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

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.



Professionally, I’m interested in how people use technology to communicate and collaborate. I’m particularly curious about what they do to adapt technology to their needs, and how to design systems that are easier to learn, use, and adapt.

I will be retiring in the Spring of 2018. I do not expect to work elsewhere or consult. But "retirement" with its connotations of retreat does not seem apt -- I will continue to pursue my professional interests, as well as exploring new areas. I can be reached at a gif of my email address.


The rest of this site contains materials produced over the course of my career, which may be of interest to those in my field. There is a one-page bio here, the CV is here, and a handful of my presentations can be found on slideshare. The professional blurb:

“Thomas Erickson is a social scientist and designer. He studies how people interact with technology and uses what he learns to design new technologies and systems; his particular interest is in the ways in which mutual awareness is entwined with human communication and collaboration. Originally focused on online systems, the scope of his work evolved to include real world environments from rooms to cities.

"Over the course of his career, Erickson has authored over forty patents, published over a hundred articles, edited two books, and participated in the design of systems ranging from research prototypes to commercial products. He was named a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) in 2009 for his contributions to interaction design and social computing and for outstanding service to ACM.

"Prior to IBM, he worked for Apple Research for nearly 10 years, and as ‘user interface czar’ in a small startup — developing software for the first IBM PC —for 5 years.”

Current Lines of Inquiry

Piano (and physical learning). I started learning the piano (starting from zero) in 2017. It is interesting (and humbling) to learn something with no prior foundations, and I find the learning process fascinating: Why do my hands find it easy to do some things (play in a mirror image), but difficult to do othes (play stacatto in one hand, and legatto in the other)?

HCI as 'partnership.' A current theme in my field is that as technology gets smarter it will change from a tool to a partner. I have reservations -- mostly because I think AI is very "A" and not very "I", and that partnership requires a lot of intelligence. Although I think it is still giving AI too much credit, I've become interested in human-animal 'partnerships,' such as shepherds and sheepdogs, as a possible model.

My Work at IBM and Apple

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."

For a taste of this work, you can read a short essay on smart parking meters, or an academic paper on a city-scale project on using smart meters to give residents feedback on their resource use.

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 overlooked the rise of online advertising which drastically altered the social ecology of the web. A 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. For over a decade I maintained a directory of work on patterns in HCI, although it is no longer current. I also have had a long term 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

Niemanstverdreit, and Erickson, T. Recurring Meetings: An Experiential Account of Repeating Meetings in a Large Organization.Proc. of the ACM on CSCW, November 2017.

Xu, Bin., Ellis, J., and Erickson, T. Attention from Afar: Simulating the Gazes of Remote Participants in Hybrid Meetings. Proc. DIS 2017, June 2017.

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.

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.

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.

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