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A Distributed Cognition Approach to Designing Digital Work Materials for Collaborative Workplaces

Cognitive scientists at the University of California at San Diego have been studying how annotation improves the coordination of work by small groups of people, in both co-located and separated workplaces. The project's findings are expected to have practical implications for activities including collaborative scientific research, education, and commercial aviation.

The researchers, funded by a National Science Foundation grant, have utilized a study framework based on "distributed cognition." As explained in an NSF award abstract, "distributed cognition provides a reorientation of how we think about designing and supporting human computer interaction. It permits one to move the boundary of the cognitive unit of analysis out beyond the skin of the individual to include the material and social environment as components of a larger cognitive system. This focuses attention on the processes by which people take advantage of both internal and external resources to organize their actions."

"For the design of workplaces, this means that work materials are more than stimuli for disembodied cognitive systems," the researchers wrote. "Work materials become elements of the cognitive system itself, and cognition becomes an emergent property of the interactions among people and work materials."

The three-year research project has been carried out under the direction of Professors David J. Kirsh, Edwin Hutchins, and James D. Hollan, all with the Department of Cognitive Science at UC San Diego.

Kirsh says that for the purposes of the study, annotation means marks on paper, marks on the wall, paper that has been put in places, small symbols on a whiteboard, and other annotations made in the course of interacting with people.

For example, he says, when test subjects are talking about how to redesign a workplace, "they begin to make annotations all along the diagram to allow them to talk to each other, either without getting up from their chair or, when they're in distributed venues, so that they can fix the reference of discussion." Kirsh adds that "the point of annotation is that it figures in coordinating the cognition, coordinating the activity, either between the person and what they're working on or between multiple people in a team activity."

The point of doing basic research on annotation, Kirsh says, "was to see how we could introduce digital support, such as use of a mouse anywhere where people who are not in the same room, but who are cooperating together synchronously, in two venues, could manage their collective attention on representations or on Web sites."

The UC San Diego researcher observes that "annotation is now, with the advent of tablet PCs, entering a new phase of importance. Research is pervasive on annotation. I think we've barely scratched the surface of how people are going to begin to coordinate their activities."

According to Kirsh, the research project's potential application to commercial aviation would be improved understanding of the way pilots and copilots work together in a cockpit. That, in turn, could mean it would be possible to redesign some of the cockpit instruments to help minimize error.

"Currently, there are annotations in there and things that people do," he says. "There are little devices like speed bugs, or little things you can turn or twist and that leave markers in various places. You can design better ones if you understand what kind of mental models people have and how the mental model is activated by partially explicit information in the environment. So by adding a little something extra in the environment, you can improve the quality of someone's mental model, or help them recover from errors."

Kirsh says the research, funded under the NSF's KDI (Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence) program, has been pursued along multi-disciplinary lines. "The methodologies that are involved derive from refinements of anthropology and psychology, and the techniques of analysis are very much in cognitive science, which is itself a multi-disciplinary field. The creation of prototypes comes from computer science and engineering. So it's very multi-disciplinary."


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