Chameleon Devices: Investigating More Secure and Discreet Mobile Interactions via Active Camouflaging

CHI '17 Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems

My Contribution


Longitudinal qualitative research

Usability Evaluation

Participatory design

Iterative design


Many users value the ability to have quick and frequent sight of their mobiles when in public settings. However, in doing so, they expose themselves to potential risks, ranging from being targets of robbery to the more subtle social losses through being seen to be rude or inattentive to those around them.

Inspiration and Motivation

In nature, some animals can blend into their environments to avoid being eaten or to reduce their impact on the ecosystem around them. Taking inspiration from these evolved systems we investigate the notion of chameleon approaches for mobile interaction design. Our probes were motivated, inspired and refined through extended interactions with people drawn from contexts with differing ranges of security and privacy concerns. Through longitudinal deployments on users’ own devices, our prototypes show the value of the concept.


Workshop with emergent users- The future mobile design workshops, then, surfaced a wide range of designs and user needs. Building on these, we created an initial version of a Chameleon Phone which we tested insitu with participants in South Africa and India.


Six months after the future mobile design workshops, we carried out two further workshops with participants in Langa (Cape Town) and Dharavi (an informal settlement in Mumbai) to focus specifically on chameleon-like opportunities. We recruited 16 participants in each location (32 people in total – 15F, 17M, aged 18–50) to take part. Participants lived in communities the same as (in the case of Langa) or similar to (Dharavi) participants in the first workshops. None of the participants had taken part in the previous studies.

Results: emergent users in Langa, Nairobi and Mumbai

The Langa, 11 out of 12 participants said they would leave their phone unattended when at home; however, this attitude was completely Reversed when in public. All participants said that they would not feel safe using their phone in public places, and that they kept their devices hidden in a pocket or a bag at all times. This overarching concern over device safety is reflected in the ratings given by participants (see Table 3) again confirming that visibly using mobiles in public is a major concern. In terms of notifications, 10 of 12 participants wanted to be able to discreetly see alerts, with privacy being the primary reason.

The Nairobi deployment, Security concerns were again dominant: all would leave their phone in view when at home, but 9 would keep it hidden (or even left at home) when in public. Discreetness was also seen as important, with privacy and rudeness given as the primary reasons for this.

Mumbai participants were similarly cautious about using their phones publicly – while they would happily leave their devices in full view at home, all 15 would keep their phones in a bag or pocket when in public. They were far less concerned with discreet notifications, however. Only five participants stated that they had ever wanted to see notifications discreetly, each stating privacy as the reason.