147-166, 2009.

Erickson, T., Danis, C., Kellogg W. A., and Helander, M. E. Assistance: The Work Practices of Human Administrative Assistants and their Implications for IT and Organizations. The Proceedings of CSCW 2008. New York: ACM Press, 2008. Best Paper Award.

Ding, X., Erickson, T., Kellogg, W.A., Levy, S., Christensen, J.E., Sussman, J., Wolf, T.V. and Bennett, W.E. An Empirical Study of the Use of Visually Enhanced VoIP Audio Conferencing: The Case of IEAC. The Proceedings of CHI 2007. New York: ACM Press, 2007.

Erickson, T. ‘Social’ Systems: Designing Digital Systems that Support Social Intelligence. AI and Society, 23:2 147-166, 2009.

Erickson, T., Kellogg, W. A., Laff, M., Sussman, J. Wolf, T. V., Halverson, C. A., Edwards, D. A. A Persistent Chat Space for Work Groups: The Design, Evaluation and Deployment of Loops. The Proceedings of DIS 2006. New York: ACM Press, 2006.

Weisz, J. D., Erickson, T., and Kellogg, W.A. Broadcast Synchronous Messaging: The Use of ICT. Proc. CHI 2006. ACM Press: April, 2006. Nominated for a best paper award.

Erickson, T. Five Lenses: Towards a Toolkit for Interaction Design [as pdf] Theories and Practice in Interaction Design (ed. S. Bagnara, G. Crampton-Smith, G. and Salvendy.) Lawrence Erlbaum: April, 2006.

Erickson, T. and Kellogg, W.A. Social Proxy. The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction. Berkshire Publishing Group, LLC, 2004. Also see

Erickson, T. "Designing Visualizations of Social Activity: Six Claims" The Proceedings of CHI 2003: Extended Abstracts, pp 846-847. New York: ACM Press, 2003.

Erickson, T. and Laff, M. "The Design of the 'Babble' Timeline: A Social Proxy for Visualizing Group Activity over Time." In Human Factors in Computing Systems: The Proceedings of CHI 2001. ACM Press, 2001.

Erickson, T. "Lingua Francas for Design: Sacred Places and Pattern Languages." In The Proceedings of DIS 2000 (Brooklyn, NY, August 17-19, 2000). New York: ACM Press, 2000, pp 357-368.

Erickson, T. & Kellogg, W. "Social Translucence: An Approach to Designing Systems that Mesh with Social Processes." In Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction. Vol. 7, No. 1, pp 59-83. New York: ACM Press, 2000.

Erickson, T. Smith, D. N., Kellogg, W. A., Laff, M. R., Richards, J. T., and Bradner, E. "Socially Translucent Systems: Social Proxies, Persistent Conversation, and the Design of 'Babble.'" In Human Factors in Computing Systems: The Proceedings of CHI '99. ACM Press, 1999.

Erickson, Thomas. "Rhyme and Punishment: The Creation and Enforcement of Conventions in an On-Line Participatory Limerick Genre." In the Proceedings of the Thirty-Second Hawaii International Conference on Systems Science. (ed. J. F. Nunamaker, Jr. R. H. Sprague, Jr.), January, 1999.

All publications...

Unpublished essays and reports


Various Projects, Images Only


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