Finding Decisions Through Artefacts           


Alan Dix, Devina Ramduny, Paul Rayson, Victor Ochieng, Ian Sommerville and Adrian Mackenzie


In Proceedings of Human Computer Interaction, International 2003.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003.

Full reference:
A. Dix, D. Ramduny, P. Rayson, V. Ochieng, I. Sommerville and A. Mackenzie (2003). Finding Decisions Through Artefacts. In Volume 1 of Proceedings of HCI International 2003. J. Jacko and C. Stephandis (ed.). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003. pp. 78-82
Download full paper (PDF, 51K)
Alan's pages on ecology of information

keywords: decision tracking, meeting minutes, archaeologically-inspired artefact analysis, transect analysis

extended abstract

Ethnographic studies emphasise the importance of artefacts as the means by which individuals represent, mediate and negotiate work in collaborative settings [[H95]]. This is also recognised in approaches such as distributed cognition [[H90b]] and situated action [[S87]] as well as some more traditional cognitive models [[H90]]. Work over several years has also studied the way in which artefacts in their setting act as triggers for action and placeholders for formal and informal processes [[D98,D02]] and on the centrality of artefacts as the focus of work and as the locus of communication through the artefact (feedthrough) [[D94]].

Because of this we have proposed various forms of artefact centred analysis to run alongside more direct methods of observation [[**refs**]]. We consider both:

Artefact centred sources are particularly useful where an activity occurs or is only active infrequently so that direct observation may fail to record any instance or part of the activity at all.

In the Tracker project we are seeking to understand the nature of decisions in teams and organisations; in particular the way past decisions are acted on, referred to, forgotten about and otherwise function as part of long term organisational activity. We have engaged in ethnographic studies, but find that 'real' decisions being made between meetings or implicitly assumed, but rarely explicitly voiced during official meetings. Furthermore interactions between decisions take place over periods of month or years. In other words they have exactly the properties that make artefact centred approaches attractive.

We refer to the analysis of the artefact as designed as archaeologically-inspired artefact analysis, thinking of the way in which an archaeologist will look at the artefacts produced by long-dead civilisations and by considering the design infer the patterns of use, work and social activity that surrounds those artefacts. In Tracker we have focused particularly on TeamSpace [[T01b]] which is related to the very successful Classroom2000 (eClass) system [[A99]]. This analysis revealed various classes of context assumptions. Some are explicitly embedded in the software; for example, TeamSpace requires meetings to be scheduled. Some are explicit in the documentation but not enforced; for example, the suggestion that a facilitator is necessary. Some are implicit in the software; for example, if you stop and then restart a meeting, the audio recording for part of the meeting is lost, implicitly assuming meetings do not break and reconvene.

The analysis of the artefact as used is closer to traditional fields studies and ethnographic approaches. One method is transect analysis, which takes a snapshot of a work environment (desk, office, or potentially organisation), either at a particular time (noon on Tuesday) or over a relatively short period (day in the life). This is an ecologically rich approach looking at the artefacts in their physical context - physical disposition is as important as the artefact itself. However, it is problematic for decision making as there is no clear work environment to sample.

Fortunately, we have at our disposal a corpus of meeting minutes. These are problematic as they are not a record of what happened at the meeting, but rather a sanitised account prepared for a purpose, by an individual. Although problematic the minutes are significant as they are the foci by which the participants agree (or are forced to agree) to a fiction that in some way legitimises future actions. In the extreme, in certain legal situations, minutes of meetings are created which never occurred - quite literally legitimising the desired end state by an agreed legal fiction of the process.

To some extent the artificial nature of the formal minutes reflects the artificial nature (in the sense of artifice) of collaborative activity. Ethnomethodology makes a strong focus on the accountability of individuals - that they can make stories (accounts) about their actions that legitimise them socially.

We have to read formal minutes carefully, more like an historical document, written by someone, for a purpose, but nonetheless exposing aspects of the real process.

Results of both forms of artefact analysis will be presented in the full paper. The understanding gained by the artefact centred analysis is being used in three ways. First it is being used to drive the design of questions for further interviews and to direct future observational work. Second it is enabling us to build more rich models of the process of decisions making, drawing also on the long standing work on design rationale and argumentation representation. Finally, the direct results and ensuing models are being used to inform the design of experimental decision tracking software.

references and links

Alan Dix 19/12/2002