IS 240 -- Systems Analysis and Design

Assignment for Week 3: Seeing information happen.

In the old days, a computer was a big box with fat wires coming out of it. People used this box by typing at a keyboard that was attached to something called a "terminal". You don't even want to know what that was. Neither the computer or the terminal ever moved. To use this primitive "desktop" setup, you had to sit still in a chair. I am not making this up. Nowadays, the physical form of computing is considerably more diverse and flexible. Powerful computing devices can be carried in a pocket, sewn into clothing, or embedded into just about any artifact. These devices can communicate by wires or wirelessly. Reasonably good continuous speech recognition is commonplace, and display screens are flat and often flexible. All of these devices continuously talk to one another, and they all have access to a vast number of complex information services.

As a result of these innovations, the design space is infinitely larger, and it becomes especially important to understand how a computing device "fits" into the world around it. This fit can be understood on different levels: ergonomic, cognitive, teamwork, institutional, economic, and so on. A device must fit into the rhythms, patterns, and cycles of life. It must coexist with all of the other devices that an individual or community might employ. It must be comprehensible, and it must be meaningful as a cultural symbol. A device that is perfect for stamp collectors might be useless for ecologists. Services for a culture that takes trains may not fit into a culture that drives cars. Devices for people whose social world is largely bounded by their geographic neighborhood might not be useful to people whose professional networks are global in extent. As the space of possible designs for a device becomes larger, therefore, it becomes important to learn more about the activities and relationships within which it will be used.

This week's exercise is intended to give us a fresh look at information in the world. Our goal for this week is not to invent something, only to see what's already there. Each group will be assigned to go out in the world and look at information as a phenomenon of the physically realized social world. You may well have done such exercises before in a class such as information seeking behavior; if so then great. But our goal here is not to apply any single theoretical framework for understanding information-in-the-world. Rather, our goal is to see something new. You can do any of these assignments in a few minutes, and you will probably get "enough" to give a presentation. But it will be a boring presentation, because in a few minutes you can only see the things that you already have names for. Your task, therefore, is to see those things, and then to keep looking. This is sustained looking, looking plus brainstorming, and the goal is to see things that you haven't seen before. If you haven't seen them before then we probably haven't seen them either. Put names on them. Prepare a presentation in which you identify several phenomena, naming each to give us a sense of the general category that you've formulated, and given an example or three of each to give us a concrete sense of what you're talking about. Your presentation can use drawings, pictures, stories, video, play-acting, or whatever changes the way your audience sees the world in seven minutes.

These exercises will require you to talk to people and observe their lives. Ethical rules therefore apply. You are welcome to observe and make pictures of people in public places without their permission, so long as you do not make them feel paranoid. That's what it means to be a public place. If you talk to someone, use common sense. Do not represent yourself as anything except UCLA students doing a class project. Say that you're not going to tell anyone their name. If this were a formal research project then you would need to go through a formal "informed consent" procedure, but this is a class and the potential for harm is almost zero. But if anyone says no or otherwise doesn't want to cooperate, that's their right. Don't interview any children except your own. You will probably have an easier time talking to people you already know, other things being equal, but that's not necessarily the case. Use your judgement.

First group:

Go to a place where people do lots of complicated things. A train station. A courthouse. Westwood Village. Someplace where you will see things that are not going to be obvious to everyone already. Watch. See how information happens in that place. Think broadly about everything information means there. Look at signs. How do people know where to go? What is on their minds? What are the most common activities the people are engaged in, and what kinds of information do those activities require? What do they wish they knew? What kinds of information would, if available, cause them to act differently? Have they come to get information? If they had different kinds of information, would they be there at all? Who interacts with whom, and how and why, and what information is part of this? Do the people have plans, do they check hypotheses, do they make mistakes? Is there a difference between newcomers and oldtimers? How does someone learn to conduct themselves in this place? Those are just a few questions aimed at stirring up your thinking as you watch. You might know the answers just by watching the people, since you can draw on your own experience of doing what they're doing. Or you might have to camp out, or interview people. See what you see. Show us.

Second group:

Talk to three very different people who use many sorts of information in their lives. Show us how the different sorts of information fit into their lives. Rhythms, cycles, patterns. Roles, tasks, relationships. Interruptions, boundaries, improvisation. Not just a list of different kinds of information and their uses, but the interactions between among them. Show the different information uses forming a mosaic, a patchwork, whatever metaphor works for you. You can't show the full complexity, but evoke aspects of it somehow. Draw them out and name them. Compare and contrast. Do some of the same themes emerge for all three people? How are they the same and different? You can send three different team members to talk to the three individuals if you like, but spend some time together, synthesizing what you've found. Otherwise your presentation will just be Part I, Part II, Part III, with nothing connecting them.

Third group:

Look at signs, or "signage" as the architects call it. How are they meant to be used? What do they convey? Can they be interestingly categorized? What makes them good or bad? You'd be welcome to find manuals of signage or talk to architects, but most importantly look at signs. Learn to look at the world as a bunch of signs with buildings and streets etc attached to them. What are their purposes? What do their designers think about the people who use them? What questions do real people have in their minds, that the signs answer or don't answer? These questions are useless as generalizations or abstractions, of course, so work from examples. "Read" the signs the way a literary critic would read a poem: over and over, closely, backwards and sideways, until it gives up a deeper level of meaning. Can signs be biased? Ideological? What representational schemes do they employ, and what representational skills do they presuppose? How does one learn to use them? These are giant questions that couldn't be answered in seven hours. So work at it until you've punched through to some fresh observations. Then put names on a handful of them, and look again, now that you have have these new names in your head. Find more examples of what you've named. Then see what you see. Show us.

Fourth group:

Personal effects. What information-conveying stuff do people carry on their bodies? Get people to go through their wallets, purses, backpacks, pockets, etc, and show you what's in there. Look at their personal effects as a kind of design: vernacular design. How do people design the insides of their wallets, purses, etc? Look for reminders, databases, etc. You'll find address books and notepads, but you'll also find information-carrying objects that are not made of paper. Can things carry information because one has them along at all? Because of which pocket they're in? Or what? Interpret "information" in a broad sense. This exercise is harder than it sounds. You will of course find a bunch of stuff, but in what sense does it convey information? After all, all of the stuff will be familiar. It will be *my* stuff. Little or none of it will be surprising. The "information" will be subtle, and it will be tied to the rhythms, patterns, cycles, relationships, roles, and everything else of the person's life. Keep naming the phenomena and gathering new examples until you're seeing things that are striking, alarming, fresh -- even though they've always been right there for anyone to see. Then show us.

Fifth group:

Talk to some people about making plans. Watch them make plans together. Plans for the evening, for a vacation, for a business, for a meeting. What needs to get coordinated? What information do they need? What constraints do they discover and reconcile? What conventions does their culture or industry or discipline provide for the planning? How do people who know one another well make plans together, as opposed to people who are strangers? Notice yourself making plans. Keep talking about these things with people, and putting names on them, until you spontaneously notice more examples of them. Document their plans and planning processes. Do their stories after the fact convey the real complexity? What is a "plan" anyway? It will depend on the context: some kinds of plans are very formal and specified, whereas others are much looser. This, too, could be a vast, encyclopedic project. That's not the idea. Just sustain your inquiry until you have some fresh things to show us: names and examples. Then show us. Draw diagrams, take pictures, whatever it takes to change how we see the world.