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|CHI 2003 – New Horizons, But What Are They?|
|SAP Developer Network|
By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – October 20, 2003
Last April, I attended the panel Post-Cognitivist HCI: Second-wave Theories at the CHI 2003 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Fort Lauderdale, Florida – one of several events that have drawn my attention to changing paradigms in the field of human-computer interaction (HCI). According to Jim Hollan, who also attended the panel, past HCI research has focused on individual cognition and tasks; today the focus is shifting toward group work and group aspects. New research and theories are needed to accommodate this shift. Distributed cognition is one such new approach, which indicates the move from the information-processing paradigm to new paradigms that go beyond it.
Why is it interesting to present this new theory in an edition on xApps? xApps are a new paradigm, too, a paradigm for the design of software applications. These new applications, also called "cross applications," bridge the barriers of old enterprise software and "cut across" traditional borders; they are also inherently process-oriented. Process-orientation, however, typically implies that several people are involved throughout the course of a process. While traditional HCI theories fail to deal with social and cultural aspects, new approaches set off to tackle these aspects, too.
In the following article, I will briefly present the main principles of the distributed cognition theory and will list its tenets. I will conclude the article by asking how this theory might guide software design, particularly xApps design.
Distributed Cognition has been proposed by James Hollan, Edwin Hutchins, and David Kirsch as a new research direction. In their paper Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-Computer Interaction Research they laid down the basis of this theory. My article is mainly based on this paper.
In their paper the authors provide a very concise characterization of their new approach:
The theory of Distributed Cognition, like any cognitive theory, seeks to understand the organization of cognitive systems. Unlike traditional theories, however, it extends the reach of what is considered cognitive beyond the individual to encompass interactions between people and with resources and materials in the environment.
This theory is committed to two basic principles that distinguish it from other theories:
When one applies these principles to the observation of human activity, various distributions of cognitive processes become apparent. The following 3 are of particular interest to the authors:
Here is a short overview of the issues, as Jim Hollan presented them at the CHI 2003 conference:
Unit of analysis
|individual person||all – the system is larger than individuals, all sizes of social networks|
|manipulation of symbols of individual actors||functional systems, groups, space/time dimension|
|controlled experiments, cognitive properties of individuals||ethnography, cognitive properties of systems|
The "tenets" of the Distributed Cognition theory are as follows:
The idea of socially distributed cognition, prefigured by Roberts (1964), is becoming increasingly popular. Recently, the idea has emerged that social organization is itself a form of cognitive architecture. Distributed cognition extends this notion by including interactions between people and their environment, in addition to phenomena that emerge in social interactions.
In contrast to computer-inspired models of the information-processing paradigm, for distributed cognition it is important that cognition be embodied: Minds are not representational engines, whose primary function is to create internal models of the external world. Instead, the organization of the mind is an emergent property of interactions between internal and external resources. This means that work materials are more than mere stimuli for a disembodied cognitive system.
Distributed cognition also holds that the study of cognition is not separable from the study of culture because agents live in a complex cultural environment. Culture not only emerges out of the activities of human agents, it also shapes cognitive processes - especially those that are distributed over people, artifacts, and environments. Culture provides us with intellectual tools that enable us to accomplish things, but it may also blind us to other ways of thinking. According to the authors, distributed cognition returns culture, context, and history to the picture of cognition.
According to the authors, there is a need for a new kind of cognitive ethnography to properly investigate the functional properties of distributed cognitive systems. The methodological focus should be shifted to events and activities; researchers are not only interested in what people know, but in how they go about using what they know to do what they do. Cognitive ethnography employs a multitude of specific observation techniques, many of them developed in other disciplines, with special attention to audio and video recordings and the analysis of recordings of events. A step further would be to design and conduct ethnographic "natural" experiments.
The authors developed and refined the theory of distributed cognition for more than ten years. Much of their inspiration originates from their research on ship navigation and airplane cockpit automation. Ship bridges and airplane cockpits are work places where several people collaborate in a complex technical environment to perform critical tasks. Hutchins' work on airplane cockpits, for example, lead to the development of new tools based on the results of careful on-site observation and ethnographic analyses.
Hutchins's observation that in airplane cockpits people shift from attending to a representation of a thing to the thing itself and back again without problems (in this case it was the fuel indicator panel of an airplane) provides a good example of how ethnographic analysis can inspire design. His observation is especially well suited to be transferred to computer systems, and the authors do just that. Computer screens confront users with a virtual world that represents a multitude of different objects. In direct-manipulation systems, such as today's graphical user interfaces (GUI), the on-screen objects are so closely connected to the objects represented that users often feel that they manipulate the objects themselves. To achieve this feeling of immediacy, it is essential that meaningful interface actions have meaningful counterparts in the system: When dragging an icon from one folder to another, users do not think of just moving icons, but rather of moving the actual folders and their content.
xApps support complex business processes, such as organizing a company merger. For such a critical process it is essential that users are provided with rich, meaningful representations of the process itself, and of the objects and people involved, in order to make informed decisions throughout the process and to coordinate activities with collaborators. Distributed cognition offers the concepts and methodology to design such representations for the benefit of xApps users.
Distributed cognition is specifically tailored to understanding interactions among people and technology. The central hypothesis is that the cognitive and computational properties of systems can be accounted for in terms of the organization and propagation of constraints set by the richness of real environments (for example, work places equipped with high technology). In particular, this theory suggests a focus on the distribution of cognitive processes across members of social groups, coordination between internal and external structure, and how products of earlier events can transform the nature of later events. The theory thus takes into account both a people's environment and their cultural and historical background.
xApps extend software applications across traditional borders and by the very nature of their process-based character require a shift from a focus on individuals to a focus on groups that collaborate in what are often highly complex and demanding tasks. These groups are supported by a technological environment, in which xApps applications will one day play a central role.
In brief, distributed cognition offers the theoretical orientation and guidance needed for studying, designing, and improving complex human-computer environments, such as those supported by xApps.
James Hollan, Edwin Hutchins, & David Kirsch (2000). Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-Computer Interaction Research. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 7(2), pp. 174-196.