Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Book Summary: Where the Action Is - The Foundations of Embodied Interaction (chapter 3)

Where the Action Is; The Foundations of Embodied Interaction
By Paul Dourish
MIT Press, 2001

Chapter 3 - Social Computing

In this chapter, Dourish explores the ways in which sociological concepts and methods are increasingly being leveraged in the design, development and evaluation of interactive systems. Social computing is defined as the application of sociological understanding to the design of interactive systems. Leveraging a sociological approach to designing interactive systems makes sense because of the context in which computation takes place: first, the work that computation does and the ways we put computation to use are embedded in a fabric of relationships between people, institutions and practices; second, the system mediates a "social" interaction between the designer and the user. This communication is founded on a background of common understandings.

Dourish focuses on two social computing approaches - Technomethodology, and the Locales Framework. These approaches share three common characteristics (in the author's own words):
  1. "They are concerned with the details of the organization of social conduct rather than broad social trends.
  2. "They are primarily oriented toward real activities and experiences rather than abstractions or models.
  3. "They all adopt an anthropological and ethnographical perspective on collecting, interpreting, and using field materials."

Before delving into these two social computing paradigms I will provide an overview of several concepts that provide a foundation for these approaches (Ethnography, Ethnomethodology, Abstraction, Space, and Place). Note that the concept definitions provided by Dourish are often more specific than the general definition to which the terms usually refer. I'll do my best to be brief and clear.

ethonography places an emphasis on the detailed understanding of culture through intensive, long-term involvement. Ethnographers explore not only what the members of a culture do, but also what they experience in doing it. In order to achieve this they attempt to avoid their preconceptions to understand and represent the culture from a member's point of view.

The Chicago School introduced an ethnographic approach to studying working practice in the 1950's. This led to the adoption of these types of fieldwork-oriented approaches in Human-Computer Interaction to support the discovery of system requirements and the evaluation of systems in use. Ethnographic approaches focuses on "work practice" rather than "work process." Work process refers to the standardized procedures that mandate how work must be carried out; Work practice refers to the informal practices that people develop to make processes work in the face of everyday contingencies. Practice is always dynamic, whereas processes are static.

An ethnographic approach enables designers to understand how a system can work in the context where it will be put to use, and whether a system is working effectively as embodied by a group of people using the system to do real work in a real setting. Dourish shares two examples that illustrate these benefits, the ethnography of an Air Traffic Control Center and that of a Print Shop (I won't go into details regarding either of them here).

Ethnomethodology focuses on how commonsense methods that people use to manage and organize their every day behavior create orderly social conduct. This approach is in distinct contrast to traditional approaches to sociology that leveraged abstract theories to account for our social reality. The focus of ethnomethodology is investigating the commonsense understandings - these are described as "what everyone knows that everyone knows". These are the understandings by which people make sense of the world and make it available for their actions and activities.

The impact Ethnomethodology had on the world of sociology was to focus the attention on detailed investigation of practice to find within it evidence for the ways that orderly social conduct is achieved. In other words, this concentrates "on the experiences of everyday life rather than on abstract reasoning." Though ethnomethodology is a small strand within sociology, it has had great impact on Human-Computer Interaction (and interaction design).

The concept of "accountability" is central to this school of thought. Accountability refers to the "observable and reportable" nature of actions within a language community (language community refers to any group that shares commonly held understandings - i.e. of doctors, musicians or church-goers). In other words, this means that members within a community can make sense of the action of other members based on the context where the action arises. The concept of accountability is based on the reciprocal relationship between action and understanding - the methods we use for engaging in action are the same methods used for understanding the actions of others.

In Dourish's own words "where abstraction is the gloss that describes how something can be used and what it will do, the implementation is the part under the covers that describes how it will work." Abstraction provides the basis for software systems. On the other hand abstraction also hide the information about how a system is doing what it does (i.e. how the perceived actions are organized). According to the notion of accountability, this information is key to enabling others to understand the actions.

Space & Place:
The concept of space serves as a central model and metaphor for our thinking and language. Spatial metaphors are common because they are based on a feature of our physical world that is shared by all human beings. The notion of space is primarily concerned with physical, or metaphorically physical, properties. On the other hand, the concept of place is concerned with social properties.

So while space refers to the configuration of people and artifacts within a setting, place refers to the behavioral framework for a setting that is conveyed by common social understandings.


This term was developed by Dourish to describe a design perspective that focuses on creating a deeper relationship between ethnomethodology and technological design. It is characterized by the following criteria:

  1. "It attempts to draw not simply on a set of observations of a specific working setting, but rather on ethnomethodology's fundamental insights about the organization of action as being a moment-to-moment, naturally occurring, improvisational response to practice problems.
  2. "It attempts to relate these understanding not simply to the design of specific interactive system aimed at a specific setting, but rather, at the basic, fundamental principles upon which software systems are developed-ideas such as abstraction, function, substitution, identity, and representation."

The main challenge that Dourish address in regards to technnomethodology is how to reconcile the concepts of abstraction and accountability. To overcome this hurdle, a system needs to exhibit three primary features:

  1. The account of the system's behavior is connected to the actual behavior that it describes.
  2. The account of the system's behavior emerges from the action itself, it is not as a commentary about the action.
  3. The account must be based on the current specific behavior of the system, in its current configuration, carrying this specific task.
Locales Framework

The notion of locale is captured in the concept of place. The Locale's Framework was developed to provide system designers with a practical understanding of the social organization of activity that can be leveraged to impact their designs. This framework is based on five components, called aspects:

  1. Foundations: This includes the social world being addressed (community that shares a common action or goal and ability to communicate to establish a collective orientation), the sites (spaces) and means (furnishings) that make up the locale (place).
  2. Civic Structure: This is focused on how the local relates to other locales. "In the same way that meaning of action is constituted by other actions that come before and after them, so, too, can locales only be understood in relation to others."
  3. Individual Views: This addresses the different perspectives, concerns, roles, and forms of participation provided by the individuals who inhabit the locale.
  4. Interaction Trajectories: This refers to the emergence of a specific course of actions evolved through time and involving multiple actors (individuals). This aspect situates actions within particular histories, and, from a broader perspective, creates the notion of the collective action of social worlds.
  5. Multuality: This is a tough one to explain, so I'll plagiarize: "aspect refers to the ways in which sites and means are made manifest to members of a social world, and the way in which those members and their actions are made manifest to others through the sites and means."

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