IS 240 -- Information Systems Analysis and Design

Assignment for week 6: Show us your collaboration patterns

For week 6 we are making the transition into the term project. From week 6 forward, each project will build on the others in a relatively orderly way, culminating in a final presentation during finals week. Feel free to think ahead about your approach to all of the assignments. For example, for week 7 we'll sketch some services in terms of the entities they will represent and then do some data modeling, drawing on the reading from Simsion. (This is a change from the syllabus.) Then we'll work on issues of information flow and databases, based on the reading from Gane and Sarson, as well as on Messerschmidt. Then information design, based on readings soon to come from Charlotte. Then internal architecture, based on Messerschmidt. If you want to read ahead and think about the project as a whole then that would be ideal.

I have already told you about the problem that we will be investigating in this term project, but let me try to explain it another way. Contrary to the slogans of some early enthusiasts, it seems clear that new information services do not make bodies obsolete. We will not immerse ourselves in preservative as we surrender our minds to something called "cyberspace"; nor will most of us move to Bermuda and conduct all of our activities and relationships "virtually". Instead, we will continue to live in the same physical and geographical world as everyone else. We will still engage in face-to-face interactions, and we will still move from one place to another. But much will certainly change, and our job is to conceptualize those changes now that the illusions of cyberspace have gone.

Think of it this way: we endlessly manage a huge number of relationships with other people, and we endlessly move among a huge number of activities. Some of the relationships can be conducted without ever seeing the other person, interacting through media or intermediaries, whereas others involve moving back and forth between activities that require copresence and activities that do not. Every activity binds us to certain artifacts, be they a computer or a book or a car or a machine, as well as to certain people. As new information services come along, the bindings get reshuffled. Activities that once bound us to a desk, and thus to an office and a building, now bind us to a portable computer, and thus to a suitable chair and perhaps to an occasional electric socket and a compatible wireless beacon. Likewise, activities with other people that had once required copresence now require only simultaneous (or even asynchronous) access to cell phones or the Internet. But it does not follow that we spend less time being copresent with people. Because we have all of these relationships to manage, we may want or need to spend more time being copresent with some people, and we might take advantage of our unbinding from desktops and offices to achieve this. What is more, new possibilities arise for activities to move to different places, such as airplanes, where they had not formerly been possible, and where perhaps no useful activities had taken place in the past. On the other hand, activities now threaten to spill over the boundaries among places, so that the boundaries between home and work begin to blur. Using design we can hope to amplify the opportunities that this new reality presents, and to alleviate the dangers.

Your final project will take the form of a design study that works through in a thoughtful way one single theme that you have articulated within the broad field that I have just sketched. Your task is not to support every aspect of modern life by designing a does-it-all utility belt. Rather, you should look and think about work in teams -- teams such as yours -- and then pick a theme where a new information service might help. We don't know yet what form these newly designed services might take, and if we have any guesses at this early stage then we should expect them to be superceded by deeper observation and the iterative design process. For the moment, our priority is observation. I'm providing the longer-run perspective to increase the chances that you'll notice relevant things to observe, but the important thing is to document your work activities and ask yourself a bunch of interesting questions about them.

The assignment for this week is simple enough: show us your work processes as a team in this course. The usual criteria obtain: being observant, putting names on things, performing sustained analysis, consciously designing your presentation so that it has a clear form, using diagrams to make that form easy to grasp, and documenting your work. The goal is not yet to represent your work processes from the texts; rather, we want you to observe with fresh eyes the teamwork issues that millions of people are facing every day. Think about what it means, and what it *could* mean, to "show" your work processes. Iterate the design of your presentation so that you learn from the structures that show themselves in your first drafts -- the structures that you discover in a draft design are more important than the structures that you have in your head, and design proceeds by drawing those structures out and making them into organizing principles for the design. If they are good structures then they will provide clear guidance for every aspect of the design on every level, and if they are bad structures then the whole thing will fall apart and you'll go back to observation and first principles.

Here are some things you might look at. Although our task right now is just to observe and show us what you see, it might also be worth looking forward to the design problems that observations such as these might present...

* Learning from one another. A good way to learn is by working together with someone whose skills differ from yours. You will naturally take up different roles in the activity, but you will have a close-quarters look at their skills and ways of thinking. How could we amplify this learning? The answer might include both technology and skills. Is there a risk that technology-mediated collaborations will suppress the spontaneous apprenticeship that happens in face-to-face collaborative work?

* Coordination. You're working "together" but not always copresently. How do you stay coordinated? One obvious aspect of coordination is scheduling meetings, which is always a drag. But there are lots of more subtle aspects of coordination as well. For example, you might have decided upon a division of labor, but then questions arise, or unexpected interactions among the subtasks. We can easily imagine tools that impose a lot of structure on your joint activities, but the risk of oppressive overstructuring is severe, and in fact groupware tools routinely fail because they shackle people together too tightly. What is the middle ground like between totally free-form cooperation and fascistically structured cooperation? A few good examples can go far.

* Iterating design. How does your group iterate designs? One picture is the (lone) architect in Schon's chapter, but you're a group and you probably have your own ways of doing things. How do you notice issues and structures and problems and so on? Do you push as hard to iterate your designs -- including design of both technologies and presentations -- as you wish you did? What would help you do more and better? The answer is not necessary a technology.

* Multimedia production. Producing multimedia presentations requires special skills, but it also includes many inputs and joint decisions. Do you iterate once you've committed your work to media, or do the tools tend to set your work in stone? How do divisions of labor work here? Does everyone have to be there together, or does one person do it alone? Does the person who creates the multimedia content end up making a lot of design decisions that had not come up before? What would it be like for the team members to "think out loud" in multimedia? What practicalities come up with digital images, for example, that get in the way of your work, or that otherwise shape it?

* Planning how to work. Do you set a schedule? Do you keep to it? Do you follow conventional meeting structures such as the divergent-then-convergent cycle of brainstorming meetings? What kinds of work are hard to control in terms of time requirements? How do decisions get made? How do options get selected among?

* Problems. What recurring hassles have you encountered? This is obviously a good question to ask if we're thinking about designing services that might help overcome those hassles. Some of the recurring hassles will be obvious and familiar enough, but try to throw fresh light on the hassles by insightfully naming new aspects of them. What changes did you make to try to resolve the problems?

* Structure. Some kinds of group work need to be unprogrammed, unstructured, unscripted, undirected; but then you have to get down to work and deliver something. What about the relationships between these two kinds of work? Or are there more than two polar kinds of un/structuredness? Have you settled into routines and habits for dealing with this? Or is your team stuck in the middle ground, unable to become truly unstructured or truly structured?

* Rehearsal. Many teams will have a formal rehearsal before a presentation, and that's good, but when a presentation is looming many aspects of the work include an element of rehearsal. For example, one might try out language or images that might work in a presentation, or try to reason out what the professor wants, or work backwards from the limits of time or equipment on the presentation. How do these many aspects of rehearsal affect your work practices? How could tools help with this?

* Feedback. What do you do with feedback, both written and verbal, on your presentations? Do the various items of feedback come back in your discussions on the next project, and if so how? The idea is that you are supposed to internalize the feedback so that you take it into account almost automatically in the future, and this is supposed to drive you to ever more sophisticated and conscious designing. For example, you might create a draft design and then realize that it runs afoul of a kind of feedback that you got earlier, or even some feedback that someone else got, and this might drive you to iterate that draft.

* Changes in work patterns. Did your team settle into routines for working? Did this routines evolve from week to week? Oftentimes small, accidental features of an early team meeting can settle into a pattern that lasts for months, even though you might not have chosen that pattern. Did you make any conscious decisions to change how you work together?

* Interaction of different factors. Patterns of shared work are shaped by factors on many levels. These might include work and family obligations, personality stuff, the distribution of skills, personal and group values, ideas and assumptions, the practicalities and limitations of technology, the nature of the subject matter, and so on. Design means reconciling multiple constraints, and this includes the design of work activities. The constraints can come from many directions, and it takes a lot of mental work to get all of the disparate constraints into one place so you can consciously work with them.

* Boundary objects. People from different disciplinary backgrounds are often helped to communicate by a shared object: a rock, a diagram, a collection of stories and observations, a pile of computer code, etc. What boundary objects did you have, and how did they help you (or fail to help you) make forward progress?

In a project like this, designing tools to support work activities that we observe closely, many dangers loom. Perhaps the greatest of these dangers is that we will reinvent the wheel, or that we will remain locked into the existing arrangements. Design must always negotiate a tension between observation and imagination. Unsophisticated observation can foreclose imagination by impressing upon us just how interconnected reality is. It is true that technological innovations go unused because their designers are oblivious to the many interconnections of the real situations in which technologies get used. But it is also true that innovations often do get used, either through blind luck or because the designer was able to see the fault line along which one densely interconnected reality was able to shift to another. The most basic intuition is that people adopt technologies because they want them, they want them because they can imagine what to do with them, and they can imagine what to do with them because their uses are aligned in both intellectual and practical terms with the wants and needs that people already have. This may seem obvious enough, but you would be surprised how many innovations are predicated on people discovering entirely new and unsuspected needs. This is why we study existing activities: the successful new tools will be the ones that let people do more of what they already want to do, and it's through observation that we discover what people already want to do, given the layered complexity of life as it already exists.