Making change Dealing with relations between design and use

Making change Dealing with relations between design and use
Making change
Dealing with relations between design and use
Tone Bratteteig
Department of Informatics,
Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences
University of Oslo
Making change
Dealing with relations between design and use
Tone Bratteteig
Submitted as partial fulfillment of the degree
Doctor Philosophiae
At the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences
University of Oslo
1. September, 2003
This dissertation presents my reflections about information systems development over
many years of research. It has been a personal voyage, but I have not travelled alone; a
range of people have supported and challenged me along this road. I am grateful for
being a part of a living network of researchers and practitioners — and friends.
Many people have followed the dissertation through its development during these
years. First, I would like to thank a number of people who have taken time to comment
on the whole thesis: Gro Bjerknes, Joan Greenbaum, Jens Kaasbøll, Christina Mörtberg,
Markku Nurminen, Erik Stolterman, Eline Vedel and Leikny Øgrim. They have offered
sharp theoretical reflections, often combined with very pragmatic advice. Their critiques
have been enormously beneficial to me and have helped me to develop a clear research
position. I would also like to thank Judith Gregory, Kari Kuutti, Anne Moen, Kari
Thoresen and Guri Verne who have provided valuable comments on parts of the thesis. I
have enjoyed the focused discussions accompanying their feedback, all extremely useful
in my work.
Through the years I have discussed the topics taken up in the dissertation with a
number of colleagues and fellow researchers. I would like to thank Dagny Stuedahl,
Ellen Christiansen and Susanne Bødker for years of interesting debates. I would also like
to thank Ina Wagner, Toni Robertson, Lucy Suchman, Andrew Clement and Julian Orr
for inspiring conversations in the early phases of the dissertation. The list of people to
thank would be even longer if I were to include my project collaborators, my co-authors
in articles, and all the students who have contributed to the research. They are all visible
as references in the text. A big thank you to all!
A very important thank you remains. Working on this dissertation has made me
acutely aware of how much I am indebted to Kristen Nygaard, who died so suddenly in
the summer of 2002. My gratitude applies not only to his professional farsightedness and
creativity, but equally to his generosity, curiosity, political commitment, and the respect
for others that characterized his whole person. He was a great inspiration, and I
remember him with gratitude.
The production of the dissertation has included many different kinds of invisible
work. My thanks to those who have supported the practicalities of the production: the
excellent support from the Informatics Library at the University of Oslo (thanks to Knut
Hegna, Berit Strange and Tone Christine Bøgh) and from the Drift Group at the
Department of Informatics (special thanks to Ernst Gunnar Gran and Jørn Hagerup).
Thanks also to Helen Mørken for her expert language editing.
The production of this dissertation has taken time – I have been enjoying the
opportunity to summarise and synthesise old and new research. A large network of
supporters has been active in reminding me to stay committed to producing the thesis. A
very big thank you to this support group! I am forever grateful to Gro Bjerknes for her
initiative and for being so effective in organising and managing this support.
This work would not have been possible without the patient interest and practical
care from my family, friends and neighbours. And last but not least, heartfelt thanks to
Erling, Harald and Hilde who have lived with this text along with me.
Chapter 1 Introduction
Part 1 Background
Chapter 2 A Scandinavian perspective on systems development
Chapter 3 Systems development research projects
Chapter 4 Research approaches
Chapter 5 Theoretical Basis
Part 2 Use
Chapter 6 Use of computers in work
Chapter 7 Use between knowledge and conditions of work
Part 3 Design
Chapter 8 Design processes
Chapter 9 Design between ideas and materials
Part 4 Systems development as design-use relations
Chapter 10 Design Æ use
Chapter 11 Use Æ design
Chapter 12 Design ÅÆ use
Chapter 13
Dealing with relations between design and use
Chapter 1 Introduction
Overview of the thesis
Part 1 Background
Chapter 2 A Scandinavian perspective on systems development
Systems development as a social and technical work
2.1.1 A construction process
2.1.2 An organisational change process
2.1.3 A political process
2.1.4 A work process
2.1.5 Multiperspectivity
A Scandinavian perspective?
A conceptual framework for understanding systems
Chapter 3 Systems development research projects
The Florence Project (1983-1987)
3.1.1 Theoretical basis
3.1.2 Research design
3.1.3 Mutual learning
3.1.4 Systems design
3.1.5 Afterthought
The FIRE project: Functional Integration through
Redesign (1992-1994)
3.2.1 Research design
3.2.2 Functional Integration
3.2.3 Redesign
3.2.4 FI + RE
3.2.5 Afterthought
Studies of use of technology
3.3.1 SUPPORT: Software Use: Patterns and Practices in
ORganisational Transition (1994-1998)
3.3.2 The TRIM project: Translation and Identity in new
Media development (1998-2001)
GSO: Global Software Outsourcing (2001- )
3.4.1 An old system to a new platform
3.4.2 Developing a tailored system
3.4.3 Global software work
Chapter 4 Research approaches
Qualitative research
4.1.1 Being in the field
4.1.2 The magic of qualitative analysis
4.1.3 Second-hand data
Action oriented research
4.2.1 Intervention
4.2.2 Definitions of action research
4.2.3 Different models of action research
4.2.4 Theoretical bases for action research
4.2.5 Critique of action research
4.2.6 Summing up about action research
Constructing meaning
4.3.1 Generalisation
4.3.2 The value of qualitative research
4.3.3 Theories, concepts … frames
4.3.4 Research approach
Chapter 5 Theoretical Basis
Composing a theoretical basis
5.1.1 Theoretical position
5.1.2 Use and design in systems development
Work practices
Structuration theory: Human action and social structures
Actor-Network theory and STS: Technology development
in context
Cultural-historical Activity theory: Human action and
Knowing and learning
Feminist critique
A relational view
5.10 Summarising the theoretical basis
Part 2 Use
Chapter 6 Use of computers in work
Work as use context
Artefacts in everyday activity
Knowing in work
Dealing with representations
Chapter 7 Use between knowledge and conditions of work
Use is work
Work conditions
Work knowledge
Constant change in a world of artefacts
Between knowledge and conditions in work;
relations in use
Part 3 Design
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Design processes
Design is many processes
8.1.1 A vision
8.1.2 Sketching
8.1.3 Specifications
8.1.4 Levels of concretization
We design what we know
Mutual learning
Material knowing
Design contexts
Design between ideas and materials
Concrete abstractions
9.1.1 Structures and processes
9.1.2 Abstractions and simplications
9.1.3 Representations
9.1.4 Building representations
Ideas are personal and social
9.2.1 Ideas
9.2.2 Where do ideas come from?
9.2.3 The personal touch
9.2.4 Representing as craft
Dealing with differences
9.3.1 Creativity on demand
9.3.2 Negotiating reality
Between ideas and materials; relations in design
Part 4 Systems development as design-use relations
Chapter 10 Design Æ use
10.1 Suggesting use behaviour
10.2 Artefacts put to use
10.3 Discontinuity
10.4 Learning
10.5 Support
10.6 Changed work conditions
Chapter 11 Use Æ design
11.1 In-house development and redesign
11.2 Catching the consumer
11.3 Use as everyday practice
11.4 Unexpected use
Chapter 12 Design ÅÆ use
12.1 Learning
12.2 Tradition
12.3 Categorisation
12.4 Habituation
12.5 A relational view on systems development
Chapter 13 Dealing with relations between design and use
13.1 Conclusions
13.2 Implications for systems development
13.3 Contributions to research
13.4 Further research
Chapter 1
Every passionate scientist has a mystery at the center of his or her
research. In exactly the ancient senses of mystery and passion, there are
questions or set of questions that can never be solved, only wrestled with,
embraced, and one hopes, transformed. (Star 1991a: 265)
The development of information systems is fascinating; it is a technical process aimed at
building a computer artefact; it is a social process deliberately changing how things are
done; it is an individual process of learning and development – within a larger social
context of change; and it is a political process in which power is enacted and
materialized in more or less explicit ways. Developing an information system is a
complex process that requires multi-perspective reflection and action, where technical,
social, political, and individual parts of the systems development process are related to
each other in ways that make them “play together”. Systems development includes
working with people in a variety of arenas, and handling a diversity of shifting relations
between people and things. Most systems development literature does not address this
diversity, leaving the reader with a very limited view of the subject: the engineering
aspects are extremely well covered in systems development literature – but there is no
creativity and no collectivity, no people and no passion, no frustrations and no fun!
This does not fit my view of systems development.
I want to include in systems development the feeling of moments of perfect
understanding when working together to create an artefact that neither of us could have
made without the other – the feeling that we can create an artefact that will really work.
The basis for this feeling is the meeting of understandings – that may differ – and the
ability and will to maintain this meeting. My interest is the artefact as a result of design.
The questions of my “mystery” are how different understandings can be incorporated
into the artefact, and how the artefact can be incorporated into different understandings?
This thesis presents my work of defining systems development so that this mystery is
included along with the knowledges and skills to also understand these aspects of the
process. The aim of this thesis is therefore to find ways of expressing a view of systems
development that emphasises diversity, relations and process.
1.1 Motivation
I depart from the view that systems development is work aimed at creating changes in a
computer-based information system – as a part of, or as a strategy for, making changes in
work and work organisation. I locate systems development in a larger context which
includes use of the system, and I use the concept of the system lifecycle to limit the area
of concern: “the course of development changes through which a system passes from its
Chapter 1. Introduction
conception to the termination of its use and subsequent salvage”1. Systems development
includes changes to the system also after it has been delivered. Both systems
development and use are included in the system lifecycle. The lifecycle of a system
includes a variety of change processes: planned and unplanned, fast and slow; changes
that are wanted or unwanted, simple or difficult, agreed upon or controversial. Systems
development is the work to make the system-related changes happen – a challenge where
technical skills are necessary but not sufficient to succeed. The interplay between the
different aspects of systems development in the system lifecycle is complex, and it is this
complexity I want to explore.
The motivation for my work is rooted in an interest for the communicative and
collaborative aspects of systems development2, combined with an old interest in feminist
perspectives in informatics – especially the fact that this combination has been defined as
peripheral to both feminist and informatics research3. My understanding of systems
o is grounded in the Scandinavian research tradition that I am a part of –
based on the view that technology is not neutral: it is made for a purpose; and
claiming that the various interests embedded in technological solutions should be
open to discussion
o refers to systems development practices –
based on the view that knowledge about challenges in systems development comes
from the field of systems development practices as well as from research
o builds on theories about design and use, and technical and social change processes –
based on the view that theories from other disciplines can add to the engineering
perspective in systems development literature
o is independent of, yet able to address technological change –
based on the view that technological change is an important challenge in systems
development because the technicalities influence both the technical work and the
goal of the systems development process
o aims to present a consistent collection of heterogeneous concepts and theories –
based on the view that systems development is a collection of diverse processes, and
that dealing with diversity is a core competence in systems development, and
o is aimed at providing a basis for teaching systems development –
based on the view that education in systems development will improve if made more
comprehensive, more durable, and more theoretically grounded.
My way of dealing with the complexity of systems development is to emphasise aspects
of diversity, relations and process – which can only be understood in relation to
similarities, entities and structure, respectively. My aim is to give space to more of the
many possible perspectives on systems development.
I have come to see the relations between the design and use of a system as a way to
understand systems development and its relations to other processes in the system
lifecycle. Design and use represent different kinds of change, and different kinds of work
and responsibilities concerned with these changes. The deliberate changes of systems
development particularly concern the work conditions under which the system is used
and the ideas that underlie design – and the interplay between them. I particularly want
to argue that:
definition from The Federal Standard 1037C, Glossary of Telecommunication Terms 1996
Bratteteig 1983 discusses systems descriptions as means of communication between designers and users
3 see Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1984; Bratteteig & Verne 1985; 1997
o the relation between design and use can be used for understanding change processes
in systems development as well as in the larger system lifecycle; where design in the
first instance changes the conditions for use, and use changes the ideas for design.
But as design changes the conditions for use, use is changed and will change the
knowledge and through this the work of which use is a part. Use changes the ideas of
design, and design through this changes how the materials are viewed – and by this
the design work is changed.
o systems development deals with the relations between design and use; current use
influences design ideas; design results enter into the work conditions (i.e. use).
Participatory design is one way of dealing with the relations between design and
use, aimed at creating closer connections between design ideas and conditions for
use by involving future users in design. Participatory design also changes – moves
– the uncertainties in systems development that stem from the basic distribution of
work, responsibility, and control between different groups of people in different
work processes (i.e. designers and users); design administers use experiences and
transforms them into new ideas; use administers design results and transforms
them into work practices. Systems development deals with these uncertainties, and
a relational view of systems development addresses them as resources rather than
o Some of the relations between design and use in systems development can be seen
as particularly important for maintaining a multi-voicedness in the overall change.
I emphasise four such change processes:
o learning is characterized by relations between the material possibilities and the
logic of the work practice;
o tradition is the continuous change that constitutes the general frame for
understanding and interpretation as well as for expectations – capturing the
basics of the relation between needs and support;
o categorisation is concerned with the relation between the work to create a
recognisable artefact identity and the contemporary culture to which the
artefact is to make sense; and
o habituation is the relation between the appropriation of an artefact and its
“integrative” design.
A relational view on systems development gives a basis for dealing with these
o design can be understood as relations between ideas and materials, where the
material characterizing systems design is representations of software. The ideas that
govern what is designed are personal and social; they originate from the experiences
of the designer(s) as a social and cultural human being with a set of professional
skills and knowledges. The meeting of ideas and materials gives rise to visions about
the artefact, and design can be seen as the process of creating and concretizing
visions. Design is the work concerned with dealing with the relations between ideas
and materials.
o use can be seen as work, and characterized by relations between work knowledge1
and work conditions as they appear in practice: I limit my discussion about use to
work settings although I believe that the same kind of relations are useful also in the
contexts of learning and leisure. The use of computer-based information systems is
I prefer the Norwegian “yrkeskunnskap” – which does not translate well. Yrkeskunnskap is close to professional
knowledge but also includes knowledge in work that is not categorised as “professional”. I therefore use “work
knowledge” even if this may be biased towards the physical aspects of work.
Chapter 1. Introduction
embedded in the work, as a way of working (work instrument) and as a work object
(what the work is concerned with). The work objects and work instruments are part
of the concrete work conditions under which work is carried out. The way that the
work is carried out is, however, also dependent of the knowledge and skills of the
workers – which explains why poor computer systems may still work well in a
particular work setting. Use is work characterized by the relation between conditions
and knowledge.
In order to understand the interplay between design and use, one needs knowledge about
design and use beyond the trivial. I find that literature on systems development does not
offer this except in studies of practice. Methods and techniques for analysis and design in
systems development address design and use only implicitly and partially; their concern
is professional work skills independent of, but to be used in, concrete design and use
contexts. The focus on methods rather than concrete work makes it difficult – and even
impossible – to convey the sparks of creative design and the challenges raised by
competent use. My aim has been to describe a richer picture of both design and use as
parts of the system lifecycle and thus important to systems development.
- objects
- instruments
Figure 1: Relations concerned with design and use
1.2 Overview of the thesis
The thesis is divided into four parts. The first part presents the basis for my research.
Chapter 2 gives an overview of research on systems development in Scandinavia that my
work is based on and contributes to. In chapter 3 I describe research projects I have been
involved in that contribute to the argumentation in the thesis. Chapter 4 includes my
reflections on the research approaches I have used in the research projects and the thesis
itself. In chapter 5 I briefly present some of the main theoretical sources that have
formed my understanding of systems development, design and use.
Part 2 of the thesis deals with use. Use is seen as embedded in work – and as work. In
chapter 6 and 7 I discuss use as embedded in work and as work. I argue that use can be
understood as relations between work conditions and work knowledge. The
argumentation in chapter 6 is based on the research projects presented in Part 1. Chapter
7 continues the discussion about use drawing on theoretical sources.
In part 3 I discuss design. Systems design is the key characteristic of systems
development. Design is also work, but in this thesis I have focused on the relation
between ideas and materials as a basic characteristic of systems design – a variant of the
more general relation between work knowledge and work conditions. Chapter 8 starts
with a general model of design, and discusses the model based on empirical data. In
chapter 9 I locate design in a larger context. I include a detailed discussion about
software as the material for systems development — and argue that the logic of software
permeates all levels of systems descriptions. Furthermore, design is discussed as work
and as a task.
The relations between design and use are the topic for the 4th part of the thesis. I see
relations between design and use as movements and as interplay between design and use,
in chapters 10, 11 and 12. Design normally influences use through the artefact being
transferred from the design context to the use context, thereby transferring the control of
its behaviour as well as its artefactual identity from designers to users. Users invite
artefacts into their lives and work in a variety of ways – ranging from treating the
artefact as something else (making it be something else) to letting the artefactual
suggestions for user behaviour replace current behaviour. Use changes design in a
number of ways; through ascribing different meanings to artefacts than those the original
designers intended, e.g. through inventing new ways of utilizing the artefact, or through
focus on “unimportant” characteristics. I discuss the mutual interplay between design
and use as relations between relations: learning, tradition, categorisation and habituation.
The relations all emphasise that making change is work, and that the responsibility and
control are shared between designers and users as they create their lives in contemporary
society. Use constitutes the larger context from which design departs — and ends.
Chapter 13 includes my conclusions and ends the thesis. In order to understand
systems development, I argue that we need to focus on the diversity of views,
experiences, knowledges, and relations so that the centre of attention can stay with the
underlying logic of the activity rather than with cumbersome work instruments and
objects that demand operational attention. A good instrument is present in a way that
supports the overall activity of which it is a part, its form and function utilizes the
material so that the material logic fits with the logic of its use. Informaticians have
particular responsibilities for maintaining the quality of computer systems as technical
artefacts – which should include challenging material constraints if need be in order to
make usable artefacts. As a part of maintaining the quality after the artefact has been
taken into use, the designers should take care to present the underlying logic of its
operations in ways that educate users to utilize their work instruments in a better way.
A relational view introduces ways of dealing with diversity – of things and relations,
of movements and abstraction levels. To maintain the relations by emphasising what
keeps them together as well as what may be sources of conflict contributes to
understanding the process as a multifaceted development and change. A processual view
maintains diversity and relations as resources for understanding and acting in the
Chapter 1. Introduction
Part 1
The social action takes concrete form in time and space; it is experienced
and interpreted by the actors. But it is not the single actor’s experience or
interpretation that the social sciences want to analyse; they seek to
constitute meaning through locating the actors’ actions in a wider context.
Constructing a description of the social action implies to lift the action
out of its actual experience and transform it to a text.
In a sociological context an important point is that the text can never be a
copy of the actual social life, but a description necessarily based on the
premises of the language. (Frønes 2001: 338, my translation)
This part of the thesis describes the background for the research presented here. My
research is grounded in the research tradition that I am part of. I have therefore included
aspects that can characterize the tradition – and hence my research. Research on systems
development in Scandinavia covers a very broad field. My research should be interpreted
as a part of this, building on as well as contributing to it.
Chapter 2 gives the framework for understanding this thesis. Beginning with a rather
historically based overview of the research in systems development in Scandinavia on
which my work is based, I present the disciplinary position I hold and wish to extend.
My findings are then used to define current trends within the discipline. The chapter
describes the frame of understanding that is taken in the thesis. Chapter 3 presents
research projects that I have been involved in, rather briefly, because I have included
more details about some of the findings in later chapters. This chapter is intended to give
an overview of the empirical basis for this thesis. In chapter 4 I discuss the research
approaches used in the research as well as the approach used here. I particularly
emphasise generalisation in qualitative research and action research. Chapter 5 includes
an overview of theories used in the thesis; I draw on conceptual frameworks in other
areas, but apply them to systems development. My understanding of systems
development, design, and use has developed through an interplay between empirical and
theoretical investigations.
Part 1. Background
Chapter 2
A Scandinavian perspective on systems
There are three factors in my experience of Scandinavian life that seem
relevant to [the] unique pattern of research on information systems
development. For purpose of discussion I will label them: nature, equality
and irony. I will discuss each of them in turn, keeping in mind that they
interact closely to create an environment conducive to the type of
research described by Iivari and Lyytinen: research that keeps close to
human experience in striving to develop information systems for social
betterment. (Boland 1998: 188)1
My research is located in one branch of the Scandinavian tradition in systems
development research, and this chapter is a presentation of this branch. My
understanding of systems development is a continuation of this tradition, and this chapter
basically presents the contributions to the research tradition made by others before me.
Before I start explaining this tradition, I briefly introduce some definitions of systems
development. Section 2.1 goes through some of the basic assumptions in the tradition –
that also are basic to this thesis. Most of the perspectives were developed in the early
days of systems development research in Scandinavia; they are established, taken-forgranted, not explicitly discussed very often – nowadays. Section 2.2 includes a brief
discussion about the “Scandinavity” of the tradition, aiming to connect the way of
thinking in research to the local conditions for work and systems development. In section
2.3 I introduce a theoretical framework for systems development that acts as a basis for
the argumentation of this thesis.
What it systems development?
Systems development is the process of developing a computer-based information system.
The focus of systems development is on the computer technology in the information
system, but in order to construct a working information system the context of the
computer has to be considered.
A system is a part of the world which we choose to regard as a whole, separated from the rest of
the world during some period of consideration, a whole which we choose to consider as
containing a collection of components, each characterized by a selected set of associated data
items and patterns, and by actions which may involve itself and other components. (HolbækHanssen; Håndlykken & Nygaard 1975: 15 (original emphasis))
This is a very object-oriented definition – a good example of a specific technical system
definition, particularly focusing on objects and their properties and actions. The system
is a part of the world, but it is our interpretation of it as a whole that makes it a system.
referring to the broad analysis of Scandinavian research on information systems offered by Iivari & Lyytinen
1998, cf. section 2.2 (footnote 3 p. 18)
Chapter 2. A Scandinavian perspective on systems development
Part 1. Background
A different definition of the term system is:
A model of a whole entity; when applied to human activity, the model is characterized
fundamentally in terms of hierarchical structure, emergent properties, communication, and
control. An observer may choose to relate this model to real-world activity. When applied to
natural or man-made entities, the crucial characteristic is the emergent properties of the whole.
(Checkland 1981: 317-318; original emphasis)
where the system is a model:
An intellectual construct, descriptive of an entity in which at least one observer has an interest.
The observer may wish to relate his model and, if appropriate, its mechanisms, to observables in
the world. When this is done it frequently leads—understandably, but not accurately—to
descriptions of the world couched in terms of models, as if the world were identical with models
of it. (Checkland 1981: 315)
i.e. a perspective, not a physical part of the world. This definition also emphasises the
whole, but when the technical system definition is focused on the “mechanics” of a
system, the system-theoretical definition is concerned with how the whole is more than
the parts. Checkland’s systems models human activity and is different from the systems
perspective used in development of computer-based information systems (defined as
“computer systems that facilitate the presentation of information in a variety of media, as
well as underlying technologies that support these systems”1). The computer-based
information system is designed to collect, process, transmit, and disseminate information
emphasising the computer system as the centre of attention. The computer system is
taken to be a running computer with software, hardware and data2.
Some definitions of information systems include human beings, arguing that only
human beings create information from data (and data is what computers are able to
represent). This view seems to mix the two definitions of a system given above, taking a
systems approach to the organisation of information processing. I use the technical
system definition because I do not want to apply a systems perspective to both the
artefact and the human beings using it – I therefore use system as being synonymous
with computer artefact3. Systems development is concerned with computer-based
systems. Even if systems development concerns computers, the views differ with respect
to what should be the scope of attention and hence the basic perspective in systems
development: the computer system or the use context – or both. The views on what
systems development is and should be, differ accordingly4.
My interest is systems development seen as changes made to the computer system in
the larger context of a system lifecycle. A focus on the system lifecycle enables me to
address aspects of the use of the system normally not contributing to technical change.
2.1 Systems development as a social and technical work process
The Scandinavian tradition of research on systems development is based on a view of
technology as biased: it is made for a purpose. As a result, emphasis is put on both
technical and non-technical matters – systems development is a process in which social
and technical parts of the world interplay. Furthermore, an important strategy has been to
include guidelines and techniques (and concepts) for addressing the non-technical
matters as part of the education of professional systems developers. Systems
definition of information system from ACM Transactions on Information Systems
in accordance with Mathiassen 1981
3 see the debate about the system perspective in Bjerknes, Bratteteig & Stage 1987 and Nygaard & Sørgaard 1987
4 cf. the position taken by Nurminen 1987; 1996, that work should be the basic interest for systems development,
and the response by Mathiassen 1997 emphasising the technical core as characterizing systems development.
development is presented as a professional work process — in which the above
perspectives should be guiding the professional work practice. The following
perspectives are emphasised in the research: construction, organisational change,
political processes, work and multi-perspectivity.
2.1.1 A construction process
For obvious reasons, most systems development research and literature emphasises the
construction of information technology: methods, techniques and approaches to building
technical systems. The constructional aspects of the systems development process are
what make systems development different from other social, organisational, and human
change processes1. Systems development includes building software as well as
integrating, adapting, adjusting, maintaining, and tailoring software products. The
construction of a computer system is the engineering part of systems development:
building a working computing machine according to the specifications. Software
engineering involves program design, programming, program integration, and testing.
The skills needed for these activities are basic to systems development — and to the
informatics discipline.
System building requires a systems perspective: the technical quality of a computerbased system is based on the composition of parts into a whole that works as intended.
The computer system is a machine, and we want the machine to be controllable, reliable
and predictable. System building means constructing the software that describes — or
rather prescribes — the structure for a set of processes in the machine. Building software
is a structure-generating process, where the resulting structure controls the processes in
the machine2. According to this view, a system is a process fully controlled by a
structure3. The systems perspective is a necessity in systems design. Systems
development methodologies incorporate the systems perspective, and enable systems
developers to describe the world as a system as a step in the design process. The systems
perspective permeates system description techniques and tools also when they are used
to describe human activities and organisations. Applying the systems perspective to the
world may, however, limit the understanding of parts of the world which cannot be
described from this perspective4.
The definition of a system as a process fully controlled by a structure fits with the
notion of a program running as it should, prescribed by the program structure.
Mathiassen (1981) emphasises that systems development includes processes with limited
control; processes and structures within systems development mutually influence and
regulate each other. A process produces an (underlying) structure, but is simultaneously
influenced (regulated) by an overlying structure. The overlying structure can, however,
be influenced by an overlying process5. Mathiassen uses this to define a system as a
Mathiassen 1981
Nygaard 1986
3 Nygaard 1986; Mathiassen 1981
4 Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987b; 1988b; Bjerknes, Bratteteig & Stage 1987
5 depicted as
structure or
Mathiassen’s presentations of dialectic relations aimed to show that a structure can regulate and be changed by the
same process – the trick is to shift one’s perspective between structure and process. However, this presentation
makes the dynamics of the dialectic relation difficult to get at, and it has been used as a basis for building process2
Chapter 2. A Scandinavian perspective on systems development
Part 1. Background
process totally controlled by an overlying structure, whereas the systems development
process is not a system: it cannot be fully controlled by a structure.
The construction part of systems development implies building a computer system,
making something new. Building involves deciding what to make and how to make it; in
systems development this means exercising the craft of programming. The construction
aspects make systems development (and informatics) a discipline oriented toward change
in which engineering is a major part. But there is more to systems design than
engineering – processes of creativity and understanding are important parts of design and
analysis, but are not very well covered within an engineering perspective.
2.1.2 An organisational change process
A computer-based information system is always situated in a context, and research on
use and development of such systems in Scandinavia has mainly been concerned with
organisational contexts, focusing on use as work1. In Scandinavia (and Europe) systems
development traditionally has taken place within an organisational context, and has been
seen as part of a context of other (larger) change processes. European systems
development research has emphasised in-house development, i.e. building an information
system tailored to the organisation’s needs, built within the organisation. NorthAmerican systems development research has, to a larger extent, focused on development
of software products to mass markets2.
Systems development involves building a new (or changing an old) computer system
and designing a corresponding work organisation with new work routines. In order to
design changes to work and work organisation, knowledge about work practice and work
organisation is required. From the start (in the 1970s) Scandinavian systems
development researchers made connections with social science researchers, both as coworkers in research projects3 and with social scientists studying and working with
computers and systems development (through trade-union based research in Europe4 and
Organisation development literature that addresses computer-based information
systems, discusses the systems as part of the organisation of work, where information is
produced and used as a resource in communication and control of the work6.
Organisational change is needed when the existing organisation of work has grown too
complex for the corresponding information system (i.e. the control)7. Different
organisational forms are suited for different types of interpersonal exchange
(transactions) – concerned with different types of uncertainty. They therefore need
structure hierarchies (cf. Nygaard 1986). A clarifying discussion about process-structure relations in systems
development is found in Øgrim 1993
1 an example is Thoresen 1984; 1992; 1999. See also discussion in Monteiro 1999
2 discussed in Grudin 1991; Greenbaum 1993. US software production often happens in large computing
3 e.g. Arbeidsforskningsinstituttet (the Work Research Institute) in Oslo and Arbetslivscentrum in Stockholm. The
Florence project at the Department of Informatics in the 1980s (see chapter 3.1) employed an anthropologist as a
full project member.
4 see e.g. Keul 1982; Williams 1987
5 connections between trade unions and research see Greenbaum 1979; 1993; Gregory 1989; Ehn 1988; 1993.
Connections between computer science and social science in the US see Weizenbaum 1976; Winograd 1972;1979;
1980; Suchman 1987; Wynn 1979
6 e.g. Yates 1989
7 Galbraith 1979; Dooreward et al 1987
different kinds of information – and information systems. In a bureaucracy, the
transactions are based on legitimate authority implemented as employment contracts1. In
a market, the contracts are simpler as the transactions are (normally) simpler; to buy a
product in exchange of money. The “clan” makes use of culture and norms as “contracts”
controlling behaviour in a context characterized by a large degree of uncertainty.
The organisational changes concerned with systems development include the
introduction of a computer system and training users. Introducing a new computer
system may mean introducing new ways of doing the work at all levels: new operations,
new tasks, new goals, and new relations between tasks (in and between task chains).
Introduction of a computer system is a change process where some of the existing skills
and knowledge will be extended with other skills and knowledge. It requires some work
to integrate new knowledge with old, and to make new ways of working fit the totality of
the work organisation. In addition, introduction of a computer system may affect people
in the organisation who do not use the computer directly (i.e. not only the “end-users”).
Training is a large part of introducing the computer system. Several types of training
are possible, ranging from learning how to perform operations on the computer to
understanding the system and the model of work implemented in the system2. Training is
critical, and takes much of the resources in the development process.
Both the development of the individual and the development of the organisation
include learning. It follows the systems development process and is an integral part of it3.
Learning is often seen as a wanted change process, and fits with systems development as
planned change processes.
The organisational aspects concerning systems development can also be discussed
with respect to the continuous change work done to ensure that the system supports the
ever-changing work organisation4. This perspective has become more dominant as
computer systems are widespread and new generations of technology are introduced and
integrated with existing technologies5.
The view that systems development interacts with organisational change processes
has consequences for how systems development is understood. Even if building a
computer is the most characteristic (unique) aspect of systems development, the design
needs to be rooted in the work of the users and in the organisation; this view is generally
advocated in Scandinavian systems development research6. Design hence starts with the
context of the system, with defining the problem.
2.1.3 A political process
The political aspects of systems development are concerned with who decides what the
problem is – and thus what the solution should be. The basic assumptions are that 1)
information technology is not neutral: it can be used for many purposes, serving different
interests, and 2) there are different perspectives in society (and in the organisation),
sometimes with conflicting interests7. The Scandinavian version of handling power and
see Ouchi 1980; Ciborra 1981; 1993; Williamson & Ouchi 1981; Williamson 1994; Weber 1971
see e.g. Bjerknes 1982
3 Thoresen 1984; 1999
4 cf. e.g. Gasser 1986; Wynn 1979; Suchman & Wynn 1984
5 Rolland 2003 reports from a computer system supporting distributed work
6 classic examples are Langefors 1966; 1974¸1980¸1995 and Nygaard 1984; 1986; Nygaard & Fjalestad 1981;
Nygaard & Håndlykken 1981. More about this in section 2.3
7 e.g. Nygaard 1979; Nygaard & Bergo 1974; Ehn & Sandberg 1979; Borum & Enderud 1981; Ehn 1988; 1993;
Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1995
Chapter 2. A Scandinavian perspective on systems development
Part 1. Background
politics in systems development emphasises cooperation and negotiations between the
established work-life institutions LO and NHO1 legitimating differences in perspective.
In the 1960s, a large effort on work-life democracy and industrial productivity was
established by LO and NAF2, collaborating with researchers from the Work Research
Institute and the Tavistock Institute3. The large collaborative effort was joined by more
explicitly political projects4; in 1970, a project initiated by the Norwegian Iron and Metal
Worker Association (NJMF) started involving researchers from the Norwegian
Computing Centre (NCC) aiming to support the NJMF in matters concerning computer
equipment. The NJMF project was explicit in its political aims; to strengthen the weak
side in the contradiction between labour and capital. The project resulted in plans to
enable the trade union to influence the systems development processes5. The NJMF
project was followed by similar projects in other trade unions in Norway (and in other
Scandinavian countries)6. The trade union projects resulted in the first local data
agreements which – together with the large LO/NAF initiative – influenced a major
revision of the Worker Protection and Working Environment Act7.
The power to decide on the future computer-based information system includes both
defining the problem to be solved and realizing the solution. The worry that management
will overrule the employees can be handled through the established, institutionalised
arenas for negotiation8. There has also been (and still is) a worry that technical people
can talk non-technical people into solutions that they would not want if they understood
the consequences. The problem is partly ascribed to communication problems (experts
tend to prefer expert language — and the language used by technical people may be
difficult to understand for non-technical people) and partly that technical people know
about technical possibilities and limitations. The technical people may need to teach the
users and managers enough to understand what the decision-making that they participate
in means. At the same time the technical people may make decisions for reasons which
are difficult for the non-technical people to understand because their knowledge about
technical matters may be insufficient9. The “model power”10 is hard to break: those who
LO (Landsorganisasjonen): the national Labour Organisation, and NHO (Norsk Hovedorganisasjon): the national
employers’ federation
2 Norsk ArbeidsgiverForening, the NHO of that time (see note 7 this page)
3 cf. e.g. Gustavsen 1986; 1996; Thorsrud, Emery & Trist 1964; Thorsrud & Emery 1970; Emery & Thorsrud 1976
4 Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1995; Gustavsen 1996
5 Nygaard & Bergo 1974
6 in the trade unions Handel & Kontor (office workers) and Kjemisk (chemical industry), see details in Keul 1982,
and a discussion in Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1995. The most well-known trade union projects from other
Scandinavian countries are the Swedish DEMOS: DEMOkratiske Styringssystemer (1975-197): DEMOS 1979;
Ehn & Sandberg 1979); the Danish DUE: Demokrati, Udvikling og Edb (1977–1980: DUE 1978; 1979; Kyng &
Mathiassen 1979), and the Nordic UTOPIA: Utbildning, Teknik, och Produkt I Arbetskvalitetsperspektiv (19811984: Ehn & Kyng 1984; UTOPIA 1981; 1985; Bødker et al 1987; Ehn 1988). (The Florence Project (see 3.1)
was not a trade union research project.)
7 the trade union projects resulted in local data agreements that acted as models for the general Data Agreements.
These were in turn incorporated into the new Worker Protection and Working Environment Act; aimed no longer
only to avoid physical harm at work, but also to support psycho-social development and well-being in work. A
particular focus was workers’ autonomy and co-determination, and requiring that workers’ representatives were
included in all boards of management (in accordance with other legislation, e.g. the Norwegian Companies’ Act).
Similar legislation was also made in Denmark and Sweden.
8 well established in Scandinavia as a part of the political arena and the judiciary arena (legislation) in society
9 see Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1988b. The technical people may also be an interest group in the decision-making
10 Bråten 1973; 1981. General discussions of power in Dahl 1957; 1990; Lukes 1974; Backrach & Baratz 1962
have “mental models” of a topic can exercise “model power” over those who do not
know the area – and sharing this knowledge will only strengthen the “model rich” side as
the “model weak” adopts their view on the topic.
New computer-based information systems tend to implement and even strengthen
existing power structures in the organisation1. However, any organisational change may
challenge the power structures and thus lead to conflicts2. The trade union approach is
based on the assumption that power is exercised through the formal institutions in
organisations, work life and society, and that conflicts are to be expected.
2.1.4 A work process
Systems development includes building a product (a computer-based system) as well as
making the production process. The technical work of systems analysis and design, and
programming (testing etc.) is the core competence of informatics. In systems
development, this competence is used to plan and organise the technical work. The
organisation of technical work is based both on the technical “content” (how and why to
compose the technical system-in-the-making), as well as contextual factors (available
resources – basically time and money (equals people and hence knowledge), existing
systems, infrastructure, standards etc.) Systems development work differs from other
project work because the organisation of work depends on the technical characteristics of
the product-in-the-making3.
Much research on systems development in Scandinavia has been concerned with
building knowledge about this view of development of information systems as a
professional activity, documented as sets of methods or as textbooks where conceptual
frameworks independent of any methodology or technology are presented. An early
attempt to create a conceptual framework for systems development independent of any
methodology was Mathiassen's Ph.D. thesis: “Systems Development and Systems
Development Methodology” (1981)4. The aim was to integrate user participation into
professional systems development, and take into account that different interests in the
system and in the systems development process are to be expected. The professional
systems developer reflects on her/his actions and has a repertoire of methods and
techniques that can be used in accordance with her/his evaluation of the situation5. The
idea of a “repertoire” to be applied in systems development situations encouraged studies
of systems development practice. The MARS project6 (1984-1987) aimed at making a
systematic analysis of systems development practice. In the 1980s the focus shifted from
a product-oriented to a process-oriented view7.
George & King 1991; Bos et al 1994; Bratteteig 1994a
Borum & Enderud 1981
3 Andersen et al 1986 discuss the relation between production and management in systems design (see section 2.3)
4 Langefors' theory on infology (1966; 1974; 1980; 1995; Dahlbom 1995) and the sociotechnical approaches
(Bjørn-Andersen & Hedberg 1977; Mumford 1983; 1987; Mumford & Weir 1979; Emery & Trist 1960) are
earlier contributions to information systems. Both these efforts are based on systems thinking – although different
systems definitions (see Nurminen 1988). Mathiassen's work is at the conceptual level, aimed at being
independent of methodologies and perspectives and explicitly addressing systems development as work.
5 the reflective systems developer (see also Mathiassen 1998) is inspired by Schön 1983; 1987
6 Metodiske ARbejdsformer i Systemudvikling (MARS 1984; Mathiassen 1981), the end result being Andersen et al
1986 explicitly addressing systems development as work
7 see Floyd 1987. Note that Floyd’s use of ”process” is different from how “process” is discussed in Andersen et al
1986 (see Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987e for a discussion)
Chapter 2. A Scandinavian perspective on systems development
Part 1. Background
Several Scandinavian research projects continued the tradition and aimed to add to
systems development as a discipline, in two ways: by concepts and by techniques. Two
research projects in the Systems Development Group at the University of Oslo can be
seen as part of this trend: the Florence project1 (1983-1987) aimed to develop and try out
techniques for user participation in systems development, and the FIRE project2 (19911994) studied systems development practices aiming to re-conceptualize systems
development as a continuous redesign of computer-based information systems,
emphasising the need to present the systems (to the users) as a whole rather than a
collection of different systems. The project argued for a change in the view of systems
development so that designed changes during maintenance, enhancement, and redesign
would also be included in the systems development process.
A conceptual framework describing systems development work as the work of
building a computer system and creating the building process came out of these research
efforts3. The framework was independent of technologies and methodologies, and is –
still – useful for describing and evaluating systems development processes and
methodologies. I present the framework in section 2.3 as a basis for the thesis and its
2.1.5 Multiperspectivity
Most systems development research and literature emphasises the construction of
computer-based technology: methods, techniques, and approaches to building technical
systems. However, building a technical system is only one of many processes in systems
development, and the interplay between the processes is crucial for creating real changes.
Systems development is a complex process that can be – and should be – understood
from a number of perspectives.
The creation of a computer-based information system requires skills and knowledge
about computers and about techniques for making formal representations that can be
processed in a computer system. The creation of the process requires a different set of
skills and knowledge, concerned with planning and getting a team of systems developers
to build a system within a (often organisational) context. The process of designing a
systems development process involves handling a different set of uncertainties, many of
which are harder to solve than the uncertainties associated with making formal system
descriptions and code. Testing the quality of a piece of code is possible to plan and carry
out as standard procedure: testing the process happens during the process – often
unexpectedly due to other organisational processes – or afterwards through a reaction to
the system. The discussion about what constitutes quality in systems development opens
for a range of heterogeneous positions and perspectives on the code, from pure technical
qualities to use qualities and usability4.
Systems development is a multi-disciplinary work process involving technical,
social, organisational, psychological, managerial, economical, cultural, political
knowledge and skills. Nygaard (1986) and Nygaard & Sørgaard (1985) claim that multiperspective reasoning is therefore necessary: many kinds of skills as well as many kinds
described in chapter 3.1. Other research projects in Scandinavia at that time did the same (cf. section 2.1.3)
Functional Integration through Redesign, described in chapter 3.2
3 a corresponding theorizational approach is taken in Naur 1985, arguing that the work of programming is building a
theory about the program
4see Dahlbom & Mathiassen 1993 for a discussion of quality as seen from three perspectives: technical rationality,
romantic interpretative and dialectic. Relations between technical and use quality is discussed in Bjerknes,
Bratteteig & Espeseth 1991, use quality in Thoresen 1992
of interests and views should be taken into account. A similar view1 is found in Thoresen
(1984), where systems development is discussed as interplay between three different
processes: a construction process (aimed at building a computer system), a learning
process (development of knowledge in individuals and the organisation), and an
organisational process (aimed at changing the cooperation in the organisation). She
claims that several perspectives are needed to handle these processes: construction, use,
learning, participation, change, interests, social – and I may add: the knowledge and
skills to make use of this diversity in the process.
2.2 A Scandinavian perspective?
Scandinavian systems development research includes a variety of perspectives and
approaches, and there is real debate whether there is something “Scandinavian” about it.
Bansler (1987; 1989) categorises Scandinavian systems development research into three
approaches as a basis for the discussion:
o the systems theoretical tradition; an engineering approach based on cybernetics and
systems thinking. Rather technology-focused but also advocating that the use
organisation – the activities in the organisation – should be the basis for systems
development. The primary figure: Börje Langefors developed the discipline of
information systems with a focus on “infology”2. This perspective is operationalised
in the systems development method ISAC3.
o the socio-technical tradition; a systems thinking approach emphasising human factors
and a socio-psychological work environment. One of the basic principles is the aim
to balance the technical and social systems rather than favouring one of these.
Considers variety as well as routine in work. Originates in the UK, where important
contributors were Fred Emery and Eric Trist from the Tavistock Institute, and in
information systems Enid Mumford with the ETHICS method4. Scandinavian
contributors are Niels Bjørn-Andersen, Agneta Olerup and Kari Thoresen5.
o the critical tradition; characterized by politically oriented critique of computing
technology based on critical and political philosophy. Aimed at making alternative
solutions through close collaboration with workers, mainly through trade unions.
Advocating that technology should be designed as a tool (autonomy and control) and
that systems development is a social and political work process. Makes use of studies
of use and development by means of social science methods / theories. The leading
figure was Kristen Nygaard6.
My work fits into Bansler’s third category interpreting the explicit political focus broader
than the narrow Marxist interpretation that dominated the research in the 1970s and
1980s – and that labelled the research “collective resource”7. Nurminen (1987) makes a
similar argument for a humanistic perspective as an alternative to the systems theoretical
and the socio-technical systems views. He argues that the human being in the work
although not so explicitly political
see Langefors 1966; 1974; 1995; Dahlbom 1995 for more details.
3 Langefors 1980; Lundeberg et al 1978a; 1978b
4 Emery & Trist 1960; Mumford 1983; Mumford & Weir 1979
5 see e.g. Bjørn-Andersen & Hedberg 1977; Olerup 1989; Thoresen 1999
6 Nygaard 1979; 1986. See also Aarhus 1975; Bjerknes et al 1987; Ehn & Kyng 1984; 1987
7 there are several overviews of the research projects in this tradition, e.g. Clement & Van den Besselar 1993 (in
ACM 1993a); Ehn 1993; Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1995. The Norwegian projects are described in Keul 1982.
Chapter 2. A Scandinavian perspective on systems development
Part 1. Background
setting should be the basis for systems development, and emphasises the need for
understanding work as more than use of computer systems1. The third category of
research can be seen as an effort to create a basis for systems development that is
different from the systems perspective – however appreciating a systems perspective as
necessary in designing a (computer) system2. The basic point made is that the systems
perspective cannot be combined and merged with a critical perspective, be it political or
A common feature in all the Scandinavian traditions is a strong emphasis on user
influence in systems development4. The users of the future system(s) are considered
experts in their own work, and their knowledge is needed in systems design – although
the forms and degree of involvement may vary (representative or direct involvement,
consultants, or collaborators) as does the degree of actual influence and power. User
participation will improve the knowledge upon which systems are built and enable
people to develop realistic expectations, thus reducing resistance to change. In addition,
user participation aims to increase workplace democracy by giving the members of an
organisation the right to participate in decisions that are likely to affect their work – a
view that is shared by the critical and socio-technical traditions.
Workplace democracy means the right for all employees to influence their work
situation through work arrangements and participation in decision making fora. Many of
the Scandinavian research projects also aimed at increasing work-life democracy, i.e.
“industrial democracy”, expanding the workers' influence to include the societal level as
well. Both the socio-technical and the critical traditions have contributed to
incorporating this view in legislation and work-life institutions in the Scandinavian
countries5, the critical tradition emphasising the political aspects more. The first tradeunion projects were oriented towards creating knowledge and strategies for the trade
unions. Later projects aimed at actually building alternative systems for them.
Later projects6 dealt with the fact that work arrangements usually concern several
interest groups, hence arranging for workplace democracy includes balancing claims
from the different interest groups. The difference between the socio-technical and the
critical traditions match the difference between considering the organisation as a whole
or as a particular interest group in the systems development process. A socio-technical
approach stresses that employers and employees have a common interest in developing
useful computer systems, and provide techniques for stakeholder participation7. The
organisation as a whole is addressed, and the emphasis is on balancing different interests.
The critical tradition, however, emphasises the fact that there is an inherent conflict
between employers and employees, and that it is the researchers’ duty to support the
weaker party, i.e. the employees. Here the conflict refers to the antagonism between
this is taken up in the Infurgy Manifesto (Nurminen 1996), and criticised by Mathiassen 1997 who emphasises the
focus on computers as the core of systems development.
2 see Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987b and Bjerknes, Bratteteig & Stage 1989 for a thorough discussion about this.
3 even general summaries of the Scandinavian research can be seen to confirm this basic distinction between
systems thinking and the other perspectives, e.g. Iivari & Lyytinen 1998 identifying ten categories of
Scandinavian information systems research.
4 see Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems (SJIS) vol 10 (1&2) about Scandinavian research on information
5 in particular in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, see Mathiassen, Rolskov & Vedel 1983 and Gustavsen 1996. For
research on trade union based participatory design elsewhere in Europe, see e.g. Benson & Lloyd 1983; Williams
1987 and Mambrey & Schmidt-Belz 1983; Mambrey, Oppermann & Topper 1986.
6 such as the Florence (see chapter 3.1) and the Danish AT project (Bødker et al 1993)
7 Bjørn-Andersen & Hedberg 1977; Bostrom & Heinen 1977a; 1977b; Markus 1983; Mumford 1983
capital and labour1. The conflict-orientation emphasises fight and confrontation as a
strategy for strengthening the labour side in order to make the fight between the sides
more even. Followers of the critical approach have criticised the socio-technical
approach for being harmony-oriented through its emphasis on balance and consensus2.
The socio-technical approach handles the contradiction between labour and capital by
emphasising the interdependencies and common interests of the two sides.
User participation is a characteristic of the Scandinavian approach. Moreover, user
participation and participatory design seem to be conceived differently in Scandinavia
than many other places, emphasising that users are co-designers and that systems
development is an organisational, technical, and human change process. In Europe
participatory design has been carried out under labels such as Ergonomics (Germany)
and Human Factors (UK), and through a variety of methods based on systems thinking3.
North-American participatory design is more oriented towards software production and
rooted in HCI (Human Computer Interaction), aimed at involving users in testing of
products4 rather than involvement over time in the organisational development of change
traditionally more common in Europe and Scandinavia5. As participatory design has
become more accepted, a variety of user-oriented methods have been developed aimed at
systems development in an organisational setting6. A branch of participative design from
the Tavistock Institute7 advocates development of local communities – the approach is
not technical, it is based on a general systems thinking and practiced in Australia, UK,
South-America and south in North-America. A particular branch of community
development tradition is found in Brazil, based on the pedagogy of Paulo Freire8.
A number of researchers have seen similarities between the Scandinavian
approaches. Two common characteristics are the orientation towards users rather than
management and their critical attitude9. An interesting analysis is suggested by Boland
(1998); that there is a Scandinavian approach characterized by the Scandinavian relation
to nature, equality, and irony (cf. the start quote of this chapter). The close relation and
appreciation of nature makes Scandinavians open to continuous change and learning and
more relaxed with respect to control of the product, and more inclined to appreciate
situated knowledge and local action. The equity aspect is most visible, through a
profound respect for the user as an expert on equal terms, and an emphasis on physical
and social-psychological work environment important for health (well-being) and
productivity, autonomy, and co-determination10. The irony is visible in the questioning
of the taken-for-granted, and enables a discussion of dilemmas instead of dualisms (like
conflict–harmony, politic–ethics).
based on Marxist theory, see e.g. Ehn & Sandberg 1979; Mathiassen 1981 (building on Israel 1979); Sandberg
1975. Important influences were Braverman 1974 and Greenbaum 1979.
2 Sandberg 1975; Ehn and Kyng 1987; Ehn 1988; Bansler 1987; 1989
3 Soft Systems Methodology being the most well-known (Checkland 1981; Checkland & Scholes 1990)
4 a well written combination is Nielsen 1994
5 cf. Grudin 1991. See also Floyd et al 1989b; Clement and Van den Besselaer 1993; Iivari 1991
6 also from the US, see e.g. Beyer & Holtzblatt 1997; Muller & Kuhn 2000. See Greenbaum 1993 for a discussion
about differences between participatory design (PD) in US and Europe
7 cf. e.g. Emery 1993
8 Freire 1968, see e.g. Faust-Ramos et al 2002. Freire also inspired the Scandinavian trade-union projects.
9 Iivari & Hirschheim 1992; Karasti 1994
10 according to Iivari 1991 most system development approaches still basically have an economic perspective, even
if more user-oriented attitudes have been incorporated
Chapter 2. A Scandinavian perspective on systems development
Part 1. Background
The Scandinavian approach is – of course – a product of the Scandinavian culture1.
The Scandinavian countries are rich social democracies. They are relatively small and
autonomy and proximity to power is prominent – everybody knows somebody who
knows (somebody who knows) the prime minister. Most Scandinavian companies are
small and medium sized. The Scandinavian culture emphasises equity and equal rights,
particularly so in Norway with no aristocracy. The society is democratic and the work
life is democratic: social institutions are made to ensure democracy, such as the
invention of ombudsman, and the representation of employees in every company’s
managerial board. There is a high percentage of trade union membership. Society is
profoundly influenced by Protestant ethics emphasising that everybody is equal before
God, and that life consists of (hard) work and duties2. Technology is widely used and the
diffusion of technology in society is very fast. One reason may be the high wages
making automation profitable.
These characteristics provide a solid basis for user participation in systems
development, and we might say that the idea is established – e.g. through legislation – as
a valuable approach. The research in the 1980s and 1990s provided some principles, and
a set of corresponding methods and techniques. However, studies of contemporary
systems development practice show that the rights that are recessed into the laws and
agreements are not very well known, and the users involved in systems development act
as “super-users” rather than user representatives3. What seems to be common in
Scandinavia is the democratic work life that characterizes and is part of society, and the
deeply felt respect for users’ expertise on equal terms. The fact that the socio-cultural
context encourages democratic dialogue makes possible real participation in all parts of
systems development.
2.3 A conceptual framework for understanding systems
The conceptual framework presented here stems from Mathiassen (1981) and Andersen
et al (1986): “Professional Systems Development” reporting from the MARS project (see
section 2.1.4). The MARS project studied systems development practices, and was
therefore primarily concerned with systems development activities and how they are
organised. The important interplay between the “content” (i.e. the product) and the
organisation of work is emphasised.
As work, systems development is concerned with building a system and managing
the systems development process. Basic activities in the process of developing a
computer-based system are analysis, design, and realization of the computer system –
activities that are described in all methodologies and textbooks. When designing the
process of systems development, activities concerned with planning, evaluation and
regulation are equally important. Definitions of the concepts (analysis, design etc.) are
done in two ways: 1) by referring to the intention (“funktionen”) described as an abstract
goal of (a set of) some process(es), and 2) the kind of activities that typically would fulfil
see Ehn 1993 and Greenbaum 1993. Bødker 1994 connects the critical tradition to other cultural features in the
Scandinavian countries (Denmark), also emphasising representative government and enlightenment of the people
2 Weber 1904
3 Kaasbøll & Øgrim 1994a; 1994b. See also Kraft & Bansler 1992 and the discussion Bansler & Kraft 1994 with
Kyng 1994. Knudsen 1993 also discusses the (lack of) effects of the Scandinavian approaches.
this sort of intention (analysis is carried out through interviews, descriptions etc). The
intentions and activities can be described through the dimensions below (see figure 2):
o present reality–vision (or future): analysis is mainly concerned with the current
situation and design is mainly directed towards the future.
o reflection–action (or change): both analysis and design require reflection and
thinking, while realization of the computer system means action.
o process–product: the activities concerned with the process (planning, evaluation,
regulation) are influenced by the activities concerned with the product (analysis,
design, and realization) and vice versa1.
Systems development
Figure 2: Main components of systems development: Andersen et al (1986: 46/ 43)
Throughout the process activities that concern social aspects of both product and
process, i.e. decision-making, communication, and socialisation, are carried out. The Ù
indicates that there is a dialectic relation between the sides. There is a mutual
interdependence between the sides: they presuppose each other. However, there may also
be conflict between them.
The conceptual framework described above is independent of technologies and
methodologies, and can be used to describe, compare and evaluate systems development
processes and methodologies. The work of systems development is guided and supported
by methodologies, methods, techniques, and tools. A methodology is characterized by
the relations between analysis Ù design and between process Ù product are discussed in more detail in later
chapters. The notion of process in Andersen et al 1986 refers to the work process and is therefore rather productoriented (for a discussion about this see Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987e).
2 Mathiassen 1981; Andersen et al 1986
Chapter 2. A Scandinavian perspective on systems development
Part 1. Background
o application area: what the methodology can be used for, its scope and type of
o perspective: the implicit and explicit assumptions about systems development,
computers, organisations – the world, and
o tools, techniques, and principles for organising the work. Tools and techniques in
many cases are system description languages and techniques (see below); principles
for organising work are e.g. phases or evolutionary cycles.
Nielsen (1991) modifies this conceptual framework, characterizing systems development
methodologies by three aspects1:
o domain of use and modelling languages (product-oriented): the scope and range of
situations within which the methodology is useful and a language for expressing the
understanding of the situation (as a model)
o frame of action and related techniques (process-oriented): a set of activities that
should or could be carried out when using the methodology (and possible logical
dependencies among them), including techniques for carrying out particular
activities. The frame of action relates to the language because it prescribes ways of
using the language.
o Weltanschauung: the perspective or world view of a methodology, often implicitly
given by the other aspects. I will use the concept perspective in this thesis2.
Nielsen divides the category “techniques and tools” (modelling techniques and
languages) and links them to product (what can be made and expressed) and process
(how can this be carried out), respectively. In this way he emphasises that what we do
and what we describe are interconnected, and that there are both process and product
aspects in both managing and carrying out systems development.
Most systems development methodologies are built around techniques for system
description, i.e. more-or-less formalized techniques for describing particular (sets of)
aspects of the computer-based system, used as part of both analysis and design3. System
presentation (like prototyping) aims to create a physical and material image of parts of
the future system4. The emphasis on system presentation has a theoretical basis arguing
that also inexplicable or tacit knowledge is essential in work and therefore should be
used as a basis for analysis and design of computer-based information systems5.
The conceptual framework presented above is useful as one of very few contributions
to a theory about systems development that transcends methods and techniques as well as
programming paradigms. It points to some important and non-trivial relations that
characterize systems development (the future–the present, reflection–action, and
process–product), and categorise systems development activities by these dimensions.
The theory is grounded in systems development practice – and hence in a practice-based
division of labour in systems development. Aspects concerned with organising and
performing work are emphasised, in particular how we can understand and plan work.
The interplay between work plans and work “content” (i.e. analysis, design, realization)
Nielsen 1991: 36-38
the notion “Weltanschauung” in Nielsen 1991 is based on Soft Systems Methodology (see e.g. Checkland 1981)
3 see argumentation for this in Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987b
4 Bjerg & Verner Nielsen 1978 introduces the notion of system presentation, taken up by e.g. Bjerknes & Bratteteig
1984 and Ehn & Kyng 1984. For a discussion of prototyping as system presentation, as executable system
descriptions and as part of analysis, see Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987b; Bødker & Grønbæk 1991; Grønbæk 1991;
Mogensen 1994. A general discussion about prototyping is found in Floyd 1984 and Budde et al 1992.
5 tacit and inexplicable knowledge is discussed in chapter 5.7. See also e.g. Ehn 1988; Bødker 1991; Bødker &
Grønbæk 1991; Grønbæk 1991
emphasises that the work needs to be organised and planned on the basis of the
characteristics of the artefact-to-be; different artefacts need different development
My research provides the basis for a different focus on the many processes in systems
development. I have experienced that
o analysis and design are difficult to separate,
o analysis of the present can lead to conservative design results – design and analysis
together may produce better and more durable results,
o design deals with the present as the basis for change,
o reflection – conceptualization and theorizing – is change,
o change (action) can happen without reflection,
o user involvement in design is a different way of designing, not only a way to organise
the design work,
and I have experienced that use is of crucial importance to systems development. This
makes my research focus different – but not contradictory to the theory.
My aim here is to offer a supplement to the theoretical framework described above
based on stories and analyses that bring my experiences forward. I focus more on the
many different processes that happen in systems development, on their interplay, and on
their possible interpretations. I locate systems development in a larger social and cultural
context in which the use context constitutes continuity, and in which change is
Systems development requires knowledge about both use and design because new
ideas require grounding in both traditions: in use because new artefacts always must be
understood and used in a traditional context; in design because the evaluations and
decisions basic to form and function of the artefact are made in a larger context of
technological design and use. These larger contexts give continuity to change. New
artefacts and new action must be understood as elements in this continuity and must
therefore balance new and old, general principles and particular conditions, abstract
explanations and concrete expressions. I find it important to describe and identify
principles and values, habits and patterns – the taken-for-granted-ness in actions and
concepts – that can explain and guide in action and learning – and that can give
continuity to change. Both design and use in systems development needs theory and
concepts that can explain such connections and look beyond the surface of practice (not
mistaking the surface to tell the whole story). We need to understand how to arrange for
a diversity of product-oriented processes in order to manage and perform systems
development so that the framing of the development processes supports rather than
hampers creativity and innovation.
Chapter 2. A Scandinavian perspective on systems development
Part 1. Background
Chapter 3
Systems development research projects
Like usability studies within computer science, ethnography began in the
service of powerful actors interested in managing relevant others. In the
case of ethnography, the powerful actors were colonial administrators, the
relevant others the so-called native peoples who inhabited the colonies
and provided the work force for, or alternatively, the sources of resistance
to, imperialist enterprises. Early anthropologists went out to the colonies
on the premise that theirs was a project of objective recording, aimed at
bringing back knowledge of native peoples that would be useful in
colonial design and administration. But over the years, in part in reaction
to this early history, anthropology in general and ethnography in
particular have taken a different turn. Specifically, critical discussions
and refigurations of ethnography have transformed it from an objectivist
enterprise in the service of radical interventions and critique of the part of
post-colonial efforts. A central aspect of this transformation has been
painstaking, critical reflection on the so-called ethnographic encounter,
specifically the coming together of knowledges and perspectives that are
not only different, but differentially powerful, as a part of ethnography’s
basic practice.
I believe that … relations between ethnographers and their “subjects”
bear a family resemblance to relations of designers and users (Suchman
1998: 50)
This chapter presents the research projects I have been part of. The empirical findings
from these projects constitute an important basis for the argumentation in this thesis. I
present the projects briefly, emphasising facts and main findings – I go into more detail
in later chapters where the argumentation is developed.
3.1 The
Project (1983-1987)
The Florence Project was an interdisciplinary research project initiated by the
Department of Informatics, University of Oslo, aimed at developing techniques for user
participation in systems development within nursing practice1. The project was carried
out in collaboration with two different hospital wards: in 1983-1985 a ward for asthmatic
and allergic children at the National Hospital (Asthma & Allergy Ward), and in 19861987 a ward for cardiology at a Regional Hospital outside Oslo (Cardiology Ward). In
the Asthma & Allergy Ward we were at the most four informaticians, one social
anthropologist, one nurse and a secretary on the project. On the Cardiology Ward we
Bjerknes et al 1985; Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987c
Chapter 3. Systems development research projects
Part 1. Background
were three informaticians, and a social anthropologist, but only two informaticians
stayed all through the project (I being one of these). Instead of employing a nurse on the
project, the nursing position went to the Cardiology Ward as an extra resource – which
made the nurses feel they could spend some time on the project during working hours. A
senior informatician (Kristen Nygaard) acted as a project leader, participating mostly in
formal meetings.
The Florence Project was concerned with systems development with nurses, aiming
to find out how nurses’ work could be supported by computer systems (and therefore
also involving finding out exactly what nursing is). The project chose nursing for several
reasons: Nursing is a profession interacting with other professions. It is female
dominated and includes “non-production work” such as reproduction, service and
information giving activities, and it involves an interesting mix of manual and
knowledge-based work.
3.1.1 Theoretical basis
The starting point for the Florence Project was political. Large computer manufacturers
may have too much influence in shaping the workplace through computer systems which
are mainly aimed at automation and rationalisation. On the other hand, basing the
introduction of computer technology in an organisation or a branch on the power of trade
union negotiation was considered to be too defensive. A more appropriate response to
the large manufacturers would be computer systems based on the knowledge of a
profession. A profession was considered to be equivalent to trade unions (sometimes
coinciding with a union). Like the trade unions, a profession organises employees across
many different organisations, e.g. the nursing and medical professions.
The theoretical starting point was language, emphasising the professional language in
work. The Florence Project became the primary case in the Nordic research programme
SYDPOL (SYstem Development environment and Profession Oriented Languages)1. The
SYDPOL programme focused on profession-oriented languages as a strategy for the
profession to control computer systems to be used in their work.
A second theoretical basis was developed: the “application perspective”, expressing
values and principles in systems development and systems development research2. The
application perspective emphasises that computers should be understood in the context in
which they are used; the value of a computer system is demonstrated when the computer
is used. Computers should be designed as instruments for work. The benefit of a
computer system should be evaluated with respect to its users, not to the organisation as
a whole. The basis for design should therefore be the knowledge needed to maintain
daily work routines rather than production routines.
As project developed, the emphasis moved away from the explicit interest in
languages toward systems development with nurses based on knowledge about nursing
as professional work. The aim of the project became to build computer systems for
nurses’ daily work, based on their professional language and skills. Technological
solutions should be tested in real work situations (in line with the application
perspective). The project therefore took place in the hospital wards. Due to the
workplace orientation, it was difficult to limit focus solely on the nursing profession;
other occupational groups, like physicians and nursing assistants, had to be considered as
well. These groups were therefore also represented in the project group. A representative
a research network arranging workshops and seminars in 1982-1988, see Kaasbøll 1983 for a description. See also
Andersen & Bratteteig 1989 for a discussion about computers and language at work
2 described in Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1984; 1985; 1988b
from the Professional Nursing Federation participated in the management committee of
the project.
w/ hospitals
support for
nurse empl.
National H
——— ———
activities in
the wards
Regional H
as project member
as extra position in thhe ward
mutual learniing
Mac ND-S
ND100 / ND500
----desSign---use (afteer project
Table 1: Overview of the Florence Project; phases and activities1
3.1.2 Research design
The research approach included a variety of qualitative research methods, based on the
view that research on systems development techniques requires an action-oriented
approach in which actual system development is carried out2. The aim was to develop
and test techniques for user participation in system development – as a strategy for
developing a system that would support nursing. The main approach therefore became
action research where the nurses were engaged in the systems development process of a
system that should support their daily work, based on their professional language and
skills. The actions taken were motivated by the two sets of aims: the nurses wanted a
computer system, we wanted that too, but more importantly we wanted to develop
techniques for user influence in systems design. The strategy to increase nurses’
knowledge basis for contributing to the design were inspired by pedagogic theory, while
the concrete actions in that strategy were based on systems development techniques,
modified to enhance the learning.
The action research approach also included an initial period of ethnographic studies
of nurses at work. The observations and interviews were carried out as part of a process
of mutual learning, aimed at developing a mutual understanding of what kind of
computer support could be useful for nurses. The understanding of nursing gained from
the field studies acted as a basis for the later design discussions.
The research was documented in diaries and intermediate reports, and reported in
quarterly status reports and reports from each phase documenting findings and analyses3.
the technical equipment varied: at the National Hospital: Macintoshes for prototyping in the Mutual Learning
phase and ND Satelite for prototyping in the design phase; at the Regional Hospital: Macintoshes (Mutual
Learning) and for prototyping: a ND100 in the ward and a ND500 in the University (ND = Norsk Data). The nurse
employed in and by the project was funded by the Ministry of Social Affairs (1984-1985) and in collaboration
with the relevant Regional Health Authority (1986) and by the Regional Hospital (1987).
2 Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1995
3 Bjerknes et al 1985; Bjerknes, Bratteteig & Sinding-Larsen 1987; Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987c; 1987d
Chapter 3. Systems development research projects
Part 1. Background
A number of research publications have been produced1. The results from the project
were also documented through exemplars of systems (and systems descriptions) and
results from participatory techniques (descriptions, prototypes, pictures).
3.1.3 Mutual learning
The project work was planned as a process of mutual learning. Our part of the learning
involved spending time in the hospital ward – dressed in white coats in order to not
attract attention – observing and interviewing, and making notes. We worked in pairs,
which turned out to be very helpful for discussing and analyzing the data. The social
anthropologist taught us some tricks of the trade, as this was our first field work.
Figure 3: Mutual Learning activities in the Florence Project:
upper row: hands-on testing and discussions about prototypes
lower row: systems description (wall graphs)
The mutual learning period included a range of activities aimed at increasing knowledge
about the two fields involved, nursing and computers, and aimed at establishing common
ground. The list of activities included:
o field work: observations of nurses at work – and of documents, medicines, meetings
and other interesting entities in the work. We also observed nurses’ interaction with
doctors and nursing assistants. We also conducted interviews: planned individual and
group interviews, but also unplanned conversations in which the nurses explained
how and why they did things
Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1984; 1985; 1986; 1987a; 1987b; 1988a; 1988b; 1995; Bjerknes 1989; Bratteteig 1997;
Bratteteig & Stolterman 1997; Einarsrud & Granholm 1986
o system descriptions, more or less formal because their main function was to act as
means for discussion, but also more formal descriptions that acted as specifications
for prototypes
o system presentations: excursions to other hospitals to look at existing computer
systems and discuss them with their users, and excursions to see the latest in
technology – sometimes combined with demonstrations, but the demonstrations were
basically hands-on experiences on general computers that were placed in the ward or
prototypes made for the project to demonstrate particular features or the range of
possibilities in this particular technology
o teaching: lectures-on-demand about computers and computer use as well as about
nursing and the conditions being treated on the two wards, and practical teaching
through hands-on experience)1.
3.1.4 Systems design
The project resulted in two prototypes; a Kardex System and a ProcedureArchive
System2, and a pilot system; the WorkSheet System, which was used in the hospital ward
even after the formal completion of the project3. The Kardex System was a complete
failure — and an extremely instructive one — while the ProcedureArchive was a
Figure 4: the layout of the screen and paper report of the WorkSheet System
the techniques are described in Bjerknes et al 1985; Bjerknes, Bratteteig & Sinding-Larsen 1987; Bjerknes &
Bratteteig 1987b; 1987c; Bratteteig 1997. Einarsrud & Granholm 1986. The mutual learning activities included
activities later described as cooperative prototyping and participatory design. See also Munk-Madsen 1978
2 Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987a; Bjerknes et al 1985
3 Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1988a
Chapter 3. Systems development research projects
Part 1. Background
The WorkSheet System was designed in cooperation with the nurses – based on their
idea – but due to technical circumstances the realization of this pilot system turned out to
be extremely difficult. A detailed account of these developments may be found in
chapters 6 to 9.
3.1.5 Afterthought
The WorkSheet System is an example of a computer system built to support a profession,
based on professional reasoning. Even if the organisation of the professionals’ (trained
nurses) work activities varies in different workplaces, we concluded from the project that
it is possible to build profession-oriented systems – a modification of the original
orientation to profession-oriented languages in the SYDPOL programme. The
requirement, however, is that the system is based on an understanding of the basic
characteristics in the profession – characteristics that transcend the concrete instantiation
of professional activity in this particular context. In order to be useful, an application has
to be tailored to specific work situations: computer applications interact with and depend
on other organisational and physical designs in the use context.
Figure 5: An example of a commonly used patient information system1
The WorkSheet System was a success – locally – but would probably have been more
useful if integrated with other computer systems in the hospital. This made us discuss
how local and situated it makes sense to be, and to discuss the lack of communication
and coordination with other units as the major weakness of the project. Relations
between work groups was not a focus of the application perspective, but the nurses
provided by Anne Moen, June 2003
insisted on including more interest groups in the design – which confirms the necessity
of shifting (unproductive) perspectives in such multidisciplinary cooperations. The
nurses’ focus was on balancing the interests of all those involved in order to maintain the
degree of cooperation necessary to run the ward.
Some years after the project had ended we learnt that the consultant (head doctor)
had used the WorkSheet System as a reference when evaluating proposals for computer
systems in the ward – a true success!1 The similarity with today’s systems (see figure 5)
also confirms our belief that we managed to implement nursing ideas in the WorkSheet
3.2 The
project (1992-1994)
The goal of the FIRE Project was to develop principles, techniques, and guidelines for
redesigning computer-based systems so that the systems could become functionally
integrated for groups of users3. The project was concerned with problems in large
development projects and in the maintenance of computer systems – addressing some of
the weaknesses of the application perspective. We were interested in studying the
development of computer systems for the organisation as a whole, given that the
organisation includes a variety of interest groups with partly conflicting goals, and given
that a number of computer systems coexist, but do not interact properly.
3.2.1 Research design
The research area of the FIRE project was very wide, and a broad range of research
techniques were applied – the project took the form of a series of smaller studies each
focused on one research question. The basic interest was studies of practice; design and
use practice, as well as the practice of systems development through its various forms
cf. Anne Moen, personal communication June 2003
Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987c
3 Bjerknes et al 1991; Braa et al 1992; Bratteteig et al 1993
Chapter 3. Systems development research projects
Part 1. Background
through the system lifecycle. Most of the studies used traditional qualitative methods
(interviews, system documentation studies). In addition a field experiment was carried
out, and one quantitative study was carried out with the help of students.
In the next subsections I describe the research approaches in the studies I participated
in. The studies were documented in a number of reports, and reported in articles and
other research publications.
3.2.2 Functional Integration
The FI part of the project was concerned with use of more than one computer system or
program in work: functional integration means that users should experience the
applications as an integrated whole. Integration is an issue if (see figure 6):
o the user uses more than one program in a work task
o one program is used in more than one work task
o several groups of users use many programs in many work tasks
o groups of users collaborate on work tasks.
A study of 13 organisations showed that the users basically experienced the same old,
well-documented problems with the computer. However, when more than one system
was used, some of the problems were magnified, e.g. extra work was introduced when
data output from one system had to be manually transferred to the next system, different
and inconsistent user interfaces made the shift between two systems more demanding. A
good example of how the number of systems makes a difference was the hospital in
which the extensive security routines made the users log on in the morning and leave the
system open all day – thus actually weakening security.
The study was carried out as a
series of parallel student projects in a
University of Oslo. I was one of the
teachers on this course. Each of the
organisation to study, and carried out
program program
standardised interviews provided by
the course management. The data
was reported in project reports that
Figure 6: Functional Integration
descriptions of the organisation. The
course management analysed the data using both quantitative and qualitative methods1.
3.2.3 Redesign
The RE part of the project was concerned with the changes that takes place in computer
systems after they have become integrated in the work. A finished system is not really
finished: up to 80 % of the total resources are reported spent on the maintenance of
computer systems2. Activities performed to change a computer system after delivery to
the user organisation is usually defined as maintenance. Swanson (1976) characterizes
maintenance as three types of tasks: i) corrective maintenance: to correct errors coming
from construction activities carried out in order to fulfil requirements, like development
or previous enhancements; ii) adaptive maintenance: to enhance the system to a new or
Kaasbøll, Braa & Bratteteig 1992
Lientz & Swanson 1986; Swanson & Beath 1989
changed technical environment, or to adapt it to new or changed requirements imposed
on the organisation from outside; and iii) perfective maintenance: to enhance the system
due to new or changed requirements from inside the organisation. As mentioned above,
up to 80% of the resources connected to a system are used on adaptive and perfective
maintenance, and during programming, perfective maintenance accounts for 55% of the
resources (adaptive and corrective maintenance account for 25% and 20% respectively).
A large part of the corrective maintenance is a consequence of the other two.
Maintenance includes both error correction and service, but also big or small
redesign efforts necessary for adapting the system usability to a continuously changing
organisation. Post-implementation changes to computer-based systems must be expected,
and the continuous redesign of a system should be organised and planned for1. Redesign
is an opportunity for functional integration, and a wish for better integration may lead to
redesign. Integration of computer-based systems often reveals conflicts between different
parts of the organisation and between local and central interests. The basis for redesign is
the work situation, but the overall organisational objectives are given more weight than
any single work process. The concept of redesign expresses a perspective on system
development as a continuous process where post-implementation changes should be
planned and organised.
The FIRE project builds
upon the part of the critical
work tasks
developing theory (like the
user interface
MARS project). One of the
basic assumptions in the FIRE
project is that users have an
interest in redesign as well as in
design, thus the redesign
process must be properly
software &
organised to facilitate user
differences between the various
interest groups was taken up in
a study about user influence in
redesign, focusing on the work
of data shop stewards in
reference to the Worker
Environment Act .
Figure 7: REdesign
The FIRE project was partly
founded by a governmental
systems development organisation GovIT that developed (and redesigned), maintained
and supported a number of governmental software systems. We gained access to the
organisation for our studies of systems development practices, and were asked for advice
in their methodology discussion – as a task. The task was taken in as an aspect of the
study, but the detailed study of the variety of practices – and their reasons – led to
Bjerknes, Bratteteig & Espeseth 1991
Braa, Bratteteig, & Øgrim 1996 is based on literature studies and field experiments (see Braa 1994), aimed at
developing and testing techniques for user influence in redesign (see also Bratteteig 1994b)
3 Kaasbøll and Øgrim 1994a; 1994b. The study was carried out as student projects, similar to the FI study above.
Chapter 3. Systems development research projects
Part 1. Background
interesting results. The field study included interviews with developers in four different
development groups, and document studies concerned with their product as well as their
organisation of work.
We made use of an analytic technique called Soft Dialectics, which we developed
based on elements from Soft Systems Methodology (rich pictures as a mapping
technique) and dialectical analysis, identifying contradictions and conflicts1. The steps in
Soft Dialectics are: 1) draw a picture of the situation, as rich as convenient, 2) describe
relevant perspectives, 3) describe contradictions between perspectives, and 4) discuss the
Soft Dialectics description with members of the actual organisation. Our analysis of the
work practices represented in GovIT demonstrated four very different basic values and
perspectives in their work: as user support, professional software vendor, professional
consultancy, or modernising agent. The four perspectives acted as the main organising
principle for one group of developers, and when several different – even contradictory –
basic perspectives existed in the organisation, a number of different work styles were
used. Our analysis concluded that the conflicts in the organisation – and there were real,
difficult conflicts – in order to be handled, required discussions that paid attention to and
respected these differences. The matter-of-fact-ness of the presentation of perspectives
and corresponding work styles, and the contradictions between them, made possible a
discussion about methods and work styles avoiding personal conflicts.
3.2.4 FI + RE
An interesting combination of FI and RE occurred when the user organisations of two
different products from GovIT merged: how should the systems become functionally
integrated? A discussion about barriers and triggers for functional integration singled out
five aspects that affect the ease of functional integration: reorganisation, communication,
technology, competence, and organisational identity2. A technical merge was made
difficult by the fact that the two sections of GovIT responsible for each system had
developed differently – and so had the code. The two GovIT groups had for many years
worked differently (subscribing to different basic values), related to users differently, and
developed their products in different directions. The structure of the products mirrored
the structure of the development groups – which mirrored the structure of the user
3.2.5 Afterthought
The FIRE project included a research seminar in addition to the specific studies and
experiments. The main contribution of the project was the reconsideration of concepts in
systems development to better fit systems development practice. The project was
concerned with challenges posed by systems development practice to the critical
tradition emphasising user involvement in design. The involvement of expert “superusers” as knowledge sources may not represent durable and technology-independent
work knowledge and user interests; hence an emphasis on organising and planning
redesign in ways similar to design may meet a wider range of user interests. A
particularly interesting characteristic of the governmental organisation was its long
existence and relations with its users – enabling a study of some of the intricate interplay
presented in Bratteteig & Øgrim 1992; 1994. Soft Dialectics has been used in teaching (in Oslo and elsewhere).
Dialectics (in the field of informatics) is presented in Mathiassen 1981; Bjerknes 1989; 1992; Øgrim 1993, see
chapter 5.3. SSM is presented in Checkland 1981; Checkland & Scholes 1990.
2 Braa et al 1993
3 Bratteteig & Kaasbøll 1995
between use contexts and development contexts, and their developments and interplay
over time.
3.3 Studies of use of technology
Studies of use of computer systems are valuable in systems development as sources for
evaluation and suggestions for (re)design of the systems. Information systems
development methods include – and are often based on – systems description techniques
and languages aimed to make the analysis of the use domain more efficient by supporting
a focus on information aspects assumed relevant to the design of an information system.
The study of work in the Florence project benefited from not strictly focusing on the
informational aspects in the work. The study of the connections between design and use
organisations in the FIRE project further confirmed that when the contemporary
organisation of work is the basis for the computer system, any change in the work
organisation will create problems for redesign and integration of the system. Studies of
use of computers can help us come closer to the logic of work – the logic constitutes the
basis for how work is organised and carried out, and for how computer systems are
incorporated in the practice.
3.3.1 SUPPORT: Software Use — Patterns and Practices in ORganisational
Transition (1994-1998)
A particularly interesting area of study in the 1990s was the emergence of groupware
systems. The 1990s brought about some fundamental changes in technology: the Internet
became open to commercial use, and Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW)
produced commercially available solutions for and awareness about the possibilities for
collaboration over distance. I collected and partly organised a set of studies of
introduction of groupware in organisations under the umbrella SUPPORT1. Many reports
from use of CSCW tell of “failures”. These are often due to the system being used in a
way which does not make use of its potential for cooperation between users2. Some of
the explanation is that the users simply do not understand the system’s potential: they do
not understand how the groupware system is different from the systems they are used to
– also because it looks familiar. And, more important, the system is introduced in a
context in which people, systems, organisational and cultural patterns etc. do not fit the
potential of the system. One of my concerns in the research was to discuss what these
failures of CSCW are – and what success might be when new types of technology are
introduced. Technical leaps, such as from single user to groupware, should be expected –
a similar shift would be shift from stationary computers to mobile or wearable equipment
or ubiquitous computing.
Research design
The SUPPORT effort organised and analysed a number of case studies of Norwegian
organisations introducing and using Lotus Notes. Lotus Notes was chosen as a wellknown and easily available example of CSCW, and because it had been used by a variety
Bratteteig 1998
a number of studies report this, classic examples are Orlikowski 1992a and Star & Ruhleder 1996, see also the
discussion of success in Grudin & Palen 1995 referring to Grudin 1989b’s discussion about CSCW failures
Chapter 3. Systems development research projects
Part 1. Background
of organisations for some years1. The first nine case studies were carried out by student
groups as part of a project-based course at the Department of Informatics, University of
Oslo2. Each student group studied one organisation and its usage of Lotus Notes, see
table 1 for an overview of the organisations. Eight out of nine organisations were
contacted through a value added reseller of Lotus Notes in Norway.
category of
project based
type of
indep. research
RESO organisation
organisation PUBO
research institute
trade union
rough description of
main Notes usage
replacement of paperbased communication
automating administrative
case archive
police department
case archive
coordination of work
project support
public office
fax machine
engineering organis
distribution of work tasks
control between dept. and
for management
IT organisation
ICT organisation
project archive
cooperation of
COOP production units
support for sales
international industr report archive, support for
IND organisation
main problems
management performance
individual - group
individual - group
tradition - development
individual - group
tradition - development
management performance
tradition - development
management performance
tradition - development
management performance
management performance
Table 2: Overview of the twelve organisations using Lotus Notes
The studies made use of a common interview guide based on four hypotheses, developed
from analysing literature about introduction and use of Lotus Notes. The studies aimed to
confirm the hypotheses that Lotus Notes 1) supports cooperative work, 2) integrates
applications and platforms, 3) is easy to adapt and tailor to local needs, and 4) is used
independently of organisational boundaries or knowledge differences. The student
groups used the guide freely, and all groups made additional observations. Data from the
interviews was made available to me. The studies were reported in student reports.
Lotus Notes is an environment rather than a program or system. It is ready to use, but still flexible and tailorable to
the use context. Notes offers a homogenous environment for a variety of underlying functionality, mainly
applications for distributing, finding and sharing information (like discussion databases and work flow systems). It
includes a document editor, links for attaching documents, text search, electronic mail with distribution lists, and
macros to add functionality or integrate with other applications. It is characterized by two features: i) replication,
i.e. the possibility to simultaneously work on the same document from different geographical locations, where the
replication mechanisms synchronise all changes to the document, and ii) that the “document database” includes
both structured and unstructured information. A document is defined as a form containing some fields, and the
users define their own “information views” through a selection of fields. Lotus Notes thus solves some problems
of FI and RE
2 in 1994; the cases are summarised in Bratteteig 1996
In addition to these studies, I included seven case studies (six case-based Masters
theses1 and a small study by a PhD. student). Two of these studies followed up one of the
nine student project case studies reported above, and three of the Masters students
studied the same organisation from three different theoretical perspectives. I analysed the
16 studies using the Soft Dialectics technique, identifying contradictions and world
views to explain variations in the use of Lotus Notes.
Patterns of use
The analysis concluded that Lotus Notes supports some aspects of cooperative work but
only some; Notes applications ease communication (e.g. use of fax) or expand
communication forms (e-mail adds to telephone and paper mail). Notes is used to make
information more easily available by replacing physical bulletin boards, circular letters,
hand books, or public bills. The product makes a basis for supporting cooperative work
tasks by providing an information infrastructure. But this potential is only used when
cooperative work routines exist before Notes is introduced.
Moreover, Notes is used to share work material only in cases where collaborative
work is already established. Two organisations (the newspaper (NEWS), and the
engineering organisation (ENG)) use Notes applications to support work processes that
involve collaborative tasks, i.e. to coordinate the production process with respect to the
distribution of work. Unlike the promises from CSCW literature, documents are shared
and reused mainly by the original authors (also in NEWS). Only two organisations (the
police department (POL), and the IT organisation (IT)) utilize large parts of the CSCW
potential in Notes by integrating several applications to make an infrastructure for
projects and inter-departmental work processes.
Notes is used by employees as well as management, and in several of the
organisations the same documents are used for different purposes, in different ways, by
different people (in IT and the international industrial organisation (IND)). However, the
fact that the same work material and tools are used for both work and management are
often not transparent. Levels of access (and in particular access to information about
other peoples' work) mirror current levels of power. Making internal work documents
available for management creates an uncertainty about the way that these documents are
used2. In some of the organisations the distribution of costs and benefits are uneven: the
beneficiaries do not pay all the costs (e.g. the independent research organisation
The analysis can be presented as a series of dialectical relations:
o between the individual and the collective: problems experienced by the individual
user with respect to a Notes application becomes a group problem as the group is
dependent on all members to contribute to the CSCW application (e.g. the trade
union (UNI)). As the benefit of CSCW applications depends on a critical mass of
users, the CSCW application is therefore (more or less) mandatory to the collective –
which consists of a variety of individual users.
o between the work tasks and the tool: this contradiction is unavoidable when
computers are used in work – a perfect fit between the computer system and the work
tasks is difficult or impossible to achieve. Moreover, a computer system used by
more than one person may be subject to contradictory or difficult-to-meet
Næss 1996; Ulla 1997; Hilde 1997; Sefland 1998; Dreiem 1998; Kværne-Nielsen 1998
see e.g. Dreiem 1998
3 see a general discussion in Grudin 1989b; 1994
Chapter 3. Systems development research projects
Part 1. Background
requirements. Examples that the collective tool was not the best tool for particular
individual work tasks were found in all 16 cases.
o between management and performance: based on the experience that the same
applications and documents are used for different purposes – as part of a work task
and as a part of managing the same work task. The two ways of using the system are
not always transparent (visible or controllable), and this created a feeling of
uncertainty and loss of autonomy for some users.
o between tradition and change: a basic relation in all system development, but CSCW
technology differs from traditional, single-user technology in ways that makes this
contradiction more difficult to handle. A full appreciation of the potential in CSCW
technology requires a shift in both cognitive and organisational structures, and the
shift has to be company-wide – or at least include whole collectives of individuals.
Most of the twelve case organisations made use of Notes to support their current way
of working, which were closely tied to single-user applications.
Success and failure are relative characteristics. It is not obvious that successful
utilization of the potential of Lotus Notes is conceived as a success for all users, or that
this contributes to a successful organisation. I recommend that a discussion of success
and failure include a discussion of the perspective underlying the evaluation; to whom is
the system a success or a failure, and why.
Systems development
In ten out of twelve of the organisations little or no user training was given; a voluntary
half-day course at the vendor was the most common form of training offered. However,
Notes is clearly not self-instructing, and a stepwise introduction combined with little or
no training seems to imply that the potential of Notes as a CSCW product is not utilized1
unless the employees are forced to use Notes in particular ways. Only two examples of
this strategy were found: IT and IND made their Notes applications mandatory. In IT the
result was full utilization of Notes as a CSCW technology – apparently a “success story”;
in IND only the necessary reports were entered into the system, the “real” work
documents were filed in other archives where the access was controlled by the document
Only POL seemed to have organised thorough training to all users. This organisation
used a traditional system development method when the system was purchased, and
training was a part of this approach. This seems to have worked very well.
Lotus Notes allows for flexible local tailoring, but the central (global) decisions
about the standard – the product – are not subject to user influence2. Local adjustments
may seem to support local autonomy, but if the standards and structures are decided
elsewhere, the autonomy may be very limited – although not visibly so.
3.3.2 The TRIM project: Translation and Identity in new Media development (19982001)
The spread of the Internet in commercial and public use since 1989 has had a profound
impact on mass media. The digitization of broadcasting, the building of wired and
wireless transmitting infrastructures for telephone and data communication has been
dramatic and has changed the way we see information and communication technologies,
alone and together. The technical convergence goes hand in hand with a change in the
definition of media: paper or broadcasted mass media are transformed to news and
confirms e.g. Orlikowski 1992a
see e.g. Sefland 1998
entertainment communicated through a diversity of media – all digitized and connected,
tailored to the individual consumer through subscription or profiling. The view that
information is independent of its material presentation (paper, computer etc.) has reached
mass media and makes us see news and entertainment disconnected from their physical
presentations – they are all digital, anyway. Moreover, the character of mass media shifts
as they offer feedback and provide interactivity1.
The TRIM project was started as a field study of web design as media production,
and was extended to include a set of studies of a mass media producer in transition from
traditional producer to include web as a mass medium. Again, the interest was in the
practices of designers (and technology users in the mass media company), suggesting a
case study approach.
Web design
The need for web design in the 1990s was extreme, and many web design companies
were established and had success. The TRIM project studied web development in one of
the (then) newly established web companies, and discussed how the new technology
changed the work of design2. A significant change was the inclusion of more
professional groups in the design (such as graphical designers); systems development
was divided into separate processes very similar to the early days of software production.
The time pressure factor led to little collaboration across the phases and between the
disciplinary groups, and to the reuse of existing solutions with just enough adjustments
to make it look unique. However, more time was spent on problem definition and overall
principles for design as the system was considered an important part of the business
profile and service. The general time pressure to be first on the net was high.
The study of web development practices was carried out through interviews with
designers. I did not participate in the field study, but met and discussed with web
designers and researchers.
New media
Several studies were carried out as student projects at a Broadcasting Company BCC,
studying elements in a major change process, transforming the company from a “TV and
radio broadcaster” to a “news & entertainment provider in all media”. The transition has
been enormous: organisational, structural, cultural, technical, and professional changes
are involved. Each of these transitions takes time – and the transition to a coherent whole
takes even longer. We studied a phase of this transition concerned with the design and
introduction of a web publishing program in some units of the BCC. The studies were
carried out as field studies including observations, interviews, and studies of documents
(paper and on the web) and programs3. The very small publishing program was
developed in an ad hoc way, but was soon integrated with other digital systems for
presenting sound and images (video) and VideoText. The small program was a step in
the much larger and longer change process.
A fascinating piece of the transition was the change of the VideoText Office to a
Central Web Editorial Office. The VideoText unit used to be a small office presenting
at some level and to some degree: if interactivity means content changes of system course and delegation of
control to the audience, few systems are interactive. However, making user profiles can be seen as interaction with
the medium as the combination of user actions and statistics make the system experience individual and unique.
2 Greenbaum & Stuedahl 1999; 2000
3 documented in student reports from a project-based course at the department (in 1999), as well as in Masters
theses, e.g. Hilstad 2001; Dalberg 2001; Truong 2001; Revil 2002
Chapter 3. Systems development research projects
Part 1. Background
news on VideoText, where there were more regular work hours and less deadline
pressure than the average news offices in the BCC. The transition to an all-mediaprovider where the BCC was reorganised to a set of theme-based divisions (news,
culture, sports, family etc.) also included the moving of the old VideoText Office to the
physical centre of the News Division. The office became the Central Web Editorial
Office responsible for presenting news on the web (and VideoText) as well as assisting
in web-based research for the News Division. As a web editorial office the deadline is
constant, not every hour as when news is presented on TV and radio. A publishing
pattern was developed after some time, incorporating the constant competition between
the web news providers to be the first to tell the news. The pressure of being first results
in a very rudimentary first presentation on the web, with later add-ons, extra materials,
pictures (video), links to radio and TV materials etc. The conveying of web news evolves
over time, as does the development of any particular web journalism.
3.4 GSO: Global Software Outsourcing (2001- )
As the last project presented here, I include the research I am currently involved in: a
study of global software outsourcing. This research is, for me, a continuation of the FIRE
project in that is it concerned with studying systems development practices, and how the
particular organisation of work in systems development influences the resulting system.
The global labour market which has developed during the last years has its roots in
industries which have moved parts of their production to places where the production
costs are lower. The thinking is based on the Just-In-Time principle of reducing storage
costs combined with cheap and fast transportation costs, in many cases just adding the
brand name or finishing the product close to the consumers. This trend has also reached
the software industry, and a number of software companies in low-cost countries now do
parts of the programming for (mainly) Western software companies, both software
product development and software development for customer organisations1.
The GSO project studies Norwegian and multinational software companies that
collaborate with software companies in low-cost countries like India and Russia, in two
separate case studies. We study practices of collaborative work over distance – both the
collaborative work and the content of the work (the system-in-the-making) are visible
only as traces in documents, emails, systems descriptions. The research so far has been
based on interviews with developers at various sites, participatory observations in project
meetings, and access to documents and some electronic correspondence. The companies
involved invite us to discuss findings and analyses quite openly, as a way to improve the
collaboration. The project has been documented through status reports as well as through
research articles2.
3.4.1 An old system to a new platform
The one study concerns the Norwegian branch of a multinational software company,
which makes use of a Russian software company to upgrade one of their existing
computer systems to a more up-to-date platform. The old system thus constitutes the
specification for the development. The system is a wage system which includes
Norwegian tax rules and promotion politics – very cultural and local phenomena and not
easily understood outside of the Norwegian context. The redesign of the system has,
see Sahay, Nicholson & Krishna 2003; Heeks et al 2001; 2002; Sahay 1997
Imsland 2003; Wartiainen 2003; Imsland, Sahay & Wartiainen 2003; Imsland & Wartiainen 2003
however, taken much more time than expected. It turns out that the Russian team did not
understand the original system – and this was not discovered by the Norwegian party
until just before the delivery deadline. Communication from the Norwegian company
was minimal, with next to no documentation and no explanations of Norwegian variables
and labels. After providing test cases and explanations of the business logic, the Russian
team developed a better understanding of the system. However, their design of the
system structure has been made by translating the old “spaghetti code”, and therefore
may have inherited some of the difficulties experienced with maintaining the original
system. The redesign of the system turned out to be impossible without an understanding
of the “business logic”, i.e. the logic of the use domain and user behaviour – even more
difficult to obtain when located in a different cultural context.
3.4.2 Developing a tailored system
These findings are confirmed by the study of a small Norwegian software company
collaborating with a large Indian software company. The Norwegian company is located
in a small town a couple of hours driving from Oslo, it develops and sells a niche product
(a particular CRM1 product) originally designed and developed by the group of
programmers who started the company – they still work in the company. Their relation
with the Indian company started in 2000, when they had difficulties hiring enough
people; the Indian company represents a programming “muscle” that can easily be
expanded when there is much to do. The Indian company, for their part, is interested in a
contact within the Scandinavian market. The collaboration is conceived as difficult from
both sides, but strategic considerations motivate the continuation of the relationship.
The first pieces of code from the Indian side were considered to be beginner’s code
by the experienced Norwegian programmers, and a considerable amount of time was
used on the Norwegian side to correct and improve the Indian code. However, also in
this case the documentation and specifications were far from perfect, and the business
logic was also grounded in Norwegian culture and society. A next step in the project is to
study closer the translations between systems descriptions of various kinds, as they travel
between developers and countries. A hypothesis is that “beginner’s code” is found when
the programmer does not have a good understanding of the use context so that solutions
are chosen which may appear as unfortunate in the particular use context.
The extreme democratic style in the small Norwegian company results in slow
communication and slow decision-making – in sharp contrast to the busy, competitive,
young milieu in the Indian company. The continuity and stability of staff in Norway
contrasts with the rapid turn-over and career moves in India. The lack of a stable staff in
India has been considered a problem, and a relatively stable group is now in function.
As the Indian side is entrusted with more of the architectural and functional design,
they become increasingly familiar with the logical design – maybe even becoming more
familiar with a particular piece of the code than the Norwegians. This may cause a shift
in the balance of power to a more equal collaboration – even if the Norwegian style is
already democratic – and may include shifts in the management of mutual commitments.
The Norwegian company brought representatives from their users to visit the Indian
company this Spring as a strategy to increase the understanding of the product in the
Indian team. The effect of this is not clear at the moment of writing, but clearly expands
the outsourcing relationship.
Customer Relation Management, redesigned to a membership administration system
Chapter 3. Systems development research projects
Part 1. Background
3.4.3 Global software work
The global work market within systems development also changes the way systems are
designed and built – as they change the basis for a global work market. The
Scandinavian tradition of user involvement is challenged by this division of labour as the
flexibility available to the local context is limited by claims for standardisation from the
global players. The local character of work in global relationships1 emphasises some
points from the earlier projects, maintaining the argumentation for studies of practice.
My visit to India, where I got the chance to discuss the project with the Indian team,
made the cultural difference physically present and much easier to see. Direct experience
of the vast differences between the two contexts makes the fundamentally different
reasoning easier to appreciate. The cultural differences between developers in the GSO
project are in some respects more difficult to grasp and come to terms with than the
differences between nurses and informaticians in the Florence project.
Technical work changes as parts of systems development become global. The
software design part of systems development in many cases becomes more separate from
the organisational change processes that they address. A larger degree of division of
labour in systems development implies that the technical parts of software design are
carried out in software companies far away from the use context. The GSO project
demonstrates, however, that knowledge about the logic of the use context is necessary as
a background for building quality software.
see e.g. Hersleb et al 1999; 2000; 2001; Nicholson & Sahay 2001; Krishna, Sahay & Walsham 2003
Chapter 4
Research approaches
[W]e stubbornly claim that it is pragmatically fruitful to assume the
existence of a reality beyond the researcher’s egocentricity and the
ethnocentricity of the research community (paradigms, consciousness,
text, rhetorical manoeuvring), and that we as researchers should be able
to say something insightful about this reality. This claim is consistent
with the belief that social reality is not external to the consciousness and
language of people – members of a society as well as researchers who, of
course, also are members of a society. (Alvesson & Sköldberg 2000: 3)
This thesis is the result of several years of research in the systems development field. In
this chapter I discuss the research approaches that I have used in the research projects I
have participated in – adding to the descriptions in chapter 3. The research projects
constitute the empirical background of the thesis. The empirical findings are like a backcloth for my struggle to compose a coherent conceptual framework, and for
understanding and selecting theoretical approaches. My understanding of “the field” has
developed in interplay with the development of theories about technology in a social
context (discussed in chapter 5).
Most of the research projects I have been involved in have been empirically oriented;
in order to understand systems development as an activity, we need to study its practice1.
As described in chapter 3, I have been involved in qualitative field studies of various
kinds and under varying conditions. Doing qualitative research in a science research
environment offers rich possibilities for discussing the quality of research in terms of
validation and generalisation – I have therefore included some reflections about this here
(section 4.1). I have also been involved with action research – and with discussions about
what sort of research action research is. A discussion about action research and about
intervention as a deliberate goal or a necessary part of research is included (section 4.2).
This thesis draws on both empirical and theoretical sources. The general aim of
research to add to the body of knowledge within a field, combined with my aim to
enhance theory about systems development, has led me to include a discussion about the
construction of meaning as a basic activity in research (see section 4.3).
4.1 Qualitative research
All research includes references to the content of the phenomenon researched as well as
its distribution, as ways of locating the research. The approach taken determines which
of these answers the research question. Qualitatively oriented research focuses on
content, quality, and meaning, and differs from quantitatively oriented research which
cf. e.g. Nygaard 1986; Baskerville & Wood-Harper 1996
Chapter 4. Research approaches
Part 1. Background
has its focus on distribution, numbers, and quantity1. In order to find out about content,
quality, and meaning of a phenomenon or an activity, one needs to study how it unfolds
in a real-life context.
Qualitatively oriented research presupposes direct contact between the researcher and
the informant. The relationship is necessarily complex and evolving; the researcher
needs to be sensitive to the informant in order to understand what is going on and
systematic in her/his data collection order to produce meaning2. The researcher both
participates and observes in the field when doing field work3, and both these identities of
the researcher and the observed actors’ identities are complex and parallel and constantly
shifting. This requires that the observer include her/himself and her/his actions and
perspectives in the study4. Qualitative methods can be more or less openly valued; the
research design can seek the standard of a controlled lab experiment aiming to be
objective in the positivist sense, or the research approach can be to carry out the research
as a part of the normal flow of practice5. I discuss approaches where the values I hold
have been made explicit before and during research, and where this is seen as an
advantage to the collaboration between the researcher(s) (me and my colleagues) and the
Field work is a type of qualitatively oriented research that makes use of particular
qualitatively oriented methods, concepts, theories, and theoretical approaches to gather,
organise and analyse data6. Field work is characterized by focusing on relational and
“processual” explanations of an activity, and by the corresponding theories, concepts and
theoretical approaches needed for gathering data about such processes and relations.
Field work aims to investigate the concrete unfolding of activities in a particular
context emphasising how and why things happen — and happen in a particular way. The
concrete and observable happenings are interpreted according to their meaning in the
context, but the researcher can also choose a particular perspective: a theory or a
conceptual framework, as the basis for interpretation. In the research projects that I have
participated in, the aim has been to study design and use practices, and I have
particularly looked for practices that differ from the explicit or even formalized
descriptions of the activity. Both observation and interview techniques have been
necessary in order to find out about the practices and the routines.
4.1.1 Being in the field
Getting to know practice takes time, and for a long time the practice appears chaotic.
Sorting out what happens means sorting out the important from the unimportant,
selecting what to look for and what not to look for – sometimes by accident or a “hunch”.
However, very often the selection of focus is obvious from a particular theoretical
approach, or from a basis in a set of concepts and theories. Being in the field is a rounddance between theory, method and data.
Wadel 1991: 9 refers to the Latin origins of the labels: qualitas and quantitas
Thagaard p. 13-14
3 Skjervheim 1976. Thagaard emphasises the ethical responsibility of the researcher
4 Wadel 1991: 21. The researcher may also be given particular identities by the informants
5 Vidgen & Braa 1997 categorise case studies as positivist (hard) or interpretivist (soft) according to their level of
open interpretation, experimental control and rigour (repeatability). They refer to Galliers 1992 who characterizes
case study as scientific, and Iivari 1991 who claims that case study is an interpretivist method (in line with
Walsham 1993; 1995).
6 Wadel 1991: 10-11
My first experience with fieldwork was the Florence project, together with the
anthropologist employed in the project. He introduced an ethnographic research
approach to the informaticians, and we carried out the fieldwork in the hospital together
over some months. The first impression was chaos. At our first visit we met with a nurse
who introduced us to the ward, and then we were equipped with white coats and went
into the ward among nurses, medical doctors, nursing assistants, and other professional
health workers (dieticians, physiotherapists) as well as patients and their relatives. It was
very clear to us that we were out of place and that we never would be the first priority of
a health worker: they give priority to saving lives. But after a couple of weeks we felt
more at ease and at home: we could make sense of things and started recognising
patterns of behaviour. My diary from the first period of observations clearly shows the
difficulties of making sense of somebody else’s practice, visible through the things I did
not write down because I could not understand them.
We mainly observed; we observed the nurses in order to find out what makes a nurse
a nurse. We followed them around, we watched them from a particular position in a
particular room or by a particular piece of equipment, we followed some of their
documents around, and we sat in at their meetings with others. Many times the nurses
would explain what they did and why, and we sometimes got a mini-lecture about a
particular topic. The “lectures” provided important insight into the way they think and
act as nurses. We went observing together in pairs and discussed our experiences ―
which considerably speeded up the learning process.
An important lesson from the Florence project is that nurses don't do what they say
that they do1. Observations and interviews with nurses in work revealed that there are
interesting differences between formal work descriptions and routines and what people
actually do in order to get the work done. The question for a systems developer thus is
whether the design of a system should be based on the formal descriptions or on the
observed practices. We concluded that work practices tell us more about the work than
descriptions of standard routines, in particular the skills and knowledge in work.
Moreover, if we define work to be what people do at work, we should revise our view of
nursing so that the professional administration of the ward is included – and is not seen
as taking time from nursing2.
4.1.2 The magic of qualitative analysis
Qualitative analysis has an almost magic dimension that comes from the invisible, hard
work of creating explanatory patterns grounded in what to an outsider appears as messy,
fussy, chaotic practices. As the process of collecting data often is very open and
intertwined with analysis of the same data, the account of the field made by the
researcher becomes personal3. Data analysis is hard work concerned with the intertwined
processes of looking for and interpreting signs: we can see what we can make sense of ―
but “making sense of” is an acquired skill based on knowledge about the area of concern
combined with knowledge about its possible interpretations.
An approach that advocates working with the data in ways that make the personal
view less important and virtually non-existent, is Grounded theory4. “Grounded theory
calls for a continual interaction between data gathering and analysis. As the researcher
gathers new data they analyse it to see how it extends, modifies, or contradicts the
Bjerknes et al 1985; 1987; Bjerknes & Bratteteig, 1987c; 1987d; Bratteteig 1997
see chapter 6.3
3 in the sense that the person is the instrument
4 Glaser & Strauss 1967
Chapter 4. Research approaches
Part 1. Background
existing theory being constructed.” (Grinter 1998: 16). Through many analytical cycles
of analysing data in order to discover patterns not thought of beforehand, the grounded
theory approach requires detailed descriptions to work with. Moreover, the approach
requires patience and stamina – but may result in analytical findings that break with
established pre-understandings. A good example is Thoresen (1997)’s study of computer
use where new explanatory patters become visible in the data material.
A way to start data collection and analysis is to go “looking for trouble”1; looking for
conflicts, differences, problems, mismatches that can signal that things do not work well.
The problems can be expressed as dialectical relations, where the two sides conflict. A
systematic discussion about relations between actors and artefacts in the situation can be
the basis for a dialectical analysis2 emphasising the relation as the origin of a problem
rather than single individuals or artefacts. A more general analysis of dialectical relations
also includes harmonious relations – much more difficult to identify.
The analyses I have been involved in have all used several different techniques in
order to catch more of the diversity in the practice, and aiming to include as many
perspectives and interests as possible. Various kinds of maps and more or less formalized
graphs have proven useful for creating an overview of who and what is involved. The
next step has been to relate and combine positions and views so that differences and
similarities can be identified, aiming to also discover harmonious relations. Further
analysis has involved explaining the differences and the similarities by more profound
patterns and values in the practice. I have found a dialectical approach very useful for
analysing both use and design activities and I have used this approach in several of the
research projects I have been involved in. Soft Dialectics (cf. chapter 3.2.3) is a quick
technique based on dialectical thinking, combining rich pictures from Soft Systems
Methodology with a dialectical analysis of pairs of perspective relations. A general
dialectical analysis was carried out on the data from student projects about the use of
Lotus Notes (see 3.3.1).
Qualitative analysis is influenced by the concepts or hypotheses that the research is
based on – consciously or not. The magic becomes easier to see through when an effort
has been made to explicate the understandings and pre-understandings. Moreover, the
analysis becomes better as it is easier for the reader to evaluate – and use – the research.
4.1.3 Second-hand data
Some of the research I have been involved with has been based on data collection and
analysis carried out by students as part of a course project or as part of a Masters thesis.
There are several benefits of involving students in research projects, but also some
problems. The most obvious problem is that data collected by inexperienced students
whose main objective is learning-by-doing about the field and the research approach,
may be biased in very unpredictable ways; it is difficult to see through the
documentation to get a grip of the case, not to mention the conclusions drawn from the
Student projects that involved collecting data about the same topic, from similar
organisations and based on the same interview form, have enabled quantitative analyses
as well as the possibility for comparing a set of research questions across several field
sites. In the FIRE project we asked students in the “IT & Society” course to design their
project as an investigation about user problems concerned with using more than one
Gregory 2001
see Bratteteig & Øgrim 1992; 1994. Dialectics is described in more detail in chapter 5.3
computer system (or program) in work1 in 1991, and in 1993 the student projects studied
user participation in redesign projects2. In 1994 the “IT & Society” students investigated
the introduction and use of Lotus Notes in nine Norwegian organisations which were
found in collaboration with a Norwegian vendor of Notes3. The students reported about
their case in project reports and provided transcripts and minutes from their field work.
We used the additional information about their case to evaluate the data in the sense that
we evaluated the coherence and likeliness of the case as strengthening or weakening the
reliability of their data. Some cases provided very good documentation and could be
used to discuss the particularities of a case, others proved difficult to trust4.
Several Masters students have contributed to the research reported here; designing
prototypes and participating in evaluations, discussions, and seminars in the Florence
and FIRE projects; in carrying out major parts of the field studies (observations,
interviews, document analyses) in studies under the SUPPORT umbrella, in the case
studies in the TRIM and GSO projects. As an advisor I have had access to transcripts of
interviews, reports from observations, summaries of documents, and have been involved
in the work of interpreting these – and of making the interpretations explicit as a research
text. In most cases I have also visited the field of study to meet and discuss with the
student contact person or to take part in the field study myself. The interpretation of the
students’ interpretations has been made easier by my own involvement in the research.
4.2 Action oriented research
My subject of research is change in the form of systems development: wanted and
planned change that may nevertheless take unpredictable and surprising turns. This sort
of change can be studied in several ways; as studies of people who change, or as a
change which itself is the subject of study. Within informatics as a whole, lab
experiments are common as an approach to finding out how a computer system behaves.
If we, however, want to study the social processes in systems development, the lab
setting may be too different from the “real” setting to enable us to learn what we want. A
field experiment can be carried out, as a snapshot-like experiment carried out at the field
site, avoiding some of the limits of the lab setting but still preserving some of the control
of the experimental conditions.
This section discusses research designs that aim to study planned change as a social
phenomenon, as a particular kind of qualitative research approach.
4.2.1 Intervention
Any field research intervenes in the field context by the mere introduction of the
researcher as an abnormal element in the situation. However, when the research object is
change – such as systems development or organisational change – the research approach
may include involvement in the change by the researcher. The degree of involvement
reported in Kaasbøll, Braa & Bratteteig 1992
reported in Kaasbøll & Øgrim 1994a; 1994b, see also Bratteteig 1994b
3 Bratteteig 1996 (includes details of the studies) and Bratteteig 1998
4 Næss 1996 studied one of the nine organisations from the IT & Society course in more detail in his Masters, and
concluded that the previous study was misleading and partly wrong due to too few interviews (both very few
people and very few questions). The more nuanced picture of the field site enabled a more complex analysis: the
“IT & Society” students obviously had talked to the most positive and negative users, and had developed a very
black-and-white picture of the situation
Chapter 4. Research approaches
Part 1. Background
varies from small-scale field experiments that may be part of the change or decisions
about the change1, to full involvement in decision-making processes as well as in the
implementation of the change. I will discuss research where the researcher is involved in
the change, where intervention is a part of the research as well as of the research object.
I have also been involved in research reporting back to the field. The reporting back
is clearly an intervention that may change the further course of the research. Even the
fact that an agreement about intermediate reports has been made part of the research
contract, may influence the research: the FIRE project was partly funded by one of the
field sites which obviously expected practical and useful results from the research2. The
research conditions in this case can be discussed as balancing basic research with applied
research – where the notion of “applied research” is used when the research field
influences the research question in order to make direct use of the research results.
Applied research needs to carefully reflect on how the influence on the research
questions influence the research results. The application of a systematic analytic
approach in the FIRE project (Soft Dialectics) was a means to maintain independence of
the research results from the questions posed by the funding field site. When the
intervention is not a part of the research goal and visible in the research design, the
research may well be designed so as to avoid the researcher influencing the field of study
– in line with a more traditional positivist view of research3.
Dahlbom & Mathiassen (1993) discusses intervention as a characteristic of systems
development with and by users, complementary to construction (mechanical, technical
deduction) and evolution (romantic, empiricist induction) that are both approaches to
systems development for users (p. 119). Intervention is a dialectical approach aimed at
change in a broad sense: “change established traditions in the user organisation as well as
in the project group” (p. 122), basically through a mixture of changing the artefacts, the
opinions and knowledge in work, and the actual practice.
Kalleberg (1992) discusses social science research designs in which the research
effort (process and product) is characterized by the particular questions and answers, and
concepts and data brought forward. He claims that there are three basic types of research
designs in social sciences, asking different types of questions:
o constatative research asks how and why something is the way it is. We want to know
facts about a phenomenon, and try to describe and analyse the actors as they see
themselves and others, and to describe various differences and conflicts.
o evaluative research asks about the value of a social reality, e.g. equal or different
distribution of loads and rewards, degree of democratization in decision processes,
how social conditions can produce health.
o constructive research asks what a set of actors can and should do to change a
particular social reality for the better. The research is about making arguments for
realistic and wanted alternatives to the present situation as well as about finding ways
of changing the situation that seem worthwhile. Constructive research can be
o interventionist, where the researcher tries to improve the field under study.
Through this, the intervention becomes part of the research process and produces
both scientific and practical results (e.g. Elden 1979; Whyte 1991)
Vidgen & Braa 1997 suggest “action case” as a mix of action research, field experiment and case study, where the
aim is mainly to understand the field but also to change a part of it.
2 a similar situation exists in the GSO project
3 Vidgen & Braa 1997 argue that both traditional research and interpretative research may be positivist in this way
o variational, where the research studies a variety of change processes (that have
been carried out by others). Learning from good examples is the strategy (e.g.
Kanter 1985)
o imaginative, where the researcher imagines an improved situation (utopia) and
tries to work out how one can move in that direction (e.g. Dahl 1990)
Kalleberg claims that in constructive research designs we look for the particular as a
source for generating general insights, changing the concept of “generalisation” from
something typical, which actually exists to something unique and wanted – avant-garde
or demonstrative of a wanted change1.
4.2.2 Definitions of action research
When intervention is a goal and an approach in the research the term action research is
often used – and is used in many different ways referring to a variety of research designs
in which there is an element of action. Research projects can include action in many
different ways, and in many cases the action occurs separately from what is considered to
be the content of the research. The reporting from the study in the GSO project to the
people at the field site clearly influences and intervenes with their way of handling the
collaborative relationships. However, I will argue that the intervention included in
reporting back to the field should not be labelled “action research” – it can instead be
seen as good manners and should be part of any field study.
I would want to reserve the notion of “action research” for research in which the
action is a major part of the research design – both as a research strategy and as a
research goal. This definition of action research emphasises the particularities concerned
with research in which the action itself is an object of research (what Kalleberg calls
constructive interventionist research). The Florence project included action research in
this sense, studying the process of systems development while performing the process.
Action research in this sense may involve research partners that have different goals; the
action may be wanted both as a part of a change effort in the research site and as a part of
a research design – the same action may thus be a goal and a means to learn about a
phenomenon (a research strategy). This notion of action research also defines the action
in the research setting as a research result.
Elden & Levin (1991) defines participatory action research as follows:
Our model … rests on “insiders” (local participants) and “outsiders” (the professional
researchers) collaborating in cocreating “local theory” that the participants test out by acting on
it. The results can be fed back to improve the participants’ own “theory” and can further
generate more general (“scientific”) theory. (Elden & Levin 1991: 129-130)
In “co-generative learning” Elden & Levin emphasise all participants’ rights to define
research questions and topics. A similar view is found in Gustavsen & Sørensen (1982),
where action research is characterized by the researcher participating in the solution of
practical problems, in cooperation with others. This cooperation about practical work is
also a learning or research situation for the researcher. Gustavsen & Sørensen argue that
action is important if social science research is to have any effect; data collection away
from those affected by the research is (wrongly) built on the hypothesis that the world is
stable and that it is possible to construct knowledge about the world at a distance. They
argue that knowledge and knowledgeable practice in reality is open, not very well
organised, and very local, and therefore has to be addressed as local and situated. In
order to make people participate in the research, the participants must benefit – and the
benefits should be more than a report. Researchers must share their actions and
knowledge with others in order for the research results to spread and make a difference.
Kalleberg refers to Merton 1968
Chapter 4. Research approaches
Part 1. Background
Gustavsen & Sørensen maintain that the concept of “research” should be reserved for
activities that follow the rules of academic activity (methods, publications, freedom to
stop if requirements are not fulfilled etc). The idea is that research is a craft and that a
participant democratic view is necessary because of i) logical reasons: as researchers
cannot decide for others what is best, the research should aim to increase the rights of
self-determination, ii) empirical reasons: several studies show that if people have selfdetermination rights they experience better work environment, health and quality of life,
and iii) institutional reasons: self-determination through freedom, competence and
contacts are important in democratic management structures in the Norwegian society.
Both Elden & Levin and Gustavsen & Sørensen locate their definitions of action
research in the Norwegian work-life democracy tradition, emphasising the workers’
equal rights to define the research carried out “on” them. The action should be “social
change … [that] aims to increase the ability of the involved community or organisation
members to control their own destinies more effectively and to keep improving their
capacity to do so.” (Greenwood & Levin 1998: 6). The aim is political: to improve the
situation of a community through an action – which the community members should
decide on.
Still, there is a difference between the professional researchers (the outsiders) and the
local participants (the insiders) that make their roles in the research effort differ. Even if
the local participants are experts in the local context, their knowledge production does
not follow the rules of knowledge production in research1. The professional researchers,
however, are familiar with academic knowledge production, but may know little about
the local context. Action research thus aims to involve researchers and “non-researchers”
in collaborative action designed to be of direct benefit to the “non-researchers” whereas
the researchers benefit from the action as it constitutes their research object. Because
both researchers and “non-researchers” influence the action, they also both influence the
4.2.3 Different models of action research
The concept of action research is attributed to Kurt Lewin, who used it to denote
experimental approaches in field situations outside of the lab in the 1930s and 1940s2.
The idea of doing experiments in work-life was taken up by the Tavistock Institute in
UK in collaboration with the Work Research Institute in Norway in the 1960s, based on
an interest in socio-psychological factors in work-life. The large Norwegian Industrial
Democracy Project (see chapter 2.1.3) aimed to increase workplace democracy as one
way to increase product quality and production effectivity. It turned out to be easier to
carry out experiments concerned with autonomy in work in Norway (although the
Tavistock Institute also did experiments, the first in a weaving mill in India). The
experiments in Norway explicitly involved the workers as research subjects and therefore
active in the experiment, refusing hidden agendas. This lead to an inclusion of both
scientific and political elements in both research and research sites.
According to Gustavsen (1996) the Scandinavian version of action research is
characterized by its emphasis on the direct link between research and processes of
change and development in the research site, implying that the research is co-responsible
for results and new practices. Lewin himself did not distinguish between action research
and “social engineering”. The general development of action research after Lewin is a
Kalleberg 1996
historical overviews in e.g. Gustavsen 1992; 1996; Greenwood & Levin 1998; Eikeland 2001
movement from an emphasis on values (politics) towards attempts to find
epistemological alternatives (further discussed in section 4.3).
Action research has been taken up in other “non-Scandinavian” contexts where it has
developed differently1. One branch of action research has developed as a tradition based
on school development in England and Australia. A second branch of action research is a
broad tradition based on adult training and community development in the third world
(e.g. Freire 1968). As a third branch, social or organisational research includes two main
schools of thought based on system theory (socio-technical theory) namely: i)
“participatory action research” as applied organisational development research (e.g.,
Whyte 1991), and ii) “action science” based on organisation and management
development (e.g. Argyris, Putnam & McLain 1985; Argyris & Schön 1974; 1991). All
of them emphasise the collective self-reflection among the local practitioners about their
own practice – understanding and mastering of practice is the objective and the object of
the research, and by this all participants are possible co-researchers. The methodological
principles of validity and reliability concerned with experience-based development do
not disappear when the activity is moved outside the professional research organisations.
4.2.4 Theoretical bases for action research
Action research combines action and understanding thus action research is a critique of
positivist research and its separation of action and understanding2. Together with the
demands for involvement, action research has “an uneasy relationship” with social
sciences, says Gustavsen (1996)3.
Action research seeks to avoid situations where researchers study “the others” and
conduct “rational discourses” among themselves about their objects of study. Ordinary
people can be involved as co-researchers through action research and organisational
revolutions. The “rational discourses” are no longer only for the few professional
researchers or politicians; neither professional researchers nor the average person have
privileged access to reality.
The different action research traditions theorize differently. Gustavsen (1992; 1996)
is the source of a theoretical platform that has been dominant in the Norwegian tradition
of action research, ever since the Norwegian Industrial Democracy project in the 1960s.
The theoretical basis is the notion of democracy in classic Athens and builds on Socrates'
dialogue. Gustavsen describes Scandinavian action research as a branch of the general
participative action research that emphasises participation and democracy, and is
characterized by a particular focus on communication and language as action and
change. The communicative approach (which Gustavsen advocates) is based on a theory
of science focusing on language as a constitutive part of reality and our perceptions of
reality. Gustavsen (1992) builds on Wittgenstein and Habermas and their theories of
language as a vehicle for emancipation: through language we can change our
understanding and thus our reality. Gustavsen is quite critical to the Western Marxism
influence on the critical theory in the 1960s and 1970s maintaining the dualism between
language and reality, thus separating itself from much of the action research carried out
in the larger Industrial Democracy project.
see Eikeland 2001; Greenwood & Levin 1998 and Whyte 1991 for overviews
Gustavsen 1992; 1996; Eikeland 2001
3 and continues: “How can it be, then, that positivism exerts such a major grip on the thoughts of practicing social
scientists, despite the point that, in terms of theory of science, it is about as full of holes as a Swiss cheese? …
Positivism is a form of practice … which is carried on not by arguing, but by refusing to argue” (p. 8)
Chapter 4. Research approaches
Part 1. Background
Eikeland (1994; 2001) criticises Gustavsen’s democratic theory for not discussing the
theoretical origin more carefully, pointing to Socrates’ dialogue as far from democratic.
Gustavsen does not include voting or decisions by the majority as in normal democratic
fora. He requires consensus on the basis of the “power of the best argument”, but does
not discuss the form of “the best argument” or how this can be the basis for consensus in
situations that involve people with differences in power, competence, intentions etc. This
is highly problematic even if methods and techniques for voicing all interests and
arguments are used (e.g. search conferences1). Eikeland also criticises the so-called
“generative theory” of developing local knowledge, local theories and local problem
solving as based on a political theory like Wittgenstein and Foucault, and the
“democratic dialogue” inspired by Habermas. He claims that these philosophers cannot
really be used as a basis for action research work (Wittgenstein has no theory about
language that can serve as a fundamental basis for action research).
4.2.5 Critique of action research
Action research has been subject to criticism as to whether it should be considered
research at all (questioning the validity of the research, e.g. repeatability and
refutability). The clearest criticism of action research was raised by Aage Bødtker
Sørensen (1992) based on his evaluation of the Work Research Institute (WRI). Sørensen
claims that the action research conducted by WRI is not research; it is organisational
development. The results are not accessible or possible to evaluate for other researchers,
and they do not contribute to empirical knowledge. Sørensen can, however, be criticised
for his narrow conception of normal scientific empirical research: a traditional positivist
view, whereas WRI position themselves outside of this tradition2.
According to Gustavsen (1996) there are two major problems associated with the
early period of action research: 1) diffusion and 2) grand theory vs. everyday events. The
diffusion problem refers to the difficulty of transferring or sharing the experiences from
one workplace to other workplaces. The second problem is the felt distance between the
grand theories and the “broad range of everyday issues … to be grappled with” which
takes time from theoretical work. Conflicts between the local and the general, the
theoretical and the empirical are reported.
Gustavsen claims that the criticism of action research is reasonable to the extent that:
The publications are few and the utilization of experience to create research often lags behind
the field developments. When the reports and analyses actually do emerge, they are not always
as rich in content as should be expected. Action research and related forms often acquire the
nature of a ‘cottage industry,’ In the sense that the various researchers are often not aware of
each other, they are unfamiliar with previous works in the field and they generally develop their
theories after the event – the event often being a chance contact with a workplace which matures
into something which the researcher, in the light of hindsight, finds so interesting that ‘a theory
must be created about it.’ (Gustavsen 1996: 9)
Eikeland (2001) claims that much of the criticism towards action research is concerned
with the political objectives of the research; the research does not pose epistemological
questions – it is instead seen as a technique that can support particular goals and values.
Eikeland comments that the use of research to favour a particular group does not in
principle differ from the so-called “applied social research” even if research “for the
people” may seem more valuable than research for the management.
Action research must be seen in the context of empirically based social science
research. It is an alternative to the philosophical perspective on science emphasising
methods and the relations between i) theories and data and ii) theories and practice. From
e.g. Pålshaugen 1984; Emery & Purser 1996; Weisbord et al 1992; Weisbord & Janoff 1995
see Pålshaugen 1990; Eikeland 1994; Toulmin 1996; Gustavsen 1996
this perspective science is seen as a theory of method. Action research is a
phenomenology-based rejection of a division between research and everyday life.
4.2.6 Summing up about action research
My definition of action research is (still) that it is research in which the action is a major
part of the research design in ways that benefit both the researchers and the people
involved in the research. Action research may thus involve research partners who have
different goals, where the same action can be a goal and a means to learn about a
phenomenon (a research strategy). This notion of action research defines the action as a
research result, but maintains that “traditional” research results also are needed (articles,
reports). This definition brings forward the particular challenges of action research
concerned with reliability and generalisation of results. Interventions that add to the
research design pose different challenges to the research method.
An ideal action research approach holds the professional researcher responsible for
the research and not completely without responsibility for the action as an effort to bring
about change in a local community. The non-researchers need to be respected for their
position and interests which may include respecting their wish to be involved in the
action as community members rather than co-researchers. The diversity of interests
should be included and respected also in the research design. An important characteristic
of action research is the explicit interests of the researchers; action research is critical
research. Action research is research with the people in the research field aiming to
change the field in ways that correspond with and challenge the tradition in the field. The
intervention includes both the action of change and the cooperation and discussions
about (the goals of) the change with the people in the field. Action research aims to
include principles for change that build on both researchers’ and non-researchers’ values.
The involvement of the researcher in the action and with the people at the field site is
more demanding on the researcher’s skills than is research in which the researcher is
detached from the field and can easily maintain an analytical distance. In order to not just
handle this dilemma by separating reflection and action, the research goals must be
clearly – and openly – stated before and in the action research design, as part of the
research. Power is an issue both as a research object but also as an inevitable element of
intervention and action in the research.
4.3 Constructing meaning
Research can be seen as a reflective process of meaning construction1. Social activities
like systems development processes are concrete activities, happening in time and space.
The construction of meaning from these sorts of activities involves transforming them to
text: models, descriptions, concepts, and theories. The text transcends the concrete
experiences – but the text is also constructed within a context. As the text is separated
from its author, the activity described looses its context and enables analyses of the
described material that may break away from the embedded interpretation2. The intention
of the text is that it will leave its author and be interpreted in the reader’s context.
In order to make a piece of research useful or valuable (as a constructed meaning),
the reader needs to find in the text “enough” about the reality that was the basis for the
Frønes 2001, refers to Ricoeur 1971
Frønes 2001: 175, building on Ricoeur, says that the objectification of activity through text makes possible an
objective analysis on basis of the material described
Chapter 4. Research approaches
Part 1. Background
text as well as “enough” about the particular interpretation that is embedded into the text.
In the same way as the text leaves its author, the action being researched leaves the actor
(Frønes 2001: 175)1. An action leaves many and different traces, and can therefore be
interpreted in different ways2. The person who is blinking her eye, what is she really
doing? Does she have something in her eye? Or is it muscular spasms? Does she want to
tell you something? Or does she express intimacy? Does blinking an eye in her culture
mean something else that you are not aware of?
The presentation of the research in a text is an important part of the interpretive work
of research. In the following discussion about construction of meaning, I emphasise the
theories, concepts and theoretical approaches that are intertwined and interplay with the
field study, and the way in which they contribute to make the research results
transferable in the sense of being more general.
4.3.1 Generalisation
Generalisation from qualitative oriented research has been heavily discussed for years
partly based on very different views of knowledge and science. Flyvbjerg (1991), for
example, claims that concrete, local knowledge is the only source of real knowledge, and
that case studies therefore are the only way to gain knowledge from research. This
contrasts with the more common view that research should be objective and general in
order to be useful.
In quantitative-oriented research, generalisation is normally done on the basis of
aggregation of a number of cases. Generalisation by aggregation sees groups of
individuals as average numbers and looks for variance of distribution in the population
as a whole3. The results are valid if they follow from or are implied by the premises, and
are based on a representative selection to which application of formally logical and
statistical rules has been conducted.
In a qualitative-oriented research situation, this kind of approach may, however,
replace diversity and variety with an average that does not picture the changing and
ambiguous nature of the phenomenon4. Studies of processes and relations require a
research approach that can follow unforeseen turns of action and identify similarities
across a varying diversity of relations. A dialectical approach particularly emphasises
relations and relational explanations of processes. The knowledge acquired from such
studies can be general in the sense that they concern all the units studied, and that both
similar and different features in them are covered. This kind of generalisation encourages
a movement from the generalised knowledge to the particular, suited for subsuming new
examples – a movement that cannot be achieved through an aggregate kind of
Aggregate-type generalisation emphasises statistics and probability assessments,
while example-based generalisation aims to express patterns of the problem-oriented
reasoning and logic found in the examples6. Here the aim is to create explanations that
Frønes builds on Schütz 1962
Frønes p. 185 refers to Geertz 1973 who argues that a “thick description” may preserve and stress the versatility of
an activity
3 Andenæs 1996 refers to Bakan 1969
4 Andenæs 1996 refers to Valsiner 1992
5 Bakan 1969
6 Andenæs 1996: 50-52 refers to Polkinghorne 1988; 1991. Andenæs provides an example of this in her study of
modern family life in Norway; developing ways of understanding that transcend the eight families studied and that
create patterns and relations that explain well-functioning as well as dysfunctional families.
can include both positive and negative findings (behaviour) that transcend more than one
unit of study. The research text describes the case; what happened? The text includes the
specifics of the particular situation as well as the variety in similar situations across the
study. The particular is situated in a larger context that adds meaning. The text also
explicitly describes the interpretations of what happens, as a selection of pieces and a
composition of the pieces to a whole; the interpretation itself is a generalisation. The
combination of the observed particularities and the interpreted patterns gives a basis for
discussing transferability within the case study units as well as outside of the case. My
analysis of the diverse uses of Lotus Notes in some Norwegian companies is an example
of this kind of generalisation1.
[T]he process of generalization consists not of counting instances of occurrences, but through
systematic collection of data that elaborates on the patterns of behaviour found in multiple
organizations, both extending and refining previous understandings. (Grinter 1998: 16)
Generalisation implies a recontextualization of the research results by the fact that the
theoretical interpretation concerned with the single project is placed in a wider context.
The researcher needs to provide an argument for her/his claim that the interpretation is
relevant in a larger context, in a similar way that barristers argue their case.
4.3.2 The value of qualitative research
Thagaard (1998) suggests the concepts of credibility, confirmativity and transferability to
replace the quantitatively biased concepts of reliability, validity, and generalisation. She
builds on Marshall & Rossman (1989) who discuss alternatives to “establishing the
“truth value” of the study, its applicability, its consistency, and its neutrality.” (p. 1452).
Marshall & Rossman discuss alternatives to the four positivist terms: internal validity,
external validity, reliability, and objectivity.
1. Credibility is concerned with the research being carried out in a way that inspires
confidence, demonstrating that the subject has been accurately identified and
described. This requires documentation of method as well as data.
An in-depth description showing the complexities of variables and interactions will be so
embedded with data derived from the setting that it cannot help but be valid. Within the
parameters of that setting, population, and theoretical framework, the research will be valid.
(Marshall & Rossman 1989: 145)
The researcher’s evaluation of the research setting and the relations between the
researcher and the people researched is of importance here. The researchers’ aims and
values will influence the evaluation of the research credibility.
2. Transferability concerns the interpretations and understandings from a single case
and their relevance and applicability to other cases. Transferability is also concerned
with the wish that the interpretation be met with sympathy among people who know
the area of research and in addition transcend their current understanding.
Marshall & Rossman discuss transferability as something which is not the main
interest of the researcher, but rather what other researchers would want – as a second
span of generalisation. The external validity of qualitative studies is seen as the main
weakness of this approach. Marshall & Rossman suggest to carefully state the
theoretical framework that the research builds on to enable an evaluation if the case
can be taken as an example of that theory. They also recommend triangulating
multiple sources of data: “Triangulation is the act of bringing more than one source of
data to bear on a single point.” (p. 146). Multiple sources of data can strengthen the
study’s usefulness.
cf. the case studies under the SUPPORT umbrella described in chapter 3.3, see Bratteteig 1996; 1998
building on Lincoln & Guba 1985
Chapter 4. Research approaches
Part 1. Background
3. Dependability concerns the positivist term reliability that assumes “an unchanging
universe, where inquiry could, quite logically, be replicated.” (p. 147). In qualitative
studies, the assumption is that the world changes and that the research changes as
well. This makes the concept of replication problematic.
Qualitative research does not pretend to be replicable. The researcher purposefully avoids
controlling the research conditions and concentrates on recording the complexity of situational
contexts and interrelations as they occur. Moreover, the researcher’s goal of discovering this
complexity by altering research strategies within a flexible research design cannot be replicated
by future researchers, nor should it be attempted. (Marshall & Rossman 1989: 148).
4. Confirmativity is concerned with the quality of the research and if the interpretation
resulting from the research is supported by other research – it captures the concept of
objectivity. The evaluation of confirmability is concerned with the interpretations of
the researcher, and how they are made explicit and available to the reader. Marshall
& Rossman suggest to “remove evaluation from some inherent characteristic of the
researcher (objectivity) and place it squarely on the data themselves.” (p. 147). The
claim for confirmability requires the researcher to be critical to his/her own
interpretations, and at the same time argue for the relevance of this particular
The basic strategy to ensure the value and trustworthiness of qualitative research is to
document the basic goals and hypotheses, the data in all its complexity, the research
approaches taken (their strengths and limitations), the theoretical perspectives (and how
they influence the interpretation of the field), and the way that all these components
interplay in the analysis.
4.3.3 Theories, concepts … frames
Alvesson & Sköldberg (2000) locate qualitative research between inductive and
deductive research; they call this position abductive. Abductive research emphasises the
dialectical relation between theory and data. The analysis of data is crucial for
developing ideas, and the theoretical grounding of the researcher provides the
interpretation of the data; the theoretical basis provides the analytical framework that
makes interpretation of the data possible. The data is a source for images and stories that
make them meaningful and that act as a basis for summarising patterns and structures in
the data. The movements between data and theory always include both and their mutual
A simple definition of a theory is expressions that organise a set of facts and help us
locate happenings and observations as examples of more general phenomena1. A basic
characteristic of a theory is its categorisation of “things” which organises the world into
labelled things that we can recognise. In this sense language comprises a theory.
Andreassen & Wadel (1989) argue that theories are part of everyday practice, but that
most uses of theory are unnoticed and unreflected2. The categorisation and organisation
of categories are part of the theoretical approach taken – consciously or not. The known
categories guide the observations and the selection of experiences as well as their
coupling with other experiences3.
Andreassen & Wadel 1989: 172
e.g. football using theories about biology and physiology that suggest stretching as a part of training
3 cf. Gustavsen 1996 claiming that language can change the world. See also Bowker & Star 1999 about
classification systems as intricate parts of our daily life, simultaneously constituting and being constituted by
Theories help us see new things; they help us learn by organising our experiences
(mental and physical). Learning can be seen as the coupling of different experiences1; the
coupling of two experiences makes them both different, and it is the difference that
constitutes what we have learnt2. We couple different experiences every day,
unconsciously as well as through consciously reflecting on the coupling. In this sense
theories explain connections.
Alvesson & Sköldberg (2000) discuss “reflexive empirical research” arguing that
research should take into account the complex relationship between processes of
knowledge production and the involvement of the knowledge producer(s). The
researcher needs to operate on at least two levels in the research, and pay attention to
“how one thinks about thinking” (p. 5). Reflexive empirical research
means that serious attention is paid to the way different kinds of linguistic, social, political and
theoretical elements are woven together in the process of knowledge development, during which
empirical material is constructed, interpreted and written. Empirical research in a reflective
mode starts from a sceptical approach to what appears at a superficial glance as unproblematic
replicas of the way reality functions, while at the same time maintaining the belief that the study
of suitable (well-thought-of) excerpts from this reality can provide an important basis for a
generation of knowledge that opens up rather than closes, and furnishes opportunities for
understanding rather than establishes ‘truths’.
Reflective research has two basic characteristics: careful interpretation and reflection. The first
implies that all references – trivial and non-trivial – to empirical data are the results of
interpretation. Thus the idea that measurements, observations, the statistics or archival data
have an unequivocal or unproblematic relationship to anything outside the empirical material is
rejected on principle. Consideration of the fundamental importance of interpretation means that
an assumption of a simple mirroring thesis of the relationship between ‘reality’ or ‘empirical
facts’ and research results (text) has to be rejected. Interpretation comes to the forefront of the
research work. This calls for the utmost awareness of the theoretical assumptions, the
importance of language and pre-understanding, all of which constitute major determinants of the
interpretation. The second element, reflection, turns attention ‘inwards’ towards the person of
the researcher, the relevant research community, society as a whole, intellectual and cultural
traditions, and the central importance, as well as problematic nature, of language and narrative
(the form of presentation) in the research context. Systematic reflection on several different
levels can endow the interpretation with a quality that makes empirical research of value.
Reflection can, in the context of empirical research, be defined as the interpretation of
interpretation and the launching of critical self-exploration of one’s own interpretation of
empirical material (Alvesson & Sköldberg 2000: 5-6 (original emphasis))
4.4.3 Research approach
This thesis includes my reflections about concepts in systems development, based on a
set of empirically based research projects and theoretical investigations. The theoretical
and empirical experiences go hand in hand: the empirical studies have been informed by
theory; the theoretical investigations have been triggered by findings or questions rising
from the data. The particular mix of perspectives – concepts and explanations –
presented here influences my interpretation of the data – and of the theory.
This thesis reflects an abductive approach, based on a dialectical relation between
theory and data. In all cases there has been a theoretical basis providing an analytical
framework for the research project and enabling interpretation of the data. The data has
been experienced in their context, making sense as stories of lived life. The interpretation
of the data has been inspired by the context in which a diversity of interpretations
existed, and the variation has been used to broaden the understanding of the story and
thus for the possible patterns and structures interpreted into the data. The process of
Wadel 2002: 23
Wadel 2002: 24. There are a number of ways of looking at learning – I discuss learning in chapter 5.7
Chapter 4. Research approaches
Part 1. Background
analysing data has been essential for developing new ideas and questions, and for
developing theory. On the other hand, the theoretical grounding of the research has
constituted the basis for interpreting the data. The movement between data and theory
has included both of these and their influence on each other.
The single case can be the source of explanatory patterns that can be seen as a
theoretical contribution which organise a set of facts in a way that helps us see the
happenings and observations as examples of a more general phenomenon. A close
interplay between theory and data may support this process. However, unreflective
coupling between theory and data may also disturb the quality of the data;
o the credibility as to whether the data can be trusted: do all involved in the practice
which is reported recognise the story?
o the transferability of the understandings to other cases: can other cases fit with the
interpretation – and does the interpretation expand the theory?
o the dependability of the recording of the complexity of the research situation and its
o the confirmability by other research requiring reporting of data to enable such
comparisons and interpretations.
The rather detailed accounts of part of the research projects, and also the theoretical
discussions included in this thesis are ways of making the links between theory and data
visible as well as being specific about the interpretations chosen. The reason for making
myself visible in parts of the thesis is to be clear about my prejudices and
preconceptions, my values and interests, as to how I have been involved in the
knowledge production of this thesis.
Chapter 5
Theoretical basis
For many people, theory construction is either inductive generalization
from so called empirical facts or purely speculative reasoning. In my
view, theoretical research in its mature form is neither one nor a
combination of these two.
… [T]heoretical research [is] aimed at the construction of categories,
using a specific type of empirical data. This specific type of data typically
consists of propositions and findings of previous analyses, or more
generally, of previous representations of the object of research.
(Engeström 1987: 10 (original emphasis))
It is the nature of theoretical research that the categories found do not
corroborate, verify or falsify themselves. This kind of research resembles
an expedition. When Columbus returned from his expedition, he claimed
he had found India. The categorical content of his claim was erroneous,
yet his findings initiated an unforeseen expansive cycle of practical and
conceptual development. (Engeström 1987: 338)
My theoretical basis is a result of a journey guided by questions raised in the research
projects I have been involved with as well as by my acquaintance with theories that –
even though they do answer some of my questions – do not provide the full answer. To
find an all-encompassing theory is, however, not to be expected – nor wanted.
In this chapter I give an overview of theories that I have found useful and that have
influenced my thinking as well as my empirical work. Like Engeström above, I have
used theory as a source for finding my own position and my own conceptual
understandings of the field of study, in addition to the empirical research. I present the
theories as categories of sources for inspiration and understanding, based on their basic
assumptions. Most of the theories cut across categories – which is why they have been
useful to me.
In my Masters thesis1 I discussed how formal systems descriptions could be used
both as a means for systems developers to think and do design and as a means for
systems developers to communicate with other informaticians as well as with users. I
went to the social and human sciences – to linguistics, socio-linguistics, social
psychology and various branches of communication theory – in order to develop a
theoretical basis for my discussion. A big disappointment was that so many of the fields
of study had adopted cybernetic system models as a way to explain human behaviour; I
was looking for explanations of irregularities and breakdowns that did not fit with a
technical systems perspective. I have maintained my interest in finding different
perspectives and explanations that could explain human behaviour and, in particular,
human interaction.
My theoretical starting point is the understanding of systems development described
in chapter 2. My basic interest is computer-based information systems and the many
Bratteteig 1983
Chapter 5. Theoretical basis
Part 1. Background
ways that computing technology can be made to fit – and not fit – human activity. At the
core of informatics (and computer science) is the certainty that you can never prove that
a computer program is correct, and that there is always more than one way of designing a
program or a system. Systems development is building technology to serve others; we
build systems for somebody, and the “somebody” has a vision of the system-to-be –
which is also a system-in-use. Systems development is about translating such visions
into material form – a process of communication and holding together different
5.1 Composing a theoretical basis
My theoretical basis has developed through the years, also as a result of – and
intertwined with – the empirical research I have been involved in. I briefly describe the
main elements here. The following sections go into more details of the various theories,
and I also present more details as part of the discussion in later chapters.
5.1.1 Theoretical position
My research has a basic grounding in studies of practice, as the concrete activities of
human beings (see 5.2). I am particularly interested in the invisible, marginal activities –
in line with feminist and post-structuralist theories I value a manifold of interpretations
of the world. This perspective fits my interest in the tacit and action-based aspects of
knowing, and the less-discussed combination of factual and evaluative ways of knowing
that include experience and emotions.
The basic perspective taken is a dialectical view, emphasising the development and
processual characteristics of most phenomena. Taking a dialectical perspective means to
identify and describe important relations that can explain the development of the
phenomenon in question, and its direction. The development is discussed in terms of
movements and interplay between the two sides of a dialectical relation. The sides are
identified as interdependent: this is why they form a relation, but the unifying
characteristic may also be a source of conflict between them. It is the unifying
characteristic rather than the characteristics of the two sides that identifies the relation;
the two sides can be of different categories (rather than being defined as negations of
each other – and thus of the same kind – as in dichotomies). I use dialectics as a
perspective for understanding systems development, emphasising the tensions and
movements between the sides rather than their synthesis or solving (see 5.3).
During recent years, a number of theories have been developed that discuss the
interplay between human beings and their environment – be it work, organisation,
culture, society – where artefacts have explicitly been part of the discussion1. Several of
these theories have been applied in informatics, and I will briefly discuss three of them:
Structuration theory; Actor-network theory (ANT) and Science and Technology Studies
(STS); and socio-cultural and historical Activity theory (CHAT). These three theoretical
“families” all emphasise the connections between the micro and macro levels of a
phenomenon, and their basic interest is the relation between human beings and their
actions in a context, mutually influencing each other. Structuration theory deals with the
dialectical relation between structure–action2 emphasising patterns of behaviour to
explain continuity (see section 5.4). This theory also includes a framework for discussing
see e.g. Bratteteig & Gregory 1999; 2001
discussed in systems development research, e.g. Mathiassen 1981; Andersen et al 1986; Øgrim 1993
power as one of the three important analytic dimensions of human action; power is
particularly important in discussions about user participation in systems development.
However, I find the theory difficult to use as a tool for understanding processes of
change and design of technology.
The two other families of theories both explicitly address technology, as actants and
tools, respectively. STS and Actor-network theory include a collection of different
theoretical positions that all address the social shaping of technology, based on studies of
the social construction of technology and science. Actor-network theory describes how
artefacts are enrolled in human activity, performing work (see 5.5). The artefacts are
designed with inscriptions that materialise the designer’s (or employer’s) interest in a
particular behaviour from and to the artefact. The theory emphasises a relational
definition of actors (and non-human “actants”), and discusses change as translations and
shifts caused by alliances of actants. The theory does not, however, support an
understanding of the acting subject.
Cultural-historical Activity theory similarly denotes a collection of theories
addressing the socio-cultural and historical development of human beings in interaction
with technologies as well as with other human beings. The basic unit of analysis in these
theories is human beings in purposeful activity in which artefacts (concrete or abstract)
are used as tools to achieve goals (see 5.6). The activity is understood in a larger sociocultural and historical context – and so are the tools involved in the activity. Activity
theory has a systems orientation1, which enables a distinction to be made between
several levels of activity: operations, actions, activities — their interrelations as well as
their emergent properties. I find the analysis of different interconnected levels of an
activity useful, but I see them as relational rather than as elements in a hierarchical
Activity theory is also a basis for learning theory, emphasising the development of
the individual as closely interwoven with the community and context of development.
Use of tools in human activity is seen as a way of delegating knowledge to artefacts
(distributed cognition) (see 5.7).
Feminist literature emphasises heterogeneity and diversity (as do post-structuralists)
(see 5.8). This approach is easily combined with the study of practices, emphasising the
invisible, the un-acknowledged and relational aspects of everyday practices in work and
elsewhere. Feminist writings argue for gender as doing rather than being, enacted and
constituted in relations with others – a relational view that fits with Actor-network
theory. I will not focus particularly on women and gender in this thesis, but rather draw
on the critical potential from the body of feminist writings which question what is taken
for granted.
I apply a relational perspective in this thesis (see 5.9). I want to bring to the
foreground the fundamental interaction between the diverse aspects of the social life of
human beings and human activities. A relational view regards the individual as a human
being where knowing and acting is seen as characteristics of the relation rather than
individual properties – but taking the individual subject into account. Individual skills
are important in relations as they contribute to the activity as a whole; the relations
constitute them as skills because they contribute to the activity. To consider the human
being as a whole person, more than the sum of her/his categorised abilities, enables me to
shift my perspective towards unrecognised aspects, for example that emotionally
informed behaviour can be professionally effective.
at least Engeström 1987 and discussions based on his work
Chapter 5. Theoretical basis
Part 1. Background
The relational view adds to the dialectical basis, and makes it possible to discuss
human action at many profoundly interrelated levels. It implies seeing the individual as a
subject – but different in different relations – where both circumstances and intentions
come to form the concrete action. It enables a discussion about both continuity and
5.1.2 Use and design in systems development
Focusing on relations in systems development means to emphasise some aspects and
hence leave others in the background. I want to bring forward some of the relational
aspects of systems development that are less often discussed – possibly silenced – in
systems development. The basis for my perspective is the theoretical and empirical
sources briefly described above (and in more detail in later sections), and the values and
practices in the particular branch of the Scandinavian research on systems development
which emphasises user-designer cooperation in systems development.
I see systems development as a dialectical relation between design and use. Design
addresses use as it starts from a use situation and aims for a changed use situation as the
aim of the artefact is to improve the use situation in some way. Design normally relates
to use through the artefact1 and through various ways of expressing visions and
suggestions for improvement. Use addresses design by incorporating the artefact into the
use context, making it a part of use practice. Use relates to design through evaluations of
the current use situations, by contributing to requirements and needs specifications, and
by suggesting improvements and redesigns. Use experiences with an artefact can lead to
visions for new or improved artefacts. From the point of view of an artefact life cycle,
the relations between design and use over time can be seen as a continuous process in
which design is followed by periods of use and of support and maintenance, followed by
periods of (re)design and use again, and so on until the system can be said to be
discarded. The interplay between design and use influences each of these processes.
Use of an artefact is always embedded in a context that gives meaning to the use –
and hence to the artefact; use is always somebody’s work (or leisure). The artefact must
be possible to use in a way that supports work and allows the users to incorporate the
artefact in their practice – even if the artefact in some cases is a means to achieve a
different practice. The work knowledge gives a basis for incorporating the artefact in the
work, making the artefact a part of the concrete work conditions i.e. as an instrument for
carrying out the work, or as a work object – a symbolic representation – with or without
reference to physical objects outside of the artefact. Work involves knowledge at
different levels: at the operational, action, and activity level, and as different,
interconnected ways of knowing: practical, theoretical, explicit, tacit, factual, emotional,
relational, etc. Work knowledge enables work to be performed in shifting circumstances
of work conditions, made up by work objects and artefacts. The ability of workers who
possess this knowledge to be able to do their jobs under varying circumstances can be
used to explain why and how an artefact is used in a particular way. I therefore think that
the relation between work knowledge and the concrete conditions for work is basic for
understanding use.
Design works with material(s) to form an artefact with a particular functionality
(what it can be used for and what it can do), and presents the functionality to its target
user group. The way that the designers understand the (future) use situation acts as a
basis for selecting the functionality and its presentation. I emphasise two elements of the
the notion of artefact is used as a more general term than computer-based system, including also other types of
“things” that are designed, emphasising the materiality of the “things” – and systems
understanding1: the material and the ideas. The designers’ ideas – their professional and
cultural values and attitudes – act as the background for selecting the material for design.
Ideas come with designers. Ideas and knowledge result from training and experience,
from the lived life of the designers. The ideas guide the designers in addressing the use
situation and in utilizing their knowledge about use. Also the available material and the
designers’ knowledge about this, influences the selection of functionality and its
presentation by limiting and opening up for what kind of product is possible to design.
The matching of ideas and materials starts the design process by creating visions about
solutions – and through this constitutes the problem to be solved.
Both ideas and materials contribute to deciding the perspectives and priorities in a
particular design situation. Instead of describing design as stages of product
development, I see design happening at various levels of the complex process of
concretizing the product, where many different concretization levels coexist and
interplay all through the design process. Design normally happens as a collaborative
effort within an organisational context – a variety of people and things influence the
design process. A design process, in which the meeting of other and perhaps very
different design ideas is arranged for, can produce visions that transcend the original
The relations between design and use vary over time as to how important they are
and how difficult they are to handle. My aim is to identify some relations that capture
different aspects of the change process. A relational view on design and use is a way to
identifying as well as describing such relations. I draw on the various theoretical sources
described in this chapter to add to the body of knowledge about systems development.
5.2 Work practices
Since its very beginning, the Scandinavian research on systems development has located
systems development in an organisational context, contributing to organisational change.
Combined with the view that systems development is for somebody and for a purpose,
the role of computer-based systems in work has been emphasised. Studies of use and use
contexts – as work and as part of work – have been considered a part of systems
development research2. Within the informatics field a number of studies of work and use
of computer-based systems have been conducted, and studies of work from other
research fields (such as sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, pedagogy) have been
included as relevant to informatics.
A major source of inspiration for establishing the politically oriented Scandinavian
systems development research milieu was Greenbaum (1979)’s analysis of computers in
work and labour – in workplaces as well as in work-life3. The political and economical
analysis over time of computing technologies in work and labour fits with other
contemporary analyses4. The Norwegian Industrial Democracy project produced a series
I have chosen not to discuss design as work which would imply discussing work knowledge and work conditions
(instruments and objects) in this one particular type of work. Instead I discuss aspects of designers’ work
knowledge that obviously also relate to objects and instruments as well as other aspects of work (e.g.
management). These aspects of design of computers are well covered elsewhere in systems development literature.
2 cf. e.g. the Application perspective developed in the Florence project (see 3.1.1 and Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1984;
1985; 1988b). This is also the case in STEPS (Floyd 1993; Floyd et al 1989a; Kautz 1993). Organisational aspects
of use and design in systems development are discussed in e.g. Thoresen 1984 and Bjerknes & Dahlbom 1990
3 see also Greenbaum 1988; 1995; 1996
4 like the political analyses in Braverman 1974; Noble 1977; 1984; Sandberg 1979
Chapter 5. Theoretical basis
Part 1. Background
of critical research1 projects looking at organisations as places where work is organised
and structured in ways that interplay with the surrounding society. Computers were
discussed as part of the organisation as well as part of the work2.
A second source of inspiration was a series of anthropological studies of work
practices, mainly studies of office work and mundane use of technical artefacts3. These
studies brought anthropological methods into systems development as a supplement to
current systems development techniques for analysing use settings. The collaboration
with the anthropologist in the Florence project made the anthropological approach to
understanding work and use easier to understand (and apply) demonstrating a different
set of questioning what is taken-for-granted and of how the differences were different4.
Since the 1980s, a large body of ethnographic studies of work and the use of computers
in work has been created — informating informatics5.
A particularly important characteristic of the studies of office work made by Wynn
and Suchman, more explicitly in their work on office work as mediating between
computer systems and customers, is their emphasis on work that is not recognised as
work – and work skills not recognised as such. Their example is the skills involved in
translating – or rather reproducing – from a customer request at the phone to formalized
forms available in the organisation and its computer systems. Their studies of work and
computer use advocated a view of work as more than routines.
Invisible work (and work skills) has also been the concern of studies of work in
hospitals6. Strauss’ concept of articulation work as the work needed to make the
organisation of work work, has been taken up by many, maybe most visibly as a
fundamental basis for understanding Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW)7.
Gasser (1986) discusses articulation work in relation to use of computers that do not fit
work very well (discussed in chapter 7). Star explicitly addresses invisible work in her
studies of artefacts and work8. This emphasis on relational and processual competence in
invisible work fits with my interest in female-dominated occupations (like nursing and
office work) where the reproductive aspects of work are at the centre, but where the sort
of skills required to do a good job are not always recognised as professional skills9.
My aim for diversity implies an interest in the unnoticed and un-appreciated aspects
of work and organisations, linked to an interest in the marginal and peripheral as an
approach to a different perspective. However, I acknowledge these aspects as essential in
all work; the strike-like effects of working-by-the-rules demonstrate how much we
depend on all the small things we do that are not explicitly labelled work. As many
women seem to fill their work with such tasks – or rather: their work is being filled with
such tasks – it would make a very strange interpretation of work if such aspects were not
taken into consideration when trying to understand work.
e.g. Bermann 1983; Alnæs, Berman et al 1984; Bermann 1987; Bermann & Thoresen 1988 at the Work Research
Institute; Keul 1982; Fossum 1982; Thoresen 1981 at the Norwegian Computing Center
2 see e.g. the research reported in Briefs et al 1982; Bjerknes, Ehn & Kyng 1987. The contemporary discussion
about computers in society contributed to the debate: Weizenbaum 1966; 1976; Dreyfus 1972; Dreyfus & Dreyfus
3 Wynn 1979; Suchman & Wynn 1984; Suchman 1983
4 the phrase that information is a difference that makes a difference stems from Bateson 1972
5 especially the fields of Information Systems (IS) and Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW). Theories
about practice have been developed, see e.g. Chaiklin & Lave 1993.
6 see Strauss et al 1985
7 see the classic article of Schmidt & Bannon 1992
8 see e.g. Star 1991a; 1991c; 1999 and Gerson & Star 1986, in line with Strauss 1985; 1988; 1993
9 cf. Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1984; 1985. See also Fletcher 1994;1998; Mörtberg 1997
Studies of work have been included in the fields of Information Systems (IS),
Participatory Design (PD), and Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) – a fact
that invites social scientists into these fields. The relation between social studies of work
(aimed at understanding the work as it is, on its own premises) and design (aimed at
improvement and change) necessarily includes evaluation of the present situation. This
has been discussed most explicitly within CSCW and PD in the form of how designers
can utilize or do ethnographic studies themselves, or how ethnographers can inform
design1. PD has focused on what goes on before the system is decided on, arguing that an
understanding of the use context may result in different systems. CSCW has discussed
the complexity of cooperative work and – similar to PD – claimed that studies of work
make a better basis for designing systems that fit the work. Recent studies also include
non-work environments2.
5.3 Dialectics
Dialectics has been a basis for understanding systems development as a change process
since the discussions about a theory of systems development initiated by Mathiassen in
the late 1970s. Mathiassen (1981) based his work on dialectics as discussed in Israel
(1979), in turn based on Marx, as a general approach to understanding society and social
Dialectics is a philosophical tradition that addresses the process of thinking by means
of dialogue and debate. Its origin is ancient Greek philosophy, where the term was used
literally to discuss paradoxes in conversations between different opinions3. The term as
used here, however, originates from German philosophers, mainly Hegel, as a method of
thinking4. Hegel argues that development in thinking follows a logical progression of
thesis (established order) to antithesis (alienated view) to synthesis (a more inclusive
order) – and then the process is repeated with the synthesis as a thesis. The relation
between the thesis and the antithesis is called a contradiction, and the synthesis is a
reconciliation to a new, more profound level of understanding that involves but
transcends both thesis and antithesis — and opens up for new contradictions.
Dialectics has been advocated as an approach to planning organisational change, as
an alternative to other traditional, management-oriented strategies. The benefit of
choosing dialectics is that the assumptions about the current and the future organisation
held by management and planners can be made explicit and subject to discussion5. The
basic idea in this approach is that discussions about conflicts are seen as useful for
see Greenbaum & Kyng 1991; Blomberg et al 1993; 1994; 1996; Simonsen & Kensing 1994; 1997 for discussions
aimed at PD. In CSCW, a long and general discussion has included a variety of positions, debating the usefulness
of ethnographic studies for design as well as suggesting ways to make such studies more useful: Plowman et al
1995; 1996; Anderson 1997; Shapiro 1993; 1994; Dourish & Button 1998; Hughes et al 1992; 1993; 1994; 2000;
Bentley et al 1992; Crabtree et al 1997; 2000; Rouncefield et al 2000, Button 1992; Heath & Luff 2000; Bardram
1996, and Nardi 1997 in HCI. The pure ethnomethodologists claim that the open mind is a must – i.e. no theory –
just describing practice as it is, is the goal. I find that position naïve at best – or misleading.
2 e.g. use of mobile technologies in work and leisure: Herstad et al 2000; Herstad 2001; forthcoming 2003;
Weilenmann 2001; Grinter & Eldridge 2001; Taylor & Harper 2002; Grinter & Palen 2002. An interesting study
of young people’s use of mobile devices – and “Mobile gender” (at the Centre for Feminist Research at the
University of Oslo): Sti 2002; Grjotheim Hareide 2002; Prøitz 2003; Torgersen 2003; Due 2003; Mörtberg 2003
3 as questioning and conversation for Socrates, as a method for studying reality for Plato
4 see Wood 1993; Forster 1993; Hylton 1993
5 Mason 1969; Mitroff & Emshoff 1979; Mitroff 1982; Mitroff et al 1982; Schweiger et al 1986
Chapter 5. Theoretical basis
Part 1. Background
improving the quality of strategic decisions. The approach suggests that a plan (thesis) is
opposed by a counter-plan (antithesis); both constructed and argued for from the same
basis. The structured debate is framed as a discussion about the conflict between the plan
and the counter-plan (and their corresponding world views) carried out by two advocates
representing the two plans. Management is to understand the basic assumptions of the
plan and arrive at a synthesis: a new and expanded world view (a synthesis). According
to Mitroff et al (1982)1 and Schweiger et al (1986), dialectical inquiry has proved to be
effective in generating high-quality recommendations and bringing high-quality
assumptions to the surface.
This dialectical approach is close to the original notion of dialogue, focusing on
structure and on resolution of contradictions in order to reach a consensus. The concept
of democratic dialogue is used in organisational development to arrive at a reunited view
of the change2. In order for the dialogue to be democratic, a number of rules must be
fulfilled and followed (e.g. equal match of participants (power, knowledge), types of
questions and answers).
The dialectical approach used in the Scandinavian systems development research is
based on a different view, emphasising that a dynamic discussion between several
participants does not necessarily end up with a final solution – a synthesis; solving the
contradiction is not a goal. The view is based on a Marxist interpretation of dialectics,
although maintaining that dialectics is a perspective3. The contradiction consists of two
sides, mutually dependent4 and opposing each other5 at the same time. Contradictions
can address open or latent conflicts, or harmonious relations in which the dependency
between the two sides is seen to dominate. Development and change of the phenomenon
studied is described as difference and movement between the sides of the contradiction;
the sides are never equal and they change in time.
Dialectics has been used in several theoretical discussions in Scandinavian systems
development research; as a theoretical basis for understanding and acting in systems
development practices6 and as a way to see and address a diversity of aspects in systems
development. As mentioned above, the first large effort was Mathiassen (1981; 1998)
who bases his theorizing about systems development on dialectics. He appreciates some
basic contradictions as important in systems development; totality–parts; process–
structure; and relations–entities7. Dialectics helps to focus more on the totality, the
process, and the relations. This view is elaborated and extended in Andersen et al (1986)
(see chapter 2.3). Munk-Madsen (1987) applies a dialectical approach to project
management8. Bjerknes (1989; 1992) discusses the term contradiction as a means of
see also Mitroff 1982; Mitroff & Emshoff 1979
Gustavsen 1986. The principles are also basic for development of “search conferences” (see 4.2.4)
3 materialist dialectics claims that the world is dialectic, and that dialectics is the study of contradictions within the
essence of things, based on Marx (see Mathiassen 1981; Israel 1979; Stage 1989) and Mao (see Bjerknes 1989;
Øgrim 1993).
4 by what is called the identity, which makes us see the contradiction as a whole
5 called the struggle between the sides, threatening to decompose the relation. The Scandinavian systems
development research has emphasised the conflict aspect of contradictions — and antagonistic contradictions (see
discussion in Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1995; Bertelsen & Bødker 2002)
6 Dahlbom & Mathiassen 1993 discuss philosophical approaches to systems development, of which dialectics is one
of three important approaches
7 in his PhD dissertation (1981). He also brings forward the dialectics between intrinsic–extrinsic relations, where
the intrinsic relation refers to understanding and approaching a phenomenon emphasising what they are in relation
to each other. I conceive this as an aspect (or consequence) of the contradiction between relations–entities.
8 which is also discussed in Munk-Madsen 1996; Bjerknes & Øgrim 1990; Mathiassen & Stage 1990
understanding systems development situations. Ehn (1988) and Stage (1989) discuss the
main contradiction in systems development as the contradiction between tradition and
innovation; Ehn as “the art and craft of design” in systems development; Stage as the
work of systems construction and the relations between understanding–conceptualization
(description). Øgrim (1993) develops a dialectical theory about (project) management in
systems development, and particularly addresses aspects of the relations between
process–structure. A dialectical reasoning can also be found underlying Floyd (1987)’s
discussion about changes in the systems development discipline as a shift between the
sides in the relation between process–product.
My use of dialectics is based on the use of dialectics in the Scandinavian systems
development research listed above. Dialectical thinking emphasises process, and is a way
of seeing relations between different aspects of the reality as being the driving force of
development. Dialectical thinking is an alternative to dualisms characterized by static
pairs of the same category defined as permanent negations. I see these negations as a
danger in the systemic use of dialectics as construction of an argument advocated by
Mitroff above. I prefer to emphasise the processual rather than the systematic
understanding of dialectical relationships, which means to see the identifying
characteristic of the contradiction as shared by the sides rather than as a hierarchical
solution1. I want to keep the contradictions as contradictions; the paradoxes and
possibilities for mutual dependencies and conflict are sources for understanding change.
Lastly, I want to include the possibility of relating different categories into meaningful
wholes, constituting dynamic relations (rather than static conceptual pairs), enabling me
to question categorisations and hierarchies.
All complex phenomena can be discussed as a diversity of contradictions. A
dialectical analysis of a phenomenon thus has to concentrate on identifying the
contradictions characterizing it, at the time of study and for the purpose of the study.
Change and evolution are caused by the changing relation between the contradictions
characterizing the phenomenon as well as the changing relation between the two sides of
each contradiction.
5.4 Structuration theory: Human action and social structures
Structuration theory (Giddens 19842) is developed as a meta-theory aimed at discussing
relations between human action and social structures in general, independent of concrete
situations3. The basis for the Structuration theory is a critical analysis of the dualistic
conceptualization of the relation between the individual and the society expressed in
sociology as a division between subjectivity and objectivity. Structuration theory
reformulates the dualism as a relation between action and structure, as two sides of a
whole: human action is both enabled and constrained by social structures, and the social
structures are a result of human action. Giddens views human cognition as a necessary
and continuous part of human nature in the same sense as human action is a continuous
stream of behaviour. The knowledgeableness of an actor is basic to social behaviour.
Actions can be intentional if the actor knows or believes that the action will have a
particular result. Actions can also result in unintended consequences – unpredictable and
uncontrollable – constituting conditions for new actions.
in line with the Scandinavian uses of dialectics above. See Mörtberg 1997 for a discussion
and Giddens 1979; 1989. See also Jerdal 1994; Rønning 1994
3 Walsham & Han 1991
Chapter 5. Theoretical basis
Part 1. Background
A dialectical reading of Giddens recognises the dialectics of human actions and the
structural characteristics of their environment, in which the structural aspects exist as
action. We also notice his emphasis on process and development, and appreciate his
attempts to do away with some well-established dichotomies.
It is, however, also easy not to apply a dialectical reading of Structuration theory
because of the notion of structure. Structure refers to structural properties recognised as
systems of similar social practices, institutionalised or durable properties that give
stability to the systems over time and space. Social systems are not structures, but
express structural properties. Structure exists in time and space only in its instantiation in
practice and as cognitive elements that advise human agents in their interaction with the
environment. The most important aspects of structure are rules and resources that are
recursively implied in the reproduction of social systems, where resources can be
allocative (control of objects) or authoritative (control of people). Structuration is a
process that involves the mutual interaction between human actors and structural
properties of organisations. Three dimensions of structuration are emphasised:
structural dimension
human action
interpretive scheme
Table 3: The three aspects of structuration
Giddens explicitly addresses power as an aspect of human activity, and provides a
framework for addressing cultural issues1. Structuration theory has been used in
informatics to analyse introduction and use of information systems. The authors differ in
interpreting the information systems as structure or modality mediating structure. A
series of studies in CSCW has used structuration theory to discuss the introduction of
groupware (Lotus Notes) and how it fits with other structural properties in the use
context2. A general discussion about structuration theory in information systems research
is found in Walsham (1993)3.
Structuration theory has also been used as a basis for discussing the relations
between design and use. Orlikowski (1992b) builds on a dialectical understanding of
Giddens in her discussion about the mutual influence of design and use in what she calls
the “duality of technology”; design influences use and use influences design. In her
model she includes the organisational context in which use takes place: the organisation
is influenced by use (which is influenced by design), and the organisation influences
design (which influences use), see figure 8 next page.
Orlikowski argues, based on Giddens (1984), that technology and human action
mutually influence each other, and that the structural aspects of the organisation come
into action through interaction with technology (see figure 8, arrow d). Orlikowski
distinguishes between a design mode producing technology, and a use mode utilizing it.
She uses the model to analyse use of technology in a large organisation, going through
see Walsham 1993; Sahay & Walsham 1995. Giddens’ theory about modernisation (Giddens 1990) is used in
analyses of cross-cultural issues, e.g. in global software development collaboration (see e.g. Krishna, Sahay &
Walsham 2003; Sahay, Nicholson & Krishna 2003; Walsham 2000).
2 e.g. Orlikowski 1992a; 1992b; Karsten 1996; Dreiem 1998. Scheepers & Damsgaard 1997 use structuration theory
on a set of cases on introduction of Internet technologies.
3 for general discussions, see Lyytinen & Ngwenyama 1992; DeSanctis & Poole 1994; Jones 1998
who or what fits the categories in the figure and how they influence each other. The
framework describes the development process as composed of a series of elements and
influences. The mutuality of the influence is difficult to describe with this framework as
it suggests a static reading – in accordance with Giddens’ three structurational
dimensions. The dialectical understanding that Giddens emphasises (that structure is
made explicit only through action) is not easily combined with a division between human
agents and institutional properties. An illustration of a mutual influence by depicting it as
two independent influence streams may instead encourage a hierarchical, structureoriented interpretation1. Such an interpretation fits nicely within informatics.
Institutional Properties
Human Agents
Technology as a Product of
Human Action
Technology as a Medium of
Human Action
Institutional Conditions of
Interaction with Technology
Institutional Consequences of
Interaction with Technology
Technology is an outcome of such human action as design,
development, appropriation, and modification
Technology facilitates and constrains human action
through the provision of interpretive schemes, facilities,
and norms
Institutional Properties influence humans in their
interaction with technology, for example, intentions,
professional norms, state of the art in materials and
knowledge, design standards, and available resources
(time, money, skills)
Interaction with technology influences the institutional
properties of an organisation, through reinforcing or
transforming structures of signification, domination, and
Figure 8: Structurational model of technology (Orlikowski 1992: 410)
Design and use are – in the large picture – aspects of the same development, thus the
distinction between what counts as design and what counts as use can be – should be –
discussed2. I want a different focus; on the simultaneous interplay between design and
use; the indivisible, mutual influences between design and use, at many analytical levels,
the same kind of criticism (see e.g. Øgrim 1993) has been directed towards Mathiassen 1981’s depiction of the
relation between structure–process, see footnote 5 p. 11 in chapter 2.1.1
2 and has been discussed as tailoring (Mørch 1997; Henderson & Kyng 1991) or end-user programming (Nardi
1993) or discussed more theoretically as dialectical relations (see e.g. Gregory 2000a)
Chapter 5. Theoretical basis
Part 1. Background
with many kinds of logic and many time frames. For this I use the expression: design ↔
5.5 Actor-network theory and STS: Technology development in
A second theoretical approach, originates from Science and Technology Studies (STS)
concerned with the study of how science and technology are socially constructed. Actornetwork theory (ANT)1 crosses the distinction between humans and artefacts, and
conceptualizes heterogeneous ensembles of human and non-human actants that
instantiate practices2. The theory can be seen as a material extension of semiotics
emphasising relations as the primary source for defining the characteristics of an actant –
shifting according to the actual, shifting relations. Programs of action are inscribed into
all actors in a network, translating interests into material form3. Actor-network theory
describes society as consisting of networks of actants, and development of a network
happens when actants form alliances that through an alignment of interests strengthen
their position. Network-building always implies multiple networks4, with several
programs of action with varying strengths of inscriptions, and with a need to balance
what is inscribed into other networks with their own interests, actants (human and
artefactual) and representations, and translate, enrol, and align them all into the larger
Actor-network theory is used to analyse how artefacts are involved in or are
delegated work, a classic example is the non-human door stopper5. Berg (1997a; 1997b)
describes how artefacts in a hospital perform work and how human actors interact with
non-human actants in work. In a similar way, Aanestad (2001; 2003) describes how the
working of an operating theatre requires close interaction between artefacts and people in
order to work6. Latour (1987; 1996), Latour & Woolgar (1986), Knorr-Cetina & Mulkay
(1984), Knorr-Cetina (1999), Fujimura (1996; 1997) and Haraway (1989) have studied
science as a social endeavour, emphasising how artefacts and organisation of work
incorporate knowledge – that in turn influence the knowledge production. Abbate (1994)
demonstrates that the decisions concerning X.25 or TCP/IP as an Internet standard was
just as much based on social and political reasons as technical qualities7.
Actor-network theory is aimed at making sense of the present situation, basically
through rather detailed historical analyses. The approach is seen primarily as a post hoc
analysis and therefore difficult to apply in design practices, but analyses of practices
from a broader family of STS concepts can open up for use in research on systems
Callon & Latour 1992. Latour 1999b claims that Actor-network theory is not really a theory; it is a collection of
approaches that include several ways of addressing social construction of science and technology. See also
Stengers 1997; Law & Hassard 1999; Law 1992; 1999 and Asdal et al 2001. Other theoretical sources are Pinch &
Bijker 1987; Bijker, Hughes & Pinch 1987; MacKenzie & Wajcman 1985
2 the symmetry principle describing non-human and human actors in similar terms, as actants: see Callon 1986;
3 Latour 1999b
4 Latour 1991; 1999a; Berg 1997b; Star 1989
5 see Latour 1992
6 Hilstad 2001 similarly applies Actor-network theory at a micro-level in studying use of a computer system
7 other studies of technical work also reports that both social and technical aspects have been present in the
development process (e.g. Law 1987; 2001 on engineering and Newman 1998 on design)
development practices1. Actor-network theory has been used in information systems
research. Sandahl (1999) emphasises the fact that Actor-network theory as a social
science theory can be used to discuss the technological solutions through concepts like
inscription and program. Hanseth et al (1996), Hanseth, Monteiro & Hatling (1996) and
Hanseth & Monteiro (1995; 1997; forthcoming) discuss development of technical
infrastructures and standards in terms of Actor-network theory, discussing standards as
alignments of interests in heterogeneous networks.
A particular strand in the STS field includes feminist writings – offering an
alternative to and extensions of Actor-network theory. An early contributor is Star
(1991a; 1991b) arguing for the importance of studying the invisible – not only the story
of the victor. Haraway (1997: 280) refers to Star and argues for questioning what is
taken-for-granted in a broad sense, as a political project, emphasising the researcher’s
accountability to research2. Similar to Actor-network theory, she uses the original
military cyborg concept as a tool for feminist politics, advocating a discussion about
distinctions (between human and non-human actors as well as other distinctions)3. By
looking into the construction of experimental research methods, she argues for seeing
knowledge as always situated and embodied, partial and differentiated4. Cockburn
(1992) explicitly criticises Actor-network theory for the invisibility of women in the
theory which can be explained by two other weaknesses:
the lack of concern with subjectivity, which leads to a neglect of the way technology
(particularly as knowledge and process) enters into our gender identity. Second, there is an
incomplete representation of the historic dimensions of power, so that we cannot explain what
we see with our eyes every day … Indeed, it is only by tackling these two issues that we can
explain the first – women’s relative absence from the processes of design and development of
technology. (Cockburn 1992: 39)
Actor-network theory sees power as capacity and influence through mobilising alliances,
not differentiating between weak and strong actors.5
Following the relational view in technoscience studies, Bowker & Star (1999) take a
historic view of the medical categories in the International Classification of Diseases
(ICD), and discuss the historic and cultural origin and development of the ICD
categories. They demonstrate that each category has a particular history and a set of
interpretations, and that the classification system does not work coherently across
contexts (nations, epochs). They give several examples of how a category’s historical
trajectory depends on other human or non-human actors, and how alignment of interests
has influenced the ICD.
The representation of a disease as a category in ICD can be seen as an example of
what Latour calls a “black box” that acts as an “immutable mobile”
The term “black box” refers to a tool that is no longer questioned, examined, or viewed as
problematic, but is taken for granted. The more elements one can place in black boxes—modes
of thought, habits, forces, and objects—the broader the construction one can raise. Latour calls
the inscriptions produced by such black boxes “immutable mobiles” because they can travel
without withering away, they do not fundamentally change along the way, and they can be sent
to and interpreted by others as well as linked to a variety of other elements. (Fujimura 1996:
Black-boxes, if they work, become naturalised and taken for granted – and sink into
everyday practice. If the black-box is shared and enrolled in different networks, it may
e.g. Latour 1991; 1999a; Berg 1997a; 1997b; Newman 1998; Sandahl 1999; Walsham 1997
2 and that research is not “pure”. She refers to Suchman 1994b; 2000 and Harding 1986
3 Haraway 1991; Asdal et al 1995; 2001; Asdal 1995, cf. also the OncoMouse in Fujimura 1996 and Haraway 1997
4 Haraway 1994; 1995
5 Cockburn 1992: 43 refers to Latour 1986: 265 and Callon & Latour 1981
Chapter 5. Theoretical basis
Part 1. Background
act as a boundary object: an object that is part of many practices and therefore “plastic
enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet
robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites” (Star & Griesemer 1989:
387). The same object is used by different communities, in different contexts, with
different meanings but still recognisable and possible to address across the sites. The
categories in the ICD can be seen as boundary object that develop over time as a part of
cooperation between people sharing common resources, and where various
interpretations of the object can coexist – unnoticed. The notion of boundary object links
the network perspective with the focus on concrete practices (also found in Actornetwork theory) pointing to the invisible work by means of which the boundary object is
made to work. The notion of boundary object reminds us that the concrete conditions for
human activity must be seen in relation to other activities by other human beings – and
that many artefacts play different roles in many different contexts.
5.6 Cultural-historical Activity theory: Human action and
Cultural-historical Activity theory (CHAT) is based on learning theory and emphasises
change. Activity theory emphasises human agency and considers structure and action as
irreducibly interrelated. The basis of
an activity system is a relation
between a subject and an object,
mediated by tools. The unit of
analysis is the activity of the subject
on the object, mediated by the tool
and oriented to an outcome (see
figure). The tool can be material or
conceptual; our actions in the world
are mediated by material and
conceptual tools. Activity theory
of labour
emphasises human activity as social
practices, considering the elements of
Figure 9: activity system (Engeström 1987)
an activity system as dynamic and
open to change1.
Engeström (1987) expands the triangle of subject-tool-object by contextualizing the
subject-object relation in a collective: a community2. The subject-community relation is
mediated through rules, the object-community relation through division of labour. With
the notion of “learning by expanding” Engeström discusses development of work, adding
cycles of transformation and expansive transitions to analysis of activity and activity
Leontjev (1979) introduces the internal structure of an
regulative units
activity including activities, actions, operations oriented
by motives, goals, and conditions, respectively – all of
which are dynamically interrelated. Human activity as a
collective activity oriented by motives shared (to some
extent) by the active subjects. The motive is concerned with producing an outcome. The
see e.g. Kuutti 1991; 1994; Bertelsen & Bødker (2000)
the white section of figure 9
human activity can be seen as composed of several actions, each oriented by goals, and
each contributing to the motive for the activity as a whole. The human action can, at the
concrete micro-level, be seen as composed of operations performed by each individual
human being. The operations are oriented by the conditions for the action, and together
they contribute to the goal of the action.
Activity theory has been used in informatics for a number of years. Bødker (1991)
introduced the theory to user-interface design for work practices1. By describing human
action at the interface as operations, she discussed guidelines and criteria for designing
user interfaces that support work in an unobtrusive way. Activity theory here is
combined with the concepts ready-at-hand and present-at-hand from Heidegger2, and
the concept of breakdown to describe what happens when tools do not work and require
particular attention. The discussion about the “toolness” of the user interface is also
inspired by Polanyi (1966) arguing that the tool is “transparent” to the user in qualified
Kuutti (1991; 1994) introduced Activity theory as an approach in CSCW. He not
only discusses collaborative activity as happening in the community; when collaborative
work is the unit of analysis, the subject is a group of people. Kuutti builds on Engeström
and discusses how the role of CSCW shifts according to whether the subject is passive,
active or expansive3.
Activity theory has also been applied in discussions about systems development, both
to discuss design and organisational aspects4. Sjöberg (1996) analyses a participatory
design effort using Activity theory, emphasising the multiplicity of voices in the design
process. Gregory (2000a) reports from a large project developing software for health care
(e.g. including an electronic patient record) through iterative prototyping, and she uses
Activity theory to describe and discuss the different logics involved in the design effort5.
Understanding human development (a summary)
The theoretical approaches briefly described in sections 5.4-5.6 all deal with relations
between human activities and the context of the activity; as structural dimensions, as
networks of actants, or as activity systems and mediated by material or conceptual tools.
The theories differ in important aspects. Both Structuration theory and Activity theory
are based on dialectical thinking, emphasising structural and systemic aspects,
respectively. The explicit focus on tools in Activity theory seems to be difficult to
combine with the abstract and more static view of structural properties underlying
Structuration theory. The theories emphasise different levels of analysis.
Actor-network theory (and STS) is based on network thinking advocating a relational
view with a multitude of relations constituting the actants. Activity theory and Actornetwork theory share emphasis on artefacts mediating actions in heterogeneous
complexes of humans, tools, and communities6. Mediating artefacts in Activity theory
are akin to intermediaries in Actor-network theory. Both offer concepts for
organisational and inter-institutional change; Activity theory by its emphasis on
another example of Activity theory applied to HCI is Nardi 1993
presented in Winograd & Flores 1986
3 a corresponding discussion is found in Bardram 1998 (see also Bardram 1997; Bertelsen & Bødker 2001)
4 examples of analyses of design are Bødker & Christiansen 1997; Christiansen 1998; 1989; 1996; Bertelsen 2000;
Hyysalo & Lehenkari 2002; Korpela et al 1998; Faust Ramos et al 2002
5 see also Gregory 2000b.
6 Bratteteig & Gregory 1999
Chapter 5. Theoretical basis
Part 1. Background
“learning by expanding”, Actor-network theory by its concepts of enrolment and
alignment in network-building.
Engeström & Escalante (1996) compare Actor-network theory with Activity theory
in their analysis of the introduction of an artefact into a use context, claiming that
Activity theory, particularly developmental work research, has developed a conceptual tool kit
and a reservoir of empirical case studies suited for that very task. We think that an alternative
mode of network analysis begins with the inner dynamics, contradictions, and dialogical
interactions within the activity systems of each participant of a network. Connections and
exchanges between the nodes can be adequately characterized only on the basis of historically
grounded understanding of the inner workings of the nodes of the network. This requires an
articulated conceptual model of the anatomy of an activity system. (Engeström & Escalante
1996: 365)
Ludvigsen et al (2001) discuss networks of activities combining Activity theory with
concepts concerned with boundary crossings, referring to Star 1989. Star 1991 applies a
feminist approach to add to an Actor-network approach that what we know is always
contextualized, situated, personally interpreted in the social-historical context from the
position we take (or that is given).
Actor-network theory advocates the symmetry principle, that artefacts should be
discussed in the same terms as human actors, as actants1. This is particularly tempting
when the artefact is a machine that performs, and actually does parts of the work2 and
when taking into consideration that users have to operate the computer in predefined
ways – the machine needs input in order to perform the predefined operations. Since I
am interested in the process of work – in knowledge, rationale, and responsibility for
work – I do not find the symmetry principle useful. I need concepts to address the ability
to set the goals of an action and divide actions into operations as a characteristic of
human work knowledge and skills. However, the observation that operations are
delegated to instruments is important3 – also because the understanding of the operation:
its performance, its input and output are part of the work knowledge of the user. Often
some new operations arise because of the delegation, normally called “operating the
machine”, and they are often described in negative terms indicating that the machine
controls the human. Interaction with computers means to operate a machine: to give the
right input in order to get the output you want without having to do the operations
yourself (to save time or energy). All use of artefacts implies that humans give in to the
material form of the artefact in order to utilize its functionality. When the machine does
things which are invisible to our control, the feeling of also delegating control of the
process to the machine arises. It is important not to confuse the lack of understanding of
the machine processes with ascribing autonomy to the machine.
5.7 Knowing and learning
Knowledge and learning are inevitable parts of all change and development, and offer
relevant conceptualizations for systems development4. Knowledge and learning concern
the development process as well as its outcome: the new “tool”. Theory about how we
learn is useful for planning and carrying out systems development. Theory about
knowledge and knowing is useful for designing the system, for defining problems and
c.f. Callon 1986
Latour 1992 discusses artefacts doing parts of the work – acting and being instances of dead labour: the door
stopper taking the place of a human door man, doing the work of opening and closing the door in his place
3 which is found both in Actor-network theory and Activity theory, however, somewhat differently
4 cf. the Mutual learning activities in the Florence project (see 3.1) based on e.g. Illeris 1974
solutions of the system. Involving users in the systems development process strengthens
the need for understanding learning and knowing as a part of systems development.
This section includes aspects of knowledge and learning that contribute to a more
complex view of the topics. I emphasise aspects not normally included in systems
development literature.
Knowledge is social
Each individual develops as a member of a community, a society, a culture, as a way of
living. In many cases the learning of skills takes the form of entering a community of
practice, starting as a legitimate peripheral participant who, through being invited into
and engaging in practices, becomes a full member, a central actor in the activity1.
Knowledge is both something very deeply personal and something which is socially
shared. Knowledge is recognised through action by a community – the action may be
individual2. ”Because the job can, in the abstract, be described in individual terms, it is
easy to overlook the degree to which it is the community of practice that sustains the
[workers’] ability to do their work.” (Wenger 1999: 46). Knowledge can therefore best
be understood as actions of individual members of a community, sharing the practices in
which the action makes sense3.
Knowledge is rooted in individual acting and thinking within a community. The
individual and the community mutually define each other, appreciating the individual as
a member of the community: as similar, but also as an individual contributor to the
community: as different. The community thus contributes to defining the individual’s
identity: “a way of talking about how learning changes who we are and creates personal
histories of becoming in the context of our communities.” (Wenger 1999: 5). A
community of practice shares the objects of work and the instruments for working with
them; they share a specific interpretation of them. The community of practice brings
together technologies, plans, activities and ideologies that affect how things are done,
emphasising pluralism4, identifying “units of analysis that organize people’s collective
learning, are historically and politically situated, and are distributed in interesting ways
across people’s biographies and geographic settings” (Star 1995d: 14).
Knowledge is personal
Knowledge is personal, based on personal experience, and both verbal and non-verbal
forms of knowledge share this characteristic5. The non-verbal parts of personal
knowledge, what Polanyi (1966) called tacit knowledge, has been of interest to systems
development as it suggests that important parts of what we know cannot be explicated.
According to Polanyi, the concept of personal knowledge is a combination of subjective
experience and collective rules for action embedded in various traditions. For instance, in court
the judge’s sentence is based on an expert opinion within the legal tradition of that particular
area. This means that another judge who experiences a similar situation and a similar case, will
Lave & Wenger 1991; Lave 1988; 1991; Wenger 1999; introduced he concept “community of practice” (similar to
Strauss’ concept “social world (Strauss 1985; 1993)). “The concept of practice connotes doing, but not just doing
in and of itself. It is doing in a historical and social context that gives structure and meaning to what we do. In this
sense, practice is always social practice.” (Wenger 1999: 47)
2 also in line with Wadel 2002; Andreassen & Wadel 1989
3 in distributed communities of practice, where the individual worker works alone, knowledge is developed through
discussions and stories about individual action in the community (cf. e.g. Orr 1986; 1996).
4 Thoresen 1997 suggests the concept “embedded groups” to denote a more specific and homogeneous community
of practice in which the same practice is shared
5 Polanyi 1978
Chapter 5. Theoretical basis
Part 1. Background
rule in nearly the same way and reach the same result. It is still a matter of the judge’s personal
opinion which is based on how he or she applies the various rules in practice. This opinion, or
professional assessment, is the personal dimension of the acts which the judge carries out in
connection with his or her professional duties. (Nielsen 2002: 5)
Tacit knowledge refers to knowledge that is not verbally articulated – or even not
possible to verbally articulate – like the difficulty of telling the difference between a
good and a bad wine. Acknowledging non-verbalised knowledge suggests developing a
sensitivity toward different modes of articulation and toward the interplay between
different articulation modes1. Non-verbalised knowledge may also require different ways
of learning, transferring, and accumulating than verbalised knowledge, emphasising
action-based and experience-based ways.
According to Nielsen (2002) Polanyi’s concept of tacit knowledge was developed as
a political concept – and has been used in that way – as an argument against
formalization and automation of knowledge2. Combined with various other philosophies
of knowledge3, the concept has been used to discuss the consequences for work
knowledge of the introduction of computers in work. Nielsen claims that this use of the
concept of tacit knowledge leads to marginalization of experiences, and that “issues of
politics, ethics and values will be marginalized in favour of discussions about knowing
the world” (p.10) and thus defeats its own end by making a mystery out of practical
Knowledge is embodied and enacted
Many studies of work knowledge emphasise the situated and concrete nature of
simultaneous thinking and doing in work referring to cross-situational experiences,
values and patterns. Keller & Keller (1993) describe the way blacksmiths think when
making decisions about how to solve a particular problem. They tell how some
blacksmiths prefer to “think hot” while some prefer to “think cold” referring to different
ways of visualising productive strategies. Productive strategies are made as visions of
how to materialise and make a realization of the artefact when working or discussing
with a client.
KM [knife-maker]: Most of the time a guy will tell me an anecdote. I will see the story that he’s
telling me…I actually visualize what he’s telling me. Suppose it’s a collector who says “I’ve got
two or three of this other guy’s work and they’re sleek.” When the man says sleek I think to
myself…well I do translate it into visual. I actually see an obvious transition. I see that there’s
going to be a lot of taper beginning in front of the guard going toward the tip. So even though
he would use a word like sleek which doesn’t give much and it’s not a full anecdote which gives
you a story. I actually do go over to a visual image.
There are words that trigger in me a visualization. I have a customer in Chicago who over a
period of time has told me about several knives. He’s a knife-maker. He wanted a big knife and
he used the word massive. When he said to me “I want the thing massive” then immediately I
say “You mean you want this thing 3/8″ thick and he says “Yeah, and maybe 1 3/4″ or 2″ wide.
(Keller & Keller 1996: 126, original emphasis)
Harper (1987) in a similar way describes how the car repair virtuoso Willie works:
Willie’s working method builds on a detailed knowledge of materials and develops precisely the
kind of tactile, empirical connection that leads to smoothly working rhythms, appropriate power
and torque, and the interpretation of sounds and subtle physical sensations. Willie reads his
Grimen 1991; Josefson 1985, Göranzon 1983. See also Molander 1990; 1996
Göranzon 1983; Josefson 1985
3 with Wittgenstein: oriented towards practice and emphasising that knowing linguistic rules is different from
following them, with Dreyfus & Dreyfus (1986) and their 5 stages from novice to expertise – claiming that
expertise is intuitive action, and , thirdly, linked to the concept “practical intelligence” learned through experience
(see e.g. Sternberg & Wagner 1986)
body’s messages and measures out the appropriate force of a blow or a twist; he will move
things simultaneously, bang things harder than one would assume the material could take, then
move gently, reading the pressure of the material. (Harper 1987: 118)
including also verbal accounts by Willie about his work (his knowing), e.g.:
“You’ve got to shift that pressure from one hand to another. As you go across the saw the
pressure shifts on your file. If you hold it hard you can’t feel the pressure. You’re not gripping
the file, you’re more or less letting it float or glide right through.” (Harper 1987: 119)
Experience-based and action-based knowledge1 also includes reflection (possibly
verbalisable, like the above quote from Willie), where the reflection concerns the
situated nature of the particular conditions for the work, how to best utilize the tools and
the materials in the situation. Experience-based knowledge is often concerned with the
mastery of tools; mastery meaning almost automating the use of the tool so that it can be
used in more sophisticated ways.
Symbolic knowledge
A characteristic of computers is their symbolic nature, acting as representations of
concrete materials. McCullough (1998) discusses craft when the tool is a computer:
Like a physical tool, [the computer] modifies the effect of your hand, which it accomplishes by
modifying the function of the non-physical but visible cursor that you operate with the physical
pointing device (i.e., the mouse). For example, a paint system offers pencils, brushes,
airbrushes, etc., for applying color to a surface. This plays on the fact that a tool can be
conceptual, and indirectly controlled. Whether direct or indirect, what matters is manipulation.
Note that like a physical tool, software becomes a symbol for the operation it performs. To
employ any particular tool, you have to look around for it, pick it up, and move it into relation
with the objects to which it will be applied. Its use is initiated and guided by your intentions—
and by your hand.
… It is the singular advantage of the software tool to give visible form and physical action to a
logical operation otherwise lacking any physical correspondence, let alone traditional
counterparts. To accomplish this, software designers rely on our skills by analogy. ...
Ultimately the computer is a means for combining the skilful hand with the reasoning mind. …
Metaphorically, [the computers] let us get a hold of our ideas. Concepts become things. We
can’t touch them yet, but already we can look at them, point at them, and work on them as
though with hand-held tools. All this is ultimately more interesting than automation. Our use of
computers ought not be so much for automating tasks as for abstracting craft. (McCullough
1998: 80-81)
Zuboff (1988) discusses technological changes and automation initiatives in industry
where the management strategies of automating and “informating” have very different
consequences for the knowledge needed in work2. Informating is the process of
translating descriptions and measurements of activities, events and objects into
information used by computer-based systems that support automated processes,
presented in locations separate from the production process (e.g. in a separate control
room). The introduction of a computer-based system implies that the manual skills of
physical production are changed as work becomes characterized by abstract intellectual
skills, including a shift from implicit knowledge of job skills (and physical effort) to
intellectual processes based on explicit process knowledge. This shift requires learning to
construct meaning from a symbolic medium.
referred to as action-carried knowledge by Godal 1997, meaning bodily-based skills, knack and dexterity. See also
Planke 2001. See also Sudnow 1978
2 contrasting automating with new technology that incorporates top-down controls with deskilling of labour and
informating in which the technology is a source for sharing information, developing new types of skills based on
understanding and manipulation of information.
Chapter 5. Theoretical basis
Part 1. Background
Distributed knowledge
According to Säljö (2000: 23) human development is characterized by the interplay
between three interacting processes:
o development and use of intellectual or psychological/linguistic instruments
o development and use of physical instruments (tools)
o communication and various forms of cooperation in various collective activities
A special characteristic of contemporary life is the many symbolic tools we are
surrounded by; we depend on paper-based tools for remembering, communicating,
informing, calculating etc. Paper is used to externalise knowledge, and many paperbased artefacts have been designed for specific sets of memory acts (e.g. the Filofax).
Säljö (2000) discusses how a variety of tools are embedded in our everyday life, and uses
the calculator as an illustration of the fact that the artefact is based on partly
sophisticated knowledge about mathematics – which many of the users do not understand
and which is not necessary to understand in order to use the calculator properly. Säljö
claims that human capacity for knowledge must be seen as shared between humans and
artefacts, and reminds us that throughout history, humans have transferred human
functions and competencies to artefacts. Artefacts often materialise and externalise
knowledge. A number of studies of scientific work demonstrate (among other things)
that work knowledge is materialised in artefacts, instruments, procedures etc. used in
The knowing in calculation does not happen in the machinery, the calculator, but it
does not happen only in the human brain either2. Knowing therefore should be seen as
collaborative actions in which humans include artefacts and conceptual tools in their
actions to improve them – and to do things which would otherwise be impossible. An
artefact may contribute to changing the activity in which it is used, enabling the artefact
user to achieve his/her objectives in a different, presumably better way. New artefacts
may encourage or even require new ways of doing things. And we might need to change
our understanding of the activity in order to make sense of the artefact – and in this way
the activity changes as we take up using the artefact.
Knowing in action
Learning and knowing happen as interaction between what we think and what we do. We
learn to observe, describe and act in the world in the ways our environment allow and
encourage. Changes in the environment therefore may cause us to change the way we act
and/or think. Learning a new theory that explains the world differently often makes us
rearrange things or act differently so that the new theory fits: we transform practices with
the help of theoretical concepts. According to Dewey (1997) inquiry precedes “acquiry”
of knowledge, where inquiry means to be open to a problem situation, using one’s
knowledge and experiences to reflect and define what the problem can be, make
hypotheses and test them until the problem seems defined and the uncertainty about it
disappears. New knowledge requires a kind of negotiation between problem definition
and problem solution, where established patterns and knowledge are “persuaded” to fit
with a new situation, with new conditions. In order to learn something we need to reflect,
but in order to reflect we need to experience something – new knowledge comes from
unexpected experiences.
The existence of non-verbalised knowledge does not imply that language is not
important. Language is the “tool” for making sense of what we experience – and vice
e.g. Latour & Woolgar 1986; Knorr-Cetina 1999; Fujimura 1996; Traweek 1988
a perspective often labelled ”distributed cognition”, e.g. Hutchins 1993; 1995; Salomon 1993
versa; we develop language to be able to reflect on and communicate our experiences. In
a study of language use in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual community Scribner & Cole
(1981) found that the written language is part of, supports and awards particular
communicative practices that determine the abilities we are encouraged to develop (the
language does not determine our cognitive-communicative abilities – or vice versa).
To focus on action – and knowing as action – does not mean to reject structures and
patterns. Frønes (2001) argues that both aspects are needed to make sense of actions –
and to act. Social action takes form in a given place at a given time; it is experienced and
interpreted by the actors. Action is given meaning through interpretation, and
interpretation is made on the basis of patterns and structures more or less consciously
selected. Frønes claims that cultural patterns represent an objective social reality, but that
they are constituted by us through interpretations.
Interacting ways of knowing
Molander (1996) argues for a view of learning and knowing that combines rather than
separates different ways of reasoning:
In a [goal-rationality] perspective the “correct evaluation” is presumably made to a
(objectivated) goal and everything else is seen as means: e.g. calculation and overview.
Through this we miss the interplay between different evaluations. We need to learn to see quite
different connections than means-ends in order to understand work knowledge and, more
generally, knowledge in action, like how the whole is a condition for the part, and how
processes of creation, evaluation, and orientation permeate every moment in knowledgeable
work (knowledge in action). It is of course an empirical, question how different connections
look within different activities. To investigate this requires case studies. However, we also need
concepts, patterns and metaphors which make possible epistemological reflection i.e. that makes
it possible to see, to bring forward and speak about the concept of living knowledge. (Molander
1996:225 (my translation, original emphasis)
Molander wants to transcend the dichotomy between language and action, claiming that
in order to understand knowledge in action we need to include action without reflection –
automated action in a situation – as well as reflection without action, and all the possible
mixes between the two. He also wants to do away with the difference between facts and
feelings – separating the actor from the action. Molander suggests the concept “the
double grip” to talk about the unity of calculative and evaluative abilities: qualified
evaluations cannot separate routine and factual knowledge (maps, calculations) from
orientation knowledge (overview, weight, evaluations of different goals) as they are
mutually dependent.
Molander1 discusses four fields of tension (or rather dialectical relations) which
describe knowing and learning in action, taken as movements between the sides: 1)
whole – parts: knowing is paying attention to the parts through an understanding of the
whole, 2) sensitivity or proximity – distance: knowing is to be committed to the action
(to be accountable for the work) while also being able to step out and evaluate it, 3)
criticism – trust: knowing includes a critical approach which enables redoing and
improvement and presupposes acknowledgement and trust in order to be open to
criticism, and finally 4) action – reflection: knowing is enacted and may or may not
include reflection, while reflection sometimes requires lack of pressure to act. The
movements between these relations – and the relations between them – can be used for
coherently describing knowing and learning in action.
As a final discussion on learning I introduce Bateson (1972)’s three levels of
learning: 1) learning something; like learning to use a tool. This level concerns practice.
2) learning about something; like learning about the tool and its characteristics in order
Molander 1996: 258 ff.
Chapter 5. Theoretical basis
Part 1. Background
to better choose between tools. 3) learning about the categorisation of tools; and of tools
in general. This level considers the assumptions underlying the categorisation of tools.
The three levels of abstraction cut across the relations above, in particular the relations
between action – reflection and sensitivity – distance. Bateson’s levels of learning can be
used to point to different ways of knowing the same thing as well as to discuss the
interdependencies between experience and understanding1.
5.8 Feminist critique
A source of theoretical inspiration that crosses all the other categories is a diversified set
of writings concerned with gender and feminist issues. My own professional interest in
feminist and gender issues started during my years as a student in informatics noticing –
and questioning – the small number of women in computing2. My view gradually
developed beyond numbers into taking feminist theory as a resource for constructive
critique of – and in – informatics3.
A number of researchers have criticised science from a feminist position4. Although
different, they all criticise the claim of objectivity in science and production of scientific
knowledge. Based on the work of Kuhn (1962), they argue that scientific objectivity does
not rest with individual scientists as it is the result of a consensus reached by a
community of scientists working within a cultural context. Scientific knowledge is
decided on, and the judgments involved are inevitably influenced by social, cultural and
individual beliefs and values and political interests. In addition, there will always be
personal views as the scientist is present in the production of scientific knowledge.
Feminist researchers suggest that scientific communities become more objective when
unexamined values are brought out into the open5. Categorisations and classifications in
scientific work are just as based on values as categorisations elsewhere in the cultural
context; culture is classification and how we categorise things differs considerably
between cultures. This view makes even mathematical categorisations subject to debate6.
A number of feminist researchers emphasise that if we observe things which are
readily classified with known names, we tend to overlook or disregard everything else7.
Particular frameworks determine not only what constitutes an answer, but even the
questions asked. Feminists emphasise the importance of paying attention to what has not
been studied, what has been left out, or looking at things from different standpoints8. No
Star & Ruhleder 1994 discuss use of common information spaces with this framework.
see Bratteteig & Verne 1985; Bratteteig 1988; Verne 1988. See also Greenbaum 1976
3 Bratteteig & Verne 1997; Bratteteig 2002 as well as Star 1994; 1996; 1997; Wagner 1997; Mörtberg 1997; Perlow
& Bailyn 1997; Elovara 2001; Håpnes & Rasmussen1991; Floyd et al 2002; Elkjær 1989; Tijdens et al 1989,
Eriksson et al 1991, and for technology outside the informatics field, see Cockburn 1983; 1985; 1999; Cockburn
& Ormrod 1993; 1994; Waldén 1994; Lie 1995; Berg & Lie 1995; Lie & Rasmussen 1983.
4 Haraway 1988; 1989; 1991; 1994; 1996; 1997; Harding 1986; 1995; Keller 1983; 1985; Longino 1990, FaustoSterling 1985; Bleier 1986; Hubbard et al 1979; 1990; Martin 1987; 1991; 1996; Butler 1990
5 see Gilligan 1982
6 both in feminist science studies and in a new field called ethno-mathematics there is the view that culture and
language influence mathematics itself and that different societies have different versions of mathematics, see
Shulman 1996; Hall & Stevens 1995. See also Turkle & Papert 1990 about differences in views on programming,
and Huff & Cooper on sex bias influencing programming
7 e.g. Star 1991b; 1991c; Haraway 1988; Shulman 1996.
8 it is also appreciated that the existence of multiple perspectives does not mean that all of them work equally well
science – including mathematics – should be presented as stable knowledge – complete,
certain, and absolute.
Many scientists find it difficult to imagine the relevance of social variables (like
gender) to their discipline, like “What does gender have to do with the second law of
thermodynamics?” – or similarly “with the compiler”?1 The question implies that the
laws of nature are objective and free of any human value – but it is not the empirical
adequacy of the law that is in question, it is the historical and social context in which the
law and the theory is developed. It is important to understand that the second law of
thermodynamics is not self-evident, but that it was developed in the context of the
industrial revolution and therefore is a product of that era and reflects its dominant
values and the ways people were interested in interacting with the natural world.
Empirical studies of science as practiced demonstrate that science includes
heterogeneous, varied, and changing sets of practices2. A different focus can bring
attention to aspects that cross established dimensions (like material-conceptual, humannonhuman, natural-cultural), and connect the seemingly decontextualized abstractions to
contextual practices and applications3 – but still not claiming that there is a particular
“women’s science”4.
Feminist theory is critical theory; feminist critique is therefore necessarily political. In making
this claim I draw on the Marxist concept of “critique,” … summarized … as a theoretical
exercise which, by “explaining the source in reality of the cognitive shortcomings of the theory
under attack, call[s] for changes in reality itself”. In this sense … feminist critique comes to
echo critical theory as developed by the Frankfurt School with its emphasis on “argued
justification for concrete, emancipatory practice”. This is clearly an ambitious aim (Moi 1991:
and Moi therefore suggests “appropriation” as a more modest aim than a “full-scale
critique”, in the sense of “a critical assessment of a given theory formation with a view to
taking it over and using it for feminist purposes.” (p. 1017).
Neither “appropriation” nor “critique” relies on the idea of a transcendental vantage point from
which to scrutinize the theory formation in question. Unlike the Enlightenment concept of
“criticism,” the concept of “critique” as used here is immanent and dialectical. (Moi 1991:
My interest has been to use feminist writings as an approach to discuss and criticise the
research field of information systems. If we move beyond the surface of women in
computing5 or gendered presentations of computer-based artefacts6, we need to carry out
epistemological inquiries to establish alternative understandings of knowledge in
I start by looking at female systems developers, characterizing their work as well as
discussing their ways of combining feminine and masculine roles. Thoresen (1989)
claims that female systems developers seems to work according to a responsibility-
Martin 1987; 1991 shows how scientists have superimposed cultural sex stereotypes onto the process of
fertilization, resulting in inaccurate descriptions of cell and molecular interactions, faulty understandings of the
physiology of fertilization, and skewed research priorities. Haraway (1989) investigates how scientific findings in
primatology have been deeply constrained and even flawed by gendered and racialized notions. A discussion
about gendered technologies can be found in Berg & Lie 1995 and Bratteteig 2002
2 Kuhn 1962; Latour & Woolgar 1986; Knorr-Cetina 1999; Fujimura 1996; Traweek 1988; Martin 1987
3 and might change the assumption that they are disconnected from the experienced world
4 see Stengers & Latour 1997
5 as discussed in Stuedahl 1997, Adam 1995; Klawe & Levenson 1995; Camp 1995
6 see Bratteteig & Verne 1997; Bratteteig 2002; Mörtberg 2000. A number of researchers in the informatics and
STS fields draw on feminist theories, cf. footnote 3 page 80 and footnote 1 page 82
Chapter 5. Theoretical basis
Part 1. Background
rationality1, different from their goal-rational male colleagues. Bødker & Greenbaum
(1989; 1993) draws similar conclusions, basing their discussion on the old separation
between the head and the heart2. Mörtberg (1997) reports from a study of female systems
developers, discussing their roles as women and systems developers as negotiations
about borders and identities. Fletcher (1994; 1998) studied six female engineers, and
focused on their work tasks. Her analysis showed that they had carried out a number of
relational tasks that became defined as non-work (what Fletcher calls “disappeared
away” – more about this in 5.9).3
5.9 A relational view
The last piece of my theoretical journey is the level between the individual and the
community of practice in learning and development; the actual learning happens in a
social setting close to the individual, within the community – it happens in interaction
with other people4. A relational view on human activity and learning regards the
individual as a relational human being where knowing and acting are seen as
characteristics of the relation rather than individual properties. Individual skills are
important in terms of their role in the relation; it is in the relation that they appear as
skills contributing to the activity.
Relational knowledge
Relational skills are therefore important in terms of the activity to which they contribute.
Relational skills are skills that two or more individuals possess together5. If we see all
types of skills as relational, we need to pair individual parts of the skills in ways that give
meaning to the pair; the activity unit we look for includes two or more people. The
individual skills are prerequisites for relational skills (as parts of the relational skills), but
can only give results as parts of the larger context. Good skills, then, involve knowing
how to interact with co-workers, knowing what everybody’s strengths and weaknesses
are and how they fit with one’s own strengths and weaknesses. People recognised as
having good (individual) skills are often able to see the chains of individual contributions
to the activity and act with reference to the chain. They manage to build on their own
strong sides as well as others’ strong sides so that the weak sides become less important.
Teams that manage to utilize the members’ strong sides together get good results even if
none of the individual members are especially good6.
Skills at an individual level can be seen as physical, technical, tactical, psychological
and pedagogical, where the tactical and pedagogical are most explicitly relational. Below
I discuss them in more detail, with football (soccer) illustrations taken from Andreassen
Sørensen 1982
referring to Keller 1983. Stengers 1997 criticises Keller’s analysis, and concludes that there can be no “women’s
3 there are a number of feminist discussions about female scientists / engineers / designers, and the general culture
in these fields, e.g. Hacker 1987, Wajcman 1991; Robertson 1997, Karasti 1994 and a number of studies of
women users, e.g. Balka 1996; 1997; Elovara 2001 from computing, and Cockburn 1985 (graphical work);
Cockburn & Ormrod 1993; 1994 (microwave ovens); Waldén 1994 (sewing machines)
4 Wadel 2002 points to this as a missing part in Wenger 1999
5 relations of respect, trust, emotions, motivations are aspects of the individual identity in varying relations, see
Wadel 2002; Andreassen & Wadel 1989
6 Andreassen & Wadel 1989; Eggen 1999; Ihlen, Ihlen & Koss 1997
& Wadel (1989). They emphasise that all the skills are necessary also in work life in
general (even physical skills – important for health and well-being).
o physical skills: fitness, stamina, strength, speed (in reaction and for a distance), and
movability (flexibility and balance) are individual skills, but do also include
relational aspects. A well-trained football player can become too tired if the other
players require him/her to run too much. A distribution of the play according to
individual characteristics can utilize the strengths and make the weaknesses less
important, e.g. when player A, who is good in duels, and player B, who runs fast,
cooperate so that both can utilize their strong sides.
o technical skills: are relational skills because the individual needs someone to receive
from and give to of his/her skills. A football player who can pass the ball really fast
and accurately needs co-players who can receive the ball – who have complementary
skills. Technical skills are therefore either similar (e.g. give and take an accurate
pass) or different (either give or take only). Combinations of technical and physical
skills are important – a team which is able to last a whole football match must be
composed of different individual skills. Also in work-life it is the team skills that
matter: what skills are represented in the team, how they play together to utilize them
and how they enable the individuals to utilize their individual special competences.
o tactical skill in football means understanding the play – the most relational skill in
football since tactics require relations to others. Tactical skills are possessed by two
or three players, by team parts, between team parts, and by the whole team. Football
requires tactics in defence and attack, and in all the passages between them. Tactical
skills have to do with knowing and recognising chains of individual contributions
and locating oneself as part(s) of these. Tactical skills are therefore necessary in
order to utilize different strong sides in different players and merge these at the right
moment in time. Tactical skills are intertwined with technical skills: good tactics
require good technical abilities. Tactically good players often also possess
pedagogical skills; they can teach their skills verbally and through playing. In worklife tactical skills concern the holistic understanding that explains change – and needs
for change.
o psychological skills: because of the “self” element in self-confidence, selfknowledge, self-motivation, and self-discipline are seen as individual skills – but
they are also relational as other people are often required for the individual to
develop self-confidence etc. The others can be co-workers or even players on the
other team. Self-confidence combined with technical and tactical skills enable
players to risk meeting larger challenges than their skills may support – but if
supported by co-players they may succeed and their self-confidence may grow.
o pedagogical skills are relational by definition, as relations between a teacher and a
learner. Pedagogical skills concern i) presenting an idea in the right way in the right
situation (at the right time), ii) developing responsibility for achievements by oneself
and others (whose problem is it?), and iii) developing feedback to co-players.
Teaching and learning are carried out through communication within and outside of
work situations (football players may find it difficult to learn during an important
match) – being together in different contexts can enable a larger range of situations
for learning.
Andreassen & Wadel (1989) claim that these skills are important in football and worklife and demonstrate that they can be seen as relational skills1. With a relational view we
look for the interplay: interplay requires the player to play together with other players,
they also add a sixth skill: sociological skills, which concerns the ability to see the other skills as relational ...
Chapter 5. Theoretical basis
Part 1. Background
thus the unit of analysis is two or more people instead of one. The interplay is seen in
chains of individual contributions, and understanding interplay is therefore to recognise
and create actions that fit into larger chains of actions. Some combinations of skills can
be seen to produce such chains (like combinations of different technical + physical skills
combined in a tactically good way), but also the less observable skills (e.g. combinations
that involve psychological and pedagogical skills) may be crucial for creating interplay.
The difficulty of seeing the “betweens” and combinations makes it easier to see and talk
about individuals and individual skills. Management is therefore a relational skill
concerned with applying a relational perspective as well as developing relational views
and skills in the team and the individual co-workers.
Relational practices
Discussing relational practices1 involves a systematic study of the invisible: what goes
on between individuals, pairs of people, teams, and other analytical levels of social life
as well as between activities, actions, operations. We look for the “inter” in interplay:
how combinations of different “things” (skills, people, interests) result in something that
extends the individual contributions (in size, quality, cleverness, innovativeness etc). The
football team is here a better metaphor than the orchestra since the situated action in the
football match is created by the players, by their play and interplay, and with their coach
watching (not conducting according to a particular interpretation of the score2). The rules
and patterns practiced make the basis for achievements in football matches concerned
with seeing oneself located in (and creating) chains of contributions that constitute the
An interesting study of relational practices by Fletcher (1994; 1998) in engineering
firms demonstrates the silent – and silenced – nature of relational skills. Fletcher
discovered four categories of relational practices:
o preserving: relational activities associated with the task, intended to preserve the life
and well-being of the larger activity (project). Preserving includes three types of
behaviour: i) shouldering: “picking up on tasks that were outside the technical
definition of the job” (Fletcher 1998: 73) also lower level tasks that needed to be
done, ii) connecting: maintaining relations between people involved in the work
providing resources to the work (at some point in time), and iii) rescuing: calling
attention to problems and making sure they are dealt with. Preserving involved
“protection, nurturing and connecting” for the task by a sense of responsibility – in
particular a responsibility for the whole, also at the price of individual status and
hierarchy. Preserving skills include holistic thinking both concerned with the context
in which the task takes place (also with respect to emotional relations between
stakeholders) and with processes in which consequences of actions are seen and dealt
with. The invisibility of preserving is thus a sign of its success.
o mutual empowering: relational activities associated with other people, intended to
empower others to contribute to the activity4. Mutual empowering includes i)
empathetic teaching: taking “the learner’s intellectual and emotional reality into
account and focused on the other (what does s/he need to hear?) rather than on self
(what would I like to say?)” (p. 8) being very careful not “to bruise any egos” or
see also Strathern 1991
Walz et al 1993 uses the orchestra as a metaphor in a special issue of the Communications of the ACM on project
management. See also Bratteteig & Stolterman 1997
3 page numbers relative, referring to the version from the web at
4 Fletcher stresses that her concept is different from “the empowered worker” in management literature emphasising
the worker’s authority to make decisions.
being “careful not to intimidate”, ii) protective connecting: “a practice that insulate[s]
people from their own lack of relational skill.” (p. 8), acting as mediators in tensional
relationships. Mutual empowering is based on the view that both power and expertise
are fluid and shifting:
[Mutual empowerment] was characterized by a willingness to put effort into what Cato Wadel
(1973) calls “embedded outcomes”. These were outcomes embedded in other people, such as
increased competence, increased self-confidence, or increased knowledge. … this theme of
empowering draws on a model of relational interaction characterized by interdependence and
more fluid power relations. (Fletcher 1998: 8, original emphasis)
o achieving: relational activities associated with self, intended “to enhance one’s own
professional growth and effectiveness” (p. 9). Fletcher suggests three types of
activities: i) re-connecting: repairing potential or perceived breaks in working
relationships, including following up disagreements in meetings or talking with
someone whose feelings have possibly been hurt; ii) reflecting: paying attention to
“the emotional overlay of situations in order to understand what was happening and
what the most effective response should be.” (p. 9); relational asking: concerning
asking for help in ways that increase the possibility for getting help – including
sharing the information with others to reduce the likeliness of others asking the same
thing. Achieving is aimed at the growth as a professional worker seen as a long-term
and contextual process of development (which emphasises maintaining and
developing relationships) requiring “an ability to blend thinking, feeling and action in
a way that bridge[s] the rational/emotional divide.” (p. 10).
o creating team: relational activities associated with building a collective, intended to
construct the social reality – the experience – of the team. Creating team involves i)
attending to the individual, acknowledging the individual’s characteristics (abilities,
interests, circumstances) so that everybody feels understood, accepted and
appreciated; attending to the collective: creating conditions for collaboration through
structural arrangements or communication styles. Creating teams is based on a view
that every member of the group should be appreciated. It is also based on an
awareness of emotional aspects of professional action, emphasising the team spirit
and collective understanding of a situation.
The categories of relational practice identified by Fletcher require skills like “empathy,
mutuality, reciprocity, and a sensitivity to emotional contexts” (p. 11). Fletcher
particularly emphasises the deep interconnections between emotional and factual aspects
of professional work. Relational practices include strategic behaviour aimed at
improving the professional activity both concerning the product and the process.
Relational practices are invisible; they can be seen as articulation work detailed in many
dimensions, as work tasks guided by a product-oriented focus aimed at the social
processes of work.
The relational activities only show when absent. But relational activities are also
systematically “getting disappeared” as work because they do not fit the definition of a
professional task in the engineering firm. “Preserving” activities “got disappeared”
because work was seen as individual and specialised, connecting functions were
arranged in a hierarchical manner. Crossing individual areas of specialisation by
referring to the whole, the context, or making the goal of the project more important than
individual achievements are often seen as “wrong” behaviour caused by personal
inabilities and inadequacies. “Disappearing” “mutual empowering” happens in the same
way; it is defined as a personal weakness or lack of understanding – or just “being nice”
which contributes to an even stronger “disappearing” of the professional and strategic
reasoning of the behaviour. “Disappearing” “achieving” has to do with violating the
myth of individual independence and autonomy by seeking inspiration for growth
Chapter 5. Theoretical basis
Part 1. Background
outside the individual. “Creating team” “gets disappeared” because of the myth of
individual heroes. Using collaborative language in a discussion, for example, “rather
than being effective, you and your ideas disappear.” (p. 141). In an environment where
there is one right way, and discovering the right way is recognised as competent
behaviour, then building on others’ ideas instead demonstrates that you do not have any
ideas of your own.
“Disappearing” happens as relational practices are constructed as something other
than work – and even as personal weakness or naiveté, powerlessness or emotional
needs. “Getting disappeared” has to do with not recognising that the intention of
relational behaviour is professional; it is taken to be personal. “Disappearing” also
happens because of inadequate language for expressing this kind of behaviour as work,
words like “help” and “being nice” tend to be associated with the private and personal
spheres. The third aspect of “disappearing” mentioned by Fletcher is the construction of
gender, where relational behaviour is expected from female co-workers more than male
co-workers – and is responded to as gendered behaviour rather than professional. The
gendered interpretation of relational practices – and the assumption that female workers
will behave relationally – originates from the fact that relational practices are associated
with the private sphere which, because of the division of private and public spheres, is
seen as inappropriate at work (in public).
5.10 Summarising the theoretical basis
The theoretical basis described in this chapter emphasises:
o a basic grounding in studies of practice, particularly invisible, marginal activities that
are “silenced” or taken-for-granted, emphasising a manifold of interpretations and
ways of knowing
o a basic dialectical perspective, emphasising development and process seen as
movements and interplay between the two sides of a dialectical relation
o emphasising processes, while including structural aspects of culture and society
o focusing on interplay and shifts of networks of people and artefacts, emphasising the
contextual and situated nature of development
o analysing human activity at various levels emphasising the interplay between the
concrete operations and the long-term and abstract objectives of an activity
o including a variety of ways of knowing and learning: formal and informal, verbal and
tacit, abstract and concrete, linguistic and action-based
o using feminist approaches as a way to critique aiming at heterogeneity and diversity
in interpretations of human activity
o and finally, emphasising relational aspects seeing individuals as social and individual
development as a social process at both pairs, groups and community levels. This
adds to the basic grounding in dialectical thinking
The theoretical basis will be used in this thesis for discussing design and use in systems
original emphasis. Fletcher quotes an engineer: “I might be in a meeting and somebody will come up with an idea
and I’ll say, “Well, that’s a really good idea, but I looked at it this way and this is what I came up with”. And then
(after you give your ideas) they’ll say, “Well, anyways…” (general laughter). And because you haven’t like
stomped on them, you’re not even in the room.” (p. 14 original emphasis)
Part 2
Computer users don’t consider themselves “users”. Terms such as “user
manual” were initially resisted, in part because some people associated
“user” with “drug user.” In contrast, similar manuals for automobiles are
called “owner’s manuals”; they have little to do with the rights and
responsibilities of car ownership, but their readers typically do identify
themselves as owners. As computer use becomes more commonplace,
people who happen to spend sometime working with computers are less
likely to identify themselves naturally as “users”.
The term “user” retains and reinforces an engineering perspective.
“Casual users” is a term often used to describe managers and executives –
who are often not “casual” at all! “Novice” or “naïve” users are often
experts or sophisticated at their jobs – while the expertise of “expert
users” may not extend beyond computer use. (Grudin 1990: 270)
Systems development is located within a larger context. My point of departure is the
lifecycle of the computer-based information system, where the (computer) system is
designed and built, used for some time, then perhaps maintained or redesigned, used
again, and eventually thrown away. This part of the thesis is about the slower and more
continuous development of use that constitutes the backcloth context for the faster and
more planned change processes of design.
Use of computer-based systems are normally seen as a relation between a human
being (or a group of human beings) and a machine. The research field of HumanComputer Interaction (HCI) explicitly addresses this relation by looking into the
interface between the human and the machine, focusing on how interfaces can be
designed to improve the usability of the computer system. HCI is based on psychological
knowledge about human beings, transformed into general principles for design in
product development1. The research fields of Information Systems (IS) and Participatory
Design (PD) regard the relation between the human and the machine as a relation
between a knowledgeable worker and his/her tool – in PD as an explicit aim for the
design of any computer system2. The human is seen as a worker in an organisational
context, hence functionality and usefulness in work are emphasised. To a human worker
any new computer system should fit as a tool in work. Work is studied in detail, and
more conservative development processes translate the current doings and work “tools”
the human is addressed as a “general human being” (see e.g. Dix 1997; Preece 1994 and the broader Preece et al
2002), emphasising physical and physiological characteristics like perception, memory, motor skills etc. The HCI
view on the human focuses on aspects of the body which are generalisable to a variety of anticipated customers of
the computer-based artefacts. HCI literature hence emphasises characteristics like “easy to learn” and “easy to
use” as desirable properties of computers (e.g. Shneiderman 1998; Nielsen 1994)
2 cf. the political aims concerned with user autonomy (see chapter 2).
Part 2. Use
into computerised routines and tools1. The research field of Computer-Supported
Cooperative Work (CSCW) emphasises support for groups (and cooperation in work in
general) and combines studies of group work with psychological knowledge about group
behaviour2. CSCW demonstrates that technological shifts (from single-user to
groupware) necessitate a transcendence of old limitations (i.e. HCI’s general psychology
and PD’s workers’ tools) in order to gain understanding and ideas for design; groupware
requires knowledge about both group behaviour and group work. Similarly large
technological shifts, like the introduction of WorldWideWeb or mobile computing,
require an understanding of different aspects of human activity – the impossibility of
understanding use before it has occurred becomes even more prominent, and encourages
a way of addressing use that transcends the inevitable technology shifts.
This part includes two chapters, aimed at presenting a relational view on use of
computer-based information systems. Chapter 6 presents experiences from my empirical
research, while chapter 7 aims to contribute to a theoretical discussion about use.
systems development methods often depart from analyses of current work (information sources or information
flow) formalized in ways that enable an easy – even automatic – translation into design suggestions
2 communication patterns, floor control, media richness in communication etc.
Chapter 6
Use of computers in work
[I]nformation technology, even when it is applied to automatically
reproduce a finite activity, is not mute. It not only imposes information
(in the form of programmed instructions) but also produces information.
It both accomplishes tasks and translates them into information. The
action of a machine is entirely invested in its object, the product.
Information technology, on the other hand, introduces an additional
dimension of reflexivity: it makes its contribution to the product, but it
also reflects back on its activities and on the system of activities to which
it is related. Information technology not only produces action but also
produces a voice that symbolically renders events, objects, and processes
so that they become visible, knowable, and shareable in a new way.
(Zuboff 1984: 9)
This chapter discusses use of computer-based information systems as being interwoven
with the activity in which the use takes place; here I look at work as this embedding
activity. This chapter discusses use as work, and aims to present an argumentation for
this view based on experiences from my research. I start with describing work as the
context for use. The next section discusses artefacts as they are used in work. A second
characteristic of work is the many kinds of knowledge expressed in professional action
(section 3). Section 4 argues that computer-based systems make it more important to
understand the part of work which deals with representations. In the fifth section I
discuss how we tend to use artefacts and things around us to achieve what we want to do,
even if they are not suited for just that.
6.1 Work as use context
Use of computer-based systems is a normal, everyday activity embedded in everyday
practices such as work, learning and leisure. We can discuss use in many different ways
and on different levels of analysis – I find the connections between these the most
interesting. Use is the action of pushing the buttons on my keyboard, and it is the
production of this text by means of a computer; use is both the very concrete operations
at the computer interface and the action of which these operations are a part, and the
larger activity in which the action makes sense. Use includes both the things I do with
the computer and how I make sense of them: the meaning of the computer in the activity,
the meaning of the computer as it appears (the interface), as well as the meaning I
construct from its behaviour1.
In order to describe use, I will start with describing the context in which it appears:
the work. Work is designed to fit its object. There is little meaning in talking about work
in line with socio-cultural historical Activity theory, see e.g. Engeström 1987; Engeström, Cole & Vasques 1997;
Engeström & Middleton 1996; Cole 1998
Chapter 6. Use of computers in work
Part 2. Use
in an abstract, decontextualized sense: work is practical doings, it is knowledge and
skills demonstrated in actions and operations in situations, in a context. The actions and
the reasons for them – both the routines and the exceptions – refer to what the work is
about: its object(s) and goals. And it is the combination of the concrete objects and
situational circumstances that make work very concrete and diverse. Nursing illustrates
this well.
In the Florence project we worked with nurses in two different hospitals, on two
different wards: Asthma & Allergy and Cardiology. We were struck by the similarities
and differences between the work on these two wards, which can be traced back to
similarities and differences in the kind of patients who “belonged” to the ward. Nurses’
work is characterized by the patients who have the disease – and the characteristics of
the disease – but also by larger, historical and professional divisions of medical work
that have settled into the current organisation of a specialised hospital.
The morning when we first arrived at the Asthma & Allergy ward we were surprised
that there were no patients around, only nurses and other professionals1, but the
explanation was obvious: the ward receives children with asthma and allergies for a
planned stay of 1-2 weeks aiming to evaluate and if necessary adjust their medication.
The children were at school or in the nursery school during day time, and we got plenty
of opportunities to see the children before and after school.
Figure 10. The Asthma & Allergy ward room
The children all have severe allergies or asthma (or both), which are chronic diseases
with irregular acute attacks. Some attacks are dramatic and life-threatening and it is in
fact possible to observe the anxiety settle in the child’s body. The patients are children,
some come with a parent, and they may know the people on the ward from previous
stays (at least the most severe cases do). The nurses are organised in what is called
primary care: one nurse has prime responsibility for the patient during the stay and also
as a stable contact at the hospital when the patient is at home (with one or two backup
nurses). Children obviously need special precautions to feel secure in the hospital, and
knowing their primary carer is a way of achieving this. This also makes it easier for the
medical doctors, dieticians, physiotherapists, social workers
family to contact the hospital when trying to live a normal life outside the hospital. The
primary nurse is the organiser of a multi-disciplinary team that includes a doctor, a
dietician, a social worker etc. that addresses the patient’s life situation as a whole (the
home, parents, school) and sees the disease in context — in one of the meetings we
attended the recommended treatment was to remove the carpet at home.
The normal day routine in the ward also includes all the things you would expect in
a hospital ward: medication, training to master new medication methods, testing, etc. We
watched nurses treating children with severe rashes which were painful and troublesome.
We watched small children learn how to inhale their medication in the correct way – a
slow process that involves the parents as well – and watched their proud faces when they
could do it themselves. We joined their meals and watched how many of the children
learned what not to eat and how to recognise food that they should be careful with.
Nursing in the Asthma & Allergy ward was to a large extent very concrete, close actions
and communication with each child to help him/her master the chronic disease and to
care and treat the current, more or less acute physical and psychological state of the
disease. Very concrete, very physical, very present in the situation.
Figure 11. The Asthma & Allergy medication room
The Cardiology ward was at first glance very different. The patients were mainly middleaged men (mainly, but also some women) coming to the ward with severe heart trouble
(heart attack or angina) – an acute and life-threatening state. Immediate correct treatment
could reduce the damage to the heart and save the life of the patient. The incoming
patients were put in one of six rooms that were equipped with oscilloscope (“scope”) for
constant monitoring of the heart rhythm, and they were literary tied to the wall in their
beds with loads of monitoring equipment. The close monitoring is necessary to watch for
a turn for the worse and for predicting new heart problems – we were even present at one
resuscitation, extremely dramatic and intense where the ability to react instantly and
correctly can make the difference between life and death1. Such dramatic moments were
expected to occur quite regularly.
the monitoring was also used to watch for signs of improved health so that the patient could be moved in the ward
Chapter 6. Use of computers in work
Part 2. Use
The normal day, however, consisted of a lot of small things: nurses talked with the
patients and arranged their medicines, their bed, food, equipment, and flowers. They
“measured” the patients: their heart beat, their temperature, their enzymes, their blood,
their liquid intake and output etc. They did these things in different places: by the
bedside, with the group of nurses in the ward office, with in the group of professionals
on the morning round, in the corridor, in the washing rooms – and between these places.
After having spent a couple of days in the monitoring rooms, the patient was moved
to another room down the corridor, and the treatment and care shifted from life-saving
care to helping the patient learn to live with a chronic heart disease. The work in the
ward was therefore organised in two teams: the “inside team” (inside the monitoring
room, see map figure 12) and the “outside team”, taking care of the patients before they
were discharged. The “outside” patients walked around, some with telemetry (mobile
monitoring equipment) mounted on them – the main goal was enabling the patient to live
as normal a life as possible. The different phases of the disease require different forms of
treatment and care.
other rooms:
office, ward office, bathroom, sluice, storeroom …
”inside team”: heart monitoring rooms
“outside team”: ordinary hospital rooms
Figure 12: Map of the Cardiology ward1
To our surprise we found that allergic and asthmatic children have a lot in common with
middle-aged men with a heart problem – as seen from a nurses’ work perspective. They
both have a chronic disease with possibilities for acute and life-threatening states. On the
Cardiology ward all admissions were acute, but they also included a chronic phase. On
the Asthma & Allergy ward most of the admissions were planned in order to evaluate
and change the medication, but sometimes children from the nearest towns came with an
the three screens in the Heart Monitoring Central showed i) two beds in 506 + two beds in 507; ii) one bed in 508
and 510 + two beds in 512; and iii) two beds in 517 and up to three telemetry patients. There were large glass
windows between the Heart Monitoring Central and the rooms 508 and 510.
acute attack1. Acute situations are dramatic, literally life threatening, and it feels odd to
be present to observe work even if the capacity to do the right thing in a second is at the
core of the nurses’ professional knowledge and skill. The focused presence of a nurse
caring for a patient full of anxiety and pain — focused on softening both the physical and
psychological aspects of the disease — is recognisable as professional knowledge and
skill. Nurses do relational work; they keep a professional proximity to the patient both
when the patient is anxious because of acute life-threatening states and when s/he needs
to work to accept living with a chronic disease.
It is the object of work: the patient – the particular type of patient –, which is the
basis for both the organisation and performance of work. Nurses’ work is caring for real,
sick people, and the materiality of the object of work makes a number of real, physical
actions necessary. They organise the work in order to make their work more effective: a
permanent contact at the hospital is a quick way of restoring a feeling of security to a
child, dividing the ward into dealing with an acute and a recovery phase of heart attacks
makes the best use of the equipment needed for the acute phase.
Figure 13: A wallgraph picturing information flow in the Asthma
& Allergy ward – with smiling nurses and running feet
Because of the design of hospitals according to medical specialities, the patient is
“sorted” and distributed according to where her/his problem fits: heart problems go to
cardiology, feet problems to orthopaedics. Also within each ward the various hospital
employees have different responsibilities and tasks to do, partly governed by legislation:
only doctors can decide on a diagnosis and a medication, only nurses can distribute
medicines. Specialised equipment strengthens this development, and a hospital today has
one or more labs, X-ray, CT etc. in units that serve the rest of the hospital.
these children — normally teenagers — knew the ward very well from previous stays, and came when they felt
that an acute attack was on its way
Chapter 6. Use of computers in work
Part 2. Use
Nurses are responsible for collecting information about the patient so that the patient
gets the best possible care, but also so that the doctors get the best possible basis for
making a diagnosis. Nurses are responsible for keeping an overview of patients, doctors,
equipment, beds, medicines, medical journals, lab tests, and their job is to coordinate all
these elements so that the individual patient and the “collection of” patients in the ward
get the best possible care. They inform each other and the next shift; they find the doctor
when a decision is needed; they order lab tests, x-rays, and other tests and make sure that
the schedule is ok; they arrange for local operations etc. etc. Nurses are information
processors, and very much of the information they collect and distribute requires running
around: when we described information flow in the hospital with the nurses from the
Asthma & Allergy ward, they insisted on adding a symbol for running feet1.
Nurses also take part in discussions about the diagnosis and medication, they inform
about observations and they make their own care plans based on knowledge about what
kind of care is needed by patients with this diagnosis or this medication. They reserve lab
tests and X-rays and collect the results; they find the doctor if the results differ from
what was expected in the morning meeting. They join the morning round with the
doctors and evaluate the state of each and all patients, possibly adjusting the decisions
from the meeting they had just before the morning round. Their information informs and
influences both treatment and care.
In order to understand nursing, we need to understand what they do, and why. What
they do we can observe, but why they do the things they do, is much more difficult to
understand. An important source for us was the nurses’ explanations of their actions,
partly referring to medicine, partly to routines and procedures, and partly to the
organisation of work in the hospital (and interestingly not to nursing …). However, some
actions were explained by experience: how the patient’s illness would develop, how you
could “see” the patient’s state, how you could tell how to handle the patient’s anxiety
from how s/he spoke about it etc. – clinical judgement expressed as ways of seeing and
hearing, noticing, in the situation, in interaction with the patient in professional and
skilled action.
An example to illustrate this is how we experienced our first morning round in the
Cardiology ward; we accompanied the procession at the tail, disguised in white coats.
What happened was that while saying good morning to the patient, the doctor lifted the
quilt to look at her/his ankles. The explanation came afterwards: swollen ankles are a
reliable sign that the heart is too weak to transport the fluid around, resulting in fluid
congestion in lungs and legs. Both the fluid congestion and the weak heart beat need to
be treated.
Nurses use a lot of artefacts in their work, and they use them with knowledge and
skill. A skilled nurse doesn’t mess when setting a venflon to arrange for intravenous
nourishment or medication. A skilled nurse can see how the patient is doing; s/he can
interpret the signs of stress, pain, relief and recognise signs of too much or too little
fluid, too fast or too slow heart beat etc. Knowledge and skills are present in what the
nurses do; in what they do and how they do it.
Knowledge is expressed in action which in turn adds to experience, resulting in the
accumulation of more knowledge. All knowledge is personal and based on experience,
but some knowledge is explicit and conceptual and more easily shared with others. The
physical and practical act of nursing obviously involves practical knowledge and skills,
acquired through experience – which fits the concept of tacit knowledge; personal
knowledge typically not verbally expressed and developed through experience2. Years of
Bjerknes et al 1985. See figure 13 on page 93
see chapter 5.7.
observing asthmatic children gives a feeling for how they normally develop and how a
particular medication affects the disease – and how the characteristics of this particular
child may be different from the general pattern. Through experience, the nurse develops
a “theory-of-practice”1. A theory-of-practice can be based on a “general theory” that has
been modified through reflections on practice. Concepts and abstractions are needed in
order to see patterns and generate explanations that fit more than one unique case, but
experience is needed in order to apply general principles2. In a hospital setting it is also
essential to develop knowledge that enables you to act momentarily, without reflection –
as with acute heart attack, where instant action is needed and where there is no time for
reflection: intensely situated action does not give room for reflection in action – only
before and after. Skills are learned in action, by practicing doing skilled work: some
skills may require the apprentice to learn one skilled way of performing the action by
mimicking a master, and only when sufficient skill is achieved can the apprentice
develop her/his own way of doing things3. Skills are practiced by repeating and repeating
patterns of performance – the eye that is able to judge the patient’s condition is trained
through years of seeing patients.
Becoming good at something involves developing specialized sensitivities, an aesthetic sense,
and refined perceptions that are brought to bear on making judgments about the qualities of a
product or an action. That these become shared in a community of practice is what allows
participants to negotiate the appropriateness of what they do (Wenger 1999: 81)
The experienced nurse makes explicit parts of her/his knowledge in explaining a case:
the explanatory power of a theory is demonstrated in a situation4. Concepts and
explanations tell us about values and reasons for actions. The best example from the
Florence project is the concept of “overview” expressing the nurses’ requirements for a
Kardex (section 6.3 tells the story about how we understood how important overview is).
My understanding of nursing is based on my interpretation of nurses’ actions in their
work, with additional facts and rules – and happenings – provided by the nurses in or
outside the situation. After some time, I was able to recognise nursing as a knowing
practice – through the eye of a researcher rather than a novice nurse.
6.2 Artefacts in everyday activity
An important part of work – and everyday activity – is utilizing artefacts to support and
improve our action. The activity may be improved by using an artefact; less time or
energy, less danger or exposure to harmful materials, or better quality of process or
process outcome. Sometimes an activity cannot be carried out without the right tool.
In the Florence project we saw a variety of artefacts used, only a few were computerbased (this was in the 1980s – but nurses tell me this is still the case 20 years later). The
main work remedies were paper-based: the medical journal, the nurses’ Kardex, various
sheets and forms – some to be put into the medical journal, and small notes for personal
use. Paper is very flexible: it is formalizable (e.g. with a signature), it is informal (e.g. a
note in your pocket), it is formal authority (e.g. the signed diagnosis in the medical
cf. Handal & Lauvås 1983, similar to a “theory-in-use” in Schön 1983
2 knowing in action requires both experience and concepts (Molander 1996), see chapter 5.7
3 Schön 1987 tells a story about Bernhard Greenhouse, the cello player in Beaux Arts Trio, who was an apprentice
of Pablo Casals. Greenhouse first learnt to play correctly – exactly like Casals, as a copy of his master. Then
Casals demonstrated a totally different way of playing the piece of music and told him that he was ready to make
his own interpretations and improvisations. See also Molander1990
4 cf. Lave & Wenger 1991
Chapter 6. Use of computers in work
Part 2. Use
record), it is a signal (by its physical location, e.g. in the in-box) etc. The same paperbased system may be included in a variety of different work activities acting both as
instruments for a work operation, as external memory, as a coordination mechanism, as a
reminder etc. The nurses we observed used paper-based systems in all these ways, for
documenting a variety of representations of the patient through curves, numbers, Latin
and Norwegian words.
Another important artefact in the Cardiology ward is the oscilloscope (scope). The
scope represents the heart beat as a curve (pattern) where the level and distance between
the curve tops indicates how fast and how strong the heart beats. In the cardiology ward
the scope virtually defined the “inside team” in terms of their physical location by the
three scope screens which showed the nine monitor patients’ curves as well as up to
three telemetry patients. The patients (new patients with a fresh acute heart attack) were
monitored through a screen showing representations of their heart beats. The nurses in
the monitoring team had a confident and relaxed relation to the technical equipment. The
heart rhythm pattern was observed, but interpreted with respect to a set of factors:
o the actual equipment: the nurses explained that scope equipment from a different
manufacturer (that they used to have) had a different representation of the heart beat
– and therefore needed different interpretation.
o the patient: diagnosis and history – including blood tests of values of AST, ALT and
CK enzymes1 interpreted as to how large the infarct had been and ECG2 (and X-ray
of thorax) indicating which part of the heart was damaged by the infarct
o the body of the patient (including the current medication)
o experience of the observed rhythm – like arrhythmia, localisation of the infarct etc.
All these factors contributed to the professional interpretation of the representation made
by the equipment. The nurses therefore knew who could be in danger of a new attack and
who were recovering and soon could be moved to an un-monitored bed – and even if
life-threatening acute situations occurred regularly, they did not seem unprepared or even
surprised. The nurses’ work knowledge; how to care for and treat patients, appears as
professional action in their treatment and care for concrete patients and their use of
concrete artefacts, in concrete situations.
Artefacts in work express work knowledge, and knowing – skilled people use
artefacts in ways that are not possible to understand outside the knowing, skilled action.
When everyday coping is going well one experiences something like what athletes call flow, or
playing out of their heads. One’s activity is completely geared into the demands of the situation.
(Dreyfus 1996: 7)
The Norwegian fiddle player Annbjørg Lien talked about her relationship to her fiddle in
a newspaper interview in 2002. She talked about the feeling of cooperation she had with
the fiddle when she managed to transcend – “stretch” – the capacity of the fiddle (up to
that moment), the extreme focus on the fiddle that made her utilize it just a little better to
make it sound different, better. The fiddle is very present when she plays. But her focus
is not the focus of the novice on mastering the fiddle; it is not a question of how to act in
ALT (alanine transaminase) is found in the liver, heart, muscles and kidneys; AST (aspartate transaminase) found
in the same organs and in addition in the brain, pancreas, spleen and lungs. ALT and AST leaks out of damaged
muscles into the blood – like at a heart infarct – but can be caused by other muscles as well. The enzyme CK
(creatine kinase) is only found in the heart, skeletal muscles and brain. A normal CK level with elevated ALT and
AST enzymes suggest that there is a liver problem, while high levels in all three suggest a muscle problem. In the
1980s CK tests were more expensive and therefore not taken routinely (as they are now). The blood tests for
enzyme values were taken for three days or until the level was decreasing – a sign that the damage on the muscle
had stopped.
2 ECG: electrocardiograph creating an image of the heart so that the location of the infarct can be decided. Infarcts
in the front are more severe than in the back, for example
order to be able to play. Mastery of the fiddle is routine for her; her focus is how she can
make the fiddle sing different. This is a different knowledge in and about the relationship
between her and the fiddle; it is not between the human and the tool, it is between the
fiddler’ knowledge and this fiddle – the concrete conditions for utilizing this knowledge.
It cuts across both the human and the artefact.
The nurses mastered the monitoring equipment and the normal routine mastery was
just work. Their knowledge about all the other aspects of the patient at the end of the
cord made them utilize the equipment for predicting aggravation or recovery –
“stretching” the functionality of the “tool” by continuously arranging and rearranging the
interpretation pieces to a whole image of the patient as a process. The collection of
equipment supports this interpretative puzzle in ways that cannot be interpreted from
surface observations. Artefacts cannot be evaluated from their appearance.
6.3 Knowing in work
[T]here is much art, intuition, and tacit knowledge in cancer molecular biology. Researchers
have to “know which reagent my protein likes,” as well as which proteins to study in the first
place. But that unacknowledged work, articulation, also involves art, intuition, and tacit and
local knowledges in the making of doable problems in contemporary science. (Fujimura 1996:
Work is carried out in a social context where each work task depends on and interacts
with a number of other work tasks, in a number of ways, and where sequences of work
tasks can be seen as task chains. One work task can depend on tasks in some other task
chain and can influence other tasks and task chains. Task chains interact with other task
chains, and people carrying out the work can be involved in a number of work tasks with
different goals which influence each other through the one person1. Strauss (1985) calls
this complex, coordinated structure of intersecting task chains the production lattice2.
The particular organisation of tasks is the division of labour in the organisation, at a
given time. Some patterns in the division of labour are relatively stable over long periods
of time; the same people do the same things over and over again. Work organisations can
be seen as complex structures of organised commitments that serve to coordinate tasks.
If task commitments break down, additional work must be carried out in order to
reinstate them or to accommodate new arrangements. The interdependence of work tasks
makes it necessary to carry out work that deals with the relations between the tasks; the
interdependencies and coordination of work – the articulation work:
Articulation work amounts to the following: First, the meshing of the often numerous tasks,
clusters of tasks, and segments of the total arc. Second, the meshing of efforts of various unitworkers (individuals, departments, etc.). Third, the meshing of actors with their various types of
work and implicated tasks. (Strauss 1985: 8)
Strauss distinguishes between primary work and articulation work. Primary work
includes tasks that contribute to the organisational goals. Because the contingencies of
primary work change all the time, articulation work is needed to sort out possible
conflicts between parts of the production lattice. Articulation work is the work to
establish, maintain, or break the coordinated intersection of task chains, i.e. work tasks
that are needed in order to get the primary work done. The notion of articulation refers
both to the act of expression, but also to the interrelating of different parts (e.g. joints
between bones in the skeleton).
a similar argument is found in Ludvigsen et al 2001, based on Activity theory focusing on networks of activities
see also Strauss 1993; Gasser 1986; Star 1991a
Chapter 6. Use of computers in work
Part 2. Use
Reconciling incommensurable assumptions and procedures in the absence of enforceable
standards is the essence of articulation. Articulation consists of all the tasks involved in
assembling, scheduling, monitoring, and coordinating all of the steps necessary to complete a
production task. This means carrying through a course of action despite local contingencies,
unanticipated glitches, incommensurate opinions and beliefs, or inadequate knowledge of local
… Every real world system … requires articulation to deal with the unanticipated contingencies
that arise. Articulation resolves these inconsistencies by packaging a compromise that ‘gets the
job done’, that closes the system locally and temporarily so that work can go on. (Gerson & Star
1986: 266)
Articulation work is normally not visible in formal accounts of work. Studying work by
observing what is done often reveals that the work day is filled with activities that are not
conceived as work, but still require skills and knowledge to perform. This was very
apparent in the Florence project
Nurses have the responsibility to care for each of the patients in a way that takes care
of all the patients. The nurses distribute the resources present at the ward (the time in
particular) among all the patients so that they can be present for each of them. They
distribute the responsibility for the patient group between the nurses on duty, but they all
know enough about each of them to take care of any of them. This requires an evaluation
of the needs of each of the patients compared with the available resources: when we
visited the wards in the Florence project it was obvious that we were far down on their
priority list.
Watching the nurses at work revealed that they very seldom sit at the bedside – but
when we talked with them about nursing, we got the impression that “real nursing” was
what happened by the bedside. However, there was no doubt that the nurses were
professional nurses; we observed that real nurses do professional administration of
information and resources in order to secure that all and every patient got the best
possible care. It was obvious that the nurses’ role as an “information processor” is
essential. Real nursing includes distributing the resources as a professional work task,
based on knowledge about the patients and the people present at work. The evaluation
concerns distributing responsibilities during the shift, the most important being
responsibilities directed towards the patient (e.g. medicines, temperature) – basic care;
towards other professionals (e.g. test results to the medical doctor); and towards the
documentation of the treatment and care for later admissions and for legal
considerations. Distribution of resources and responsibilities is done at the beginning of
each shift, but is continuously evaluated and revised as the patients’ states change – as is
always the case.
At the end of the first phase of the Florence project – at the Asthma & Allergy ward
– we built a computer prototype of the Kardex, which is the nurses’ medical record. The
existing paper-based Kardex consisted of a main card which included all necessary facts
about the patient, and a expandable set of sheets that included 1) descriptions of
problems, and for each problem: 2) a list actions to be taken and, for each action 3) a list
of observations of the patient's development (in blue, green, and red colour for day,
evening, and night shifts)1 reporting and evaluating the actions. The technology we had
at our disposal at the time was a NORD machine with a line-oriented terminal to it. A
simple application generator was used to design the screen layout. The limits of the
technology created severe problems for the design and the nurses refused to even try the
prototype – and for good reasons. The nurses had professional reasons for not using the
system; the system did not offer the overview necessary for them to carry out their work.
A quick glance at the paper-based Kardex gave such an overview, but our prototype did
not. The two main reasons were:
Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987a; 1987c
o The screen could not include all data from the main card, so we had to split it into
two screens. We wanted to minimise the number of keystrokes for the nurses – a
natural priority for an informatician – so we put the data fields that were used more
frequently on the first screen, and the least used on the second. This resulted in that
we put the field “allergies” on the second screen since the field was rarely filled in,
actually not at all in the Kardex records we had looked through. However, the
allergies field indicates if the patient is allergic to medicines — very important
knowledge in emergency cases: a blank data field is actually vital information.
Figure 14: The main card and the report from a paper-based Kardex
Chapter 6. Use of computers in work
Part 2. Use
o The solution for the three column sheets describing problems, actions, and
observations was designed with the standard text processor of that time: we made the
three columns manually while filling in the data. Colours were not available, and we
chose capital, underlined, and standard letters instead. But the messy presentation of
problems, actions, and observations on the screen could not provide overview of all
the problems defined for a patient without browsing through many screens. The
different styles that should compensate for the lack of colours did not sufficiently
highlight the night shift observations which were considered the most important for
indicating the patient's condition (in red in the paper Kardex).
Figure 15: The two screens for the main card in the Kardex system we made
At the Cardiology ward we also built a prototype, but having learnt to listen to the workbased reasoning, we recognised the need for overview. The WorkSheet System did
support overview as well as detail; it supported the individual nurse in her/his work with
the individual patient as well as the coordination and distribution of resources. (I
describe the WorkSheet System in more detail in chapter 8.)
Nurses constitute the “glue” that keeps the distributed work in the hospital together1.
Nurses coordinate and interweave work tasks in the hospital – and their articulation work
cf. Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1984, where we label this aspect of nursing the “putty function”
is both time-consuming and physically visible. Nurses carry out a lot of articulation work
to get the ward running smooth; the information processing involved in the handling of
changing medication for a child, or the work of making sure that the new and
inexperienced medical doctor trainee realizes the seriousness of the myocardial infarct
when deciding further treatment. Work also includes extra work because of inadequate
equipment or routines, like the medication taking place before the morning meeting at
the Asthma & Allergy ward, or the need to be familiar with the monitoring equipment in
order to correctly interpret the heart beat curve on the screen.
Figure 16: The report in the Kardex system we made
But nurses don't do what they say they do – after hectic periods or some decision and
action, the nurses said: “I hope that you’re not writing this down, this is not how we
normally do things” or “this is not how we are supposed to do things”. An example of the
things they normally did not do was to make a decision to change the medication (e.g. to
a smaller dose) and effectuate the change before the morning meeting and morning
round, before the responsible medical doctor formally made the decision1. The
discussion with the doctor was important for the legal responsibility for the decision, but
experienced nurses knew enough about the typical development of the disease, and they
knew the actual patient from observations during recent days and nights – they knew the
outcome of the discussion.
A complicating factor is that there is a strict division of responsibilities between
medical doctors, nurses and nursing assistants. In the Cardiology ward, which has a high
status in the hospital, the nurses are technically competent and they may find themselves
in situations educating medical doctors (e.g. first-year doctors or visiting anaesthetics
doctors) – a balancing act where the rules of the formal hierarchy should not be violated
(an interesting exercise of empathetic teaching (cf. Fletcher 1994)).
similar ”standing orders” also existed at the Cardiology ward, e.g. to withhold beta-blocker medication with low
blood pressure
Chapter 6. Use of computers in work
Part 2. Use
Observations and interviews with nurses in work revealed that there are interesting
differences between formal routines and what people actually do in order to get the work
done. The formal routines of work are made for a number of different purposes (legal,
professional, administrative) that may actually conflict with the nurses’ commitment to
giving the best care in the situation. Many nurses work on the basis of their practical
knowledge in such situations, and use the formal procedures to legitimate their actions in
an after-the-event manner.
Work is always situated, and rather than as rules to be followed, routines are
abstractions of activities which can support people in deciding how to act in a particular
situation1. Formal procedures, standards, and routines are used as resources for acting in
a situation2, as “templates” that may even make the uniqueness of the situation or the
patient more visible. We learned the most from the nurses’ explanations of how the work
was actually done in the situation – because they made explicit the principles and values
underlying decisions and evaluations. Actions get their meaning when they are compared
to patterns of actions3.
Some of the studies of Lotus Notes indicate that overview is important in other types
of work as well. The introduction of the Lotus Notes workflow system gave the
journalists in a small newspaper (NEWS) a better overview of the editorial process and
how their work fitted in, and they could use this knowledge to contribute more to
creating as well as following up cases. Notes influenced the feeling of control of the
work situation by making the coordination of work visible and more controllable to all.
The overview created by this made all journalists able to take more responsibility and
initiative for articles and cases to write about4.
Type of airplane
Assigned runway
planned departure time,
possibly with restrictions
Call signal
Air-traffic control
Explanation of
call signal
Free text area
parking space
(here: Røros)
SSR transponder code
Figure 17: Picture of flight strip (Mo 2002: 24 (my translation))
One of the many small artefacts in an air traffic control tower is the Flight Progress Strip
(or flight strip for short), a much discussed artefact that has been attempted computerised
Suchman 1983; 1987; Suchman & Wynn 1984
cf. Suchman 1987. See also Bardram 1997
3 cf. Frønes 2001
4 cf. also Bjerknes & Kautz 1991 about overview as important in systems development
for years1. The flight strip was originally a paper strip that included information about a
flight, and the strip was physically moved from one air traffic controller’s board to
another when the airplane moved from one persons’ responsibility area (e.g. ground
parking) to another one (e.g. take off).
Figure 18: A paper-based flight strip board Oslo Approach at Røyken (Mo 2002: 82)
Figure 19: Electronic flight strips at Oslo Gardermoen tower (Mo 2002: 57 and 26)
cf. Falzon & Sauvagnac 1995; MacKay 1999. See also Mo 2002
Chapter 6. Use of computers in work
Part 2. Use
Figure 20: Oslo Gardermoen tower, ground north position (Mo 2002: 28)
At the Gardermoen air traffic control, the flight strip is computerised1, but the electronic
flight strip has kept the same look and use pattern as the paper-based flight strip: the
electronic flight strip is moved (with the mouse) from one person’s screen to the next one
as a signal of transferring the responsibility for the flight – just as the paper-based
version used to be. The computer-based representation of the flight strip has thus
preserved the peripheral characteristics of the paper-based representation: the attentionreminder attributes of the moving of the representation that signals work task
responsibility2. The small flight strip and its use pattern is a device for overview.
The Gardermoen air-traffic control system uses a standardised flight strip
representation on a standard set of screens (which allows people to move a strip to your
screen). Other studies of emergency-like work places suggest that standardised interfaces
are a basis for flexibility in use. Bowers & Martin (1999) discuss the computer-based
systems in an ambulance control centre, where the standardised interface enables the
sharing of responsibility and work tasks that makes the unit work well. A more general
discussion (within the CSCW field) is made by Clement & Wagner (1995) who argue
that the articulation and “dis-articulation” must be balanced differently in different work
Bowers et al (1995) tell of the implementation of a computer system in a print shop,
where the system was used for accounting but also for planning work. The planning
model underlying the system represented the print shop production as sequential
processes, each carried out by one machine. However, this was not the way the work was
Mo 2002
Discussions of the peripheral properties of paper: see Suchman 1993; Brown & Duguid 1994; Sandahl 1999. For
peripheral awareness: Dourish & Belotti 1992.
3 especially arguing that in some work places there is a need for “regionalized communication spaces”
normally carried out in the print shop; in order to utilize the machines the printers often
split a big job between two machines or they shifted between jobs in order to secure a
smooth flow of work in the print shop – and this became impossible with the new
system. Planning the best utilization of the machines required knowledge on several
levels of work; about each of the machines and of the overall production capacity in the
print shop.
Work knowledge can be studied at different levels of detail – as can work: the
concrete work carried out, the actions in which the operations constitute a meaningful
whole, and the larger activity that constitutes the context for division of labour into work
tasks. The operations are concrete doings that may become routine after some time; we
forget about them unless something happens that make us focus on the mastery of the
operation again1. The action is at a higher abstraction level, where the intention of what
we do is present. At the action level we decide which operations to perform, and would
be able to discuss why. At the activity (abstraction) level we meet the goals we want to
achieve that give meaning to what we do. The activity may involve other people, and
may include dividing work into a variety of actions each with a different aim. Work
knowledge deals with all these levels and the connections between them; decisions at the
activity level depends on what is possible at the operational level (e.g. resuscitation in
the Cardiology ward at the hospital as compared to on location at a car accident), and
vice versa: operations are carried out to fulfil goals at the action or activity level (cf.
imaginative ways of working around a misfit computer system). Overview is a
conceptualization of this kind of work: overview includes knowledge that links
operations and actions, concrete circumstances and general knowledge, work operations
and coordination of work and many other aspects of work in a professionally based way.
I interpret overview as a conceptualization of articulation work, and as an important part
of skilled work.
Articulation work links the different levels of work, and requires (some) knowledge
about each level as well as of the relations between them. Appreciating articulation work
requires skills to see connections between the details of work and the whole. Use of
artefacts in work from this perspective may include utilizing the artefact in different
ways at different (abstraction) levels, depending on the level of work knowledge.
Nurses’ work is concrete action and information as an indivisible aspect of the action.
6.4 Dealing with representations
Work includes a number of representations: artefacts that refer to other objects that
extract what is considered the most important characteristics of these objects, for a
specific purpose or to a particular audience. Representations stand-in instead of the
object they represent. Society is full of representations (e.g. money representing change
value) and even representations of representations (e.g. credit cards or checks
representing money). Work is full of representations, and dealing with representations is
part of doing work. Some representations we need to address explicitly; like sizes in
clothes and shoes, and some we negotiate – like H&M’s label Big is Beautiful where
what is normally size Large is renamed Small … Some representations are so embedded
that we do not notice their representational aspects. The measured time – in hours,
minutes, seconds and so on – is implemented in the society and marks our lives from the
birth2. Time is measured as equal units even if everybody knows that some hours fly and
see chapter 5.6 (Bødker 1991 and Madsen 1989 emphasise “breakdowns” as opportunities for learning)
see e.g. Weizenbaum 1976 for a discussion
Chapter 6. Use of computers in work
Part 2. Use
some hours feel endless1. The meter used to be a stick kept in Paris whose length was
calculated as 10-7 (one ten-millionth) of the length of the meridian through Paris from
pole to the equator; now the meter is much more precise: it is length of the path travelled
by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299 792 458 of a second2.
Hospitals are full of representations, and nurses deal with many of them. The most
important representation is the doctors’ medical journal: the patient record acts as a
common source of information about the patient – a collective history – and a legal
document3. In the Florence project, we were more concerned with the Kardex, which is
the nurses’ patient record, documenting observations and evaluations during the hospital
stay. The ward had spent quite some time developing a Kardex that provided them with
detailed information about each of the patients, as well as with an overview of each and
all patients. As mentioned above, each data field in the main card included some
important information even if the field was not filled in (like the blank field “allergic to
A number of other representations were also part of nursing. Nurses deal with
temperature sheets showing temperature as a number, and the series of numbers as a
curve represent the changes in temperature. They also use sheets showing the intake and
output of fluid as numbers or curves4. Lab results often appear as numbers, and are noted
on sheets regularly included in the patient record.
Various other representations with a more fixed notation are frequently used to share
information that needs to be interpreted differently in different contexts. An example
from the Cardiology ward is the measurement of CK enzymes in the body, easily
translated to an image of the size of the hearth infarct (see section 6.2). Medication can
stop the damage to the heart muscle; therefore the level of CK enzymes varies over time
– normally depicted as a curve with a peak where sinking enzyme levels indicate that the
medication is working. The time between the heart attack and the first dose of
medication is therefore crucial in order to reduce the damage. The level of CK enzymes
is used to estimate the size of the damaged tissue in the heart (how much of the heart
tissue is permanently damaged). Both the measurement of enzymes and the medication
to stop the attack are extremely time dependent. In the divided work chains of the
hospital, it is important to minimize the risk of misunderstandings and significant
differences in interpretation of information when a piece of information is transported
across one or more community.
In her study of meteorologists, Perby (1987; 1988; 1995) describes their skills in
weather forecasting as the building of an “inner picture” of the weather based on the
various representations available. The inner picture of the weather includes both the
current weather situation and its possible development. The skill to create an inner
weather picture is built up through experience, over years.
A more direct representation of the heart is the oscilloscope that represents the heart
beat as a curve on a screen. The nurses’ conscious and explicit interpretation of the
representation is interesting because it demonstrates that the professional interpretation is
done on the basis of knowledge about both the real object represented: the actual patient,
his/her body characteristics, illness history, condition, present stay history etc., and of
Weizenbaum 1976; Zerubavel 1981 and Sahay 1998 discuss various perspectives on time
3 the medical record documents the patient’s history through potentially several hospital admissions, and it
documents the treatment given at a particular hospital stay, as well as the reasons and basis for decisions during
that stay. The last use is required by hospital legislation, and acts as legal documentation of the stay (and for the
next ten years).
4 see Berg 1997 for an excellent description of the operations involved in measuring the fluid balance
artefacts: the oscilloscope and its way of representing that includes displacements,
distortions, categories, and invisibilities, and other artefactual representations like ECG
and enzyme levels.
Once black boxes and their inscriptions are put into the world, they can be destabilized, either
through different uses in other situations or through changes in situations … They are more
mutable than Latour (1988) indicates. However, … the more portable a tool is, the more reliably
it will be reproduced in other situations. Portability refers to the qualities of simplicity and ease
of movement and use. For example, research protocols with clear directions and standardized
and commercially produced reagents are highly portable tools. (Fujimura 1996: 215)
The use of the oscilloscope demonstrates that artefacts at work are used in a variety of
ways that may differ from the behaviour patterns imagined and “inscribed” by the
designers1. A work tool that works lends itself to be used in ways that enable the person
to achieve her/his objectives – whether or not that was intended by the designer. The
creativity of a knowing worker can make up for a badly designed work tool.
Most of the representations tell us about what we cannot see: the representation of
the heart represents (in a particular form) a set of characteristics of the heart so that we
can imagine how it works. The large number of measurements taken and noted
(temperature sheets, fluid balance sheets and the like) reveal something invisible: the
timely development of the bodily functions of the patient, which will be interpreted and
seen together with other measurements and observations to understand how the patient is
doing. Nurses deal with many different time scales – or rather: understandings of time –
and keep them together. The patients experience several (kinds of) times: the very rapid
time when an acute attack happens and immediate action is necessary, the slow time of a
chronic disease that includes learning about a new style of living, and the
chemical/physical/bodily time it takes to heal. Some of these times cannot be influenced
by nurses, some can (in particular, they can be slowed down by wrong actions). Time is
also the current stay seen in the context of the patient’s life and health history – or even
in the context of the health history of the whole family. These times must be held
together with a totally different set of times: the work shift, the work day and work week,
but also the monitoring time and the more relaxed time of a patient, the work shift as
seen with respect to the patient’s state and as a whole adding up to the patient’s stay, the
time to follow up a patient after returning home – where the different (types of) times are
Suchman & Wynn (1984) tell of the work of telephone operators in a manufacturing
company whose work is to mediate between the formalisms of a system representation
and the various needs and expressions of customers and clients who do not know – and
should not need to know – how the organisation has organised and represented its
production and products. Office conversation is thus the work of translating – or rather
reproducing – between the formalism and the expressions of the use situation. Work
skills are concerned with the ease with which a correspondence between the customer
and the formalized system is created2.
Dealing with representation requires that the abstract knowledge represented can be
understood and interpreted correctly with respect to the concrete situation. In hospitals
this means that the many representational acts can be translated and interpreted into
expressions about a patient’s state and thus be the basis for professional decisions and
actions that will improve this. Knowledge about a representation includes both what the
representation is actually and concretely, and how it is produced and interpreted. It is
as argued earlier, building on Gasser 1986’s categories of extra work. See also Latour & Woolgar 1986, Akrich
1992; Akrich & Latour 1992; Woolgar 1991; Grint & Woolgar 1997
2 a corresponding contemporary example is given by Bowers & Martin 2000’s story about telephone operators in a
bank and the attempts to monitor their conversations.
Chapter 6. Use of computers in work
Part 2. Use
also knowledge about what the representation is supposed to mean: how it is meant to be
interpreted (body temperature of 41.5ºC requires different action than 37.5ºC). The
interpretation also includes what is not represented (a damp, greyish face may indicate
the need for action even if the temperature is not that high). The interpretation and use of
representations is also action that is part of and interacts with other actions. The routine
use of some representations in work (or society) makes them almost momentarily, unreflected interpretations – like letters to a literate, or the sound and image of the
oscilloscope alarm to a nurse in the Cardiology ward.
Suchman (1987) reports of Xerox staff’s problems with making copies with a Xerox
copier. Suchman discusses the copy machine instructions as a plan designed by the copy
machine designers for copy machine users to follow, as an imagined sequence of inputoutput exchanges between the human and the machine. The small copy machine
interface was supposed to present an instruction about the expected action from the user
as well as giving an account of the machine action. The copy machine instructions and
logical sequence did not make sense to the staff; they had to creatively interpret and react
to the machinery in order to get their copies. Suchman makes the point that actions are
always situated, and that plans should be seen as resources rather than structure for
The ease with which a user uses a system depends on a variety of aspects concerned
with knowledge about work operations as well as of higher (abstraction) levels of work.
Thoresen (1997) tells of users of a large system, who experienced the system as “useful
but cumbersome” due to the means for navigation, the sequencing facilities, lack of
seamlessness – and the scope of the system. Her careful study of user behaviour revealed
that the users who had been exposed to larger parts of the system – through long and
varied job trajectories – understood more of the part of the system they currently used.
As they used more functions they also experienced more problems, which in turn made
them learn more about the system. Differences in the level of mastery seemed to be more
connected to the variety in scope of use (number of functions, parts of system) than to
traditionally measured characteristics like frequency or duration of use (however, also
influencing use). Knowledge across the system, knowing more about more parts of the
representation, is important for the mastery of the system.
Representations are designed for a variety of reasons1. Very often a representation
can represent the referred object in more than one context, serving more than one
purpose – without being explicit about it and sometimes even hiding it. Often the same
representation is used as a work tool in one type of work operation, and as a
communication medium between people with different specialisations or responsibilities
(e.g. systems descriptions). Sometimes the representation is made by one professional
group who do the representational work, but the representation is used by a different
professional group for other purposes (e.g. management, statistics). The multiple uses of
representations may not be visible either to the producer or the user, and this may cause
Representations can represent other representations in complex socio-technical networks: the
sense conveyed by a picture may derive as much from a spatio-temporal order of other
representations as from its resemblance or symbolization of some external object. Relationships
between representational objects and expressions are of particular interest for any effort to
reveal the “social” organization of technical work in science (Lynch & Woolgar 1990: 5-6)
cf. Winner 1986 and the Suchman 1994a – Winograd 1994 debate
e.g. when the producer of a set of data has no idea and no contact with the data users – which makes it difficult to
know and check the quality of the data
6.5 Bricolage
Lèvi-Strauss (1966) introduces “bricolage” to describe an on-going process of problemsolving with whatever is at hand. Bricolage is
forming one’s survival by adapting the bricoles of the world. Bricolage is making use of such
bricoles—the odds and ends, the bits left over, the set of unrelated or oddly related objects.
According to Lèvi-Strauss the bricoleur is most typically found as the natural man of savage …
societies, but his method resembles that of the English odd-job man or the American jack-of-alltrades. (Harper 1987: 74)
Bricolage is the act of utilizing the concrete conditions of the situation in the action.
[T]he rules of the game are always to make do with “whatever is at hand,” that is to say with a
set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it
contains bears no relation to the current project or indeed to any particular project, but it is the
contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain
it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. (Lèvi-Strauss 1966: 21)
The bricoleur makes do in the situation, without preceding planning, and with tools and
artefacts that originated in earlier activities. S/he is
forming one’s own material world through the creative use of what simply builds up during the
process of work. This of course is in contrast to the idea of assembling one’s tools and materials
and then adding them to fit a preconceived and definitive plan or blueprint. (Harper 1987: 74)
The bricoleur defines and extends her/himself; through the solving of problems in his/her
work, but also through the character of the decisions made to define and solve problems.
The bricoleur – or tinkerer – looks for form first and function later as it is the fit of form
that enables bricolage1.
Harper (1987) tells us about Willie, a real virtuoso car repair man in the countryside
in northern US. Harper studied Willie working, and describes his craft skills and manual
abilities to repair every car with whatever materials were available; his manual abilities
are also matched by his mental abilities: “It is in the replication of the means that the
material work influences the mental.” (Harper 1987: 75). The bricoleur is a thinker: s/he
considers and reconsiders what is available, at hand, with respect to the task. And s/he is
a doer: s/he creates the world. Our experience from the Florence project can illustrate
that bricolage is an aspect of other types of work as well: the example is an example of
creating software, but as creators of software we acted as users of the available tools.
After a period of mutual learning in the Cardiology ward, the time had come to
decide on a computer system. The nurses suggested a design for a local information
system to be used by nurses, producing sheets with information to be used by the nurses
during a shift, as a personal note sheet and as a basis for the report meeting at the start of
each shift. The nurses decided on an object-oriented interface (and report layout) –
obviously inspired by the interfaces they had experienced in the Macintosh machines we
had placed in the ward. But we had a line-oriented Tandberg terminal, we had a NORD
micro computer with SINTRAN operating system and an application generator UNIQUE
with a report generator operating on SIBAS databases, in addition to the usual NORD
software (NOTIS text processing etc). The layout of the screen was sketched similar to
the map of the ward (see section 6.1) and we easily made a presentation prototype with
the text editor. However, using the actual machinery to produce the desired system was a
challenge. The database for the system was easy to design, and the application generator
took care of the multi-user administration – so we decided to use the application
generator even if the matching report generator obviously was not made for object-
see also Dahlbom & Mathiassen 1993
Chapter 6. Use of computers in work
Part 2. Use
oriented systems1. In order to simulate an object-oriented layout, we needed to split the
presentation of a record so that each line on the screen presented data from up to four
records, and that each record therefore took several lines to present. The first few data
fields in each record were small (name, numbers, diagnosis, allergies etc), but we wanted
to leave a considerable amount of space for text to be entered into the database. This
seemed difficult to do, and the program failed, we tested, it failed, we changed the code,
tested and it failed. And so on. Analysing the errors we arrived at the conclusion that the
reason for the error was that the record length was set to 127 characters maximum – and
we needed more than 127 characters in order to do what we wanted. It turned out to be a
correct diagnosis – and presented a limitation which was difficult to exceed or extend if
we wanted to use this software tool. As the tool provided support for handling multiple
users of the software, we decided to go with the tools we had, and succeeded in building
a system that was used by the nurses even after the project was formally ended2.
Figure 21: The “inside team” work sheet from the WorkSheet System
As users of software packages we had enough knowledge to work around some of the
limitations of the software, as well as delimit the “damage” of keeping some (like the
127 characters limit). This is a story about bricolage as a knowing, skilled activity where
knowledge about software enabled us to use the software (and hardware) available to us.
and our Norsk Data contacts recommended that we used the application and report generators – and recommended
to persuade the users not to go for this solution by claiming that it was impossible. We wanted to prove it was
2 a digression: in the same long-lasting round of testing and error messages, we discovered a hardware error by
diagnosing the faulty responses to our program, the operating system and the software packages. As we only knew
this equipment through the Florence project, we were actually quite happy that the subsequent three nights of
testing of the computer by the machine vendor proved the existence of the unlikely occurrence of this hardware
error ☺ (a detailed account of the adversities is given in Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987c, system documentation is
found in Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987d)
A bricoleur creates her/his world – s/he is a builder. The term bricolage is therefore
more difficult to use in trying to understand non-producing occupations like nurses or
office workers, concerned with reproduction. However, some features of bricolage seem
to fit with nurses’ work: the acceptance of the tools and materials of the situation as
conditions for work, and the ability to exceed and extend the limits proposed by these to
achieve work aims. However, the traditional bricoleur makes stronger efforts than a
knowing worker does in terms of “stretching” the tools at hand to make them fit the task.
Creative use of a work tool is a demonstration of work knowledge. The ability to see
what fits – which characterizes the good bricoleur – also demonstrates experience-based
knowledge and skills. In order to “misuse” a tool in the right way, you need to know
quite a lot about the work, at many (abstraction) levels and between them, and you have
to be able to evaluate the tool with respect to this knowledge.
Gasser (1986) discusses use of computers that do not fit the work very well as a
special kind of work. He introduces three strategies for handling such systems in order to
get the work done: fitting, augmenting and work-around. Fitting work “is the activity of
changing computing or changing the structure of work to accommodate for computing
misfit” (p. 214). Fitting work includes changes and adjustments so that the computing
misfit gets smaller or even disappears. Augmenting work “is undertaking additional
work to make up for misfit” (p. 215). Augmenting means adding tasks to the task chain
and by this making the production lattice more complex, hence increasing the need for
articulation work. Much augmenting work has to do with checking things (the data, the
reports, the bills). “Working around means intentionally using computing in ways for
which it was not designed or avoiding its use and relying on an alternative means of
accomplishing work.” (p. 216). In this category come exotic examples of entering really
wrong data because they will give the right output or fancy short-cuts of computerimplemented procedures, and the less exotic – and quite common – examples of double
archives and backup systems created because the system is not trusted. Gasser’s three
strategies demonstrate in different ways that people who know their work well are able
to do the work even if the conditions for doing work are not ideal, and that they may
utilize their knowledge about work activities and organisation of the work systems that
enable them to overcome the hindrance posed by the system. The ability to do so also
requires a certain level of knowledge about the system.
The Broadcasting Company BCC publishes news in all media, and a detailed study
of the work in the VideoText Editorial Office shows that knowledge about the VideoText
publishing tool is important in the work1. A VideoText screen consists of 13 lines x 39
characters (including spaces), and news from news agencies are edited to fit these limits.
The text normally does not include extra words (smalltalk), and the editors select the
shorter synonyms also sometimes when the word has a slightly different meaning. In
order to achieve the maximum utilization of space they turn off the automatic line shift
because it “eats” the last character of the line: they type the last two words together and
then type space afterwards in order to gain the extra space of a character (see figure 22
next page).
Use is work, interwoven with and influencing other work practices. Use is concrete,
contextual and situated – as all work is – possible to understand as examples and
instantiations of patterns of behaviour. The relation between humans and artefacts in use
seems to be explained better by focusing on the relation between the work conditions and
the work knowledge to handle them.
cf. Hilstad 2001: 79-87, see chapter 3.3.2
Chapter 6. Use of computers in work
Part 2. Use
Figure 22: The VideoText screen and how it appears on the net (Hilstad 2001: 21)
Chapter 7
Use between knowledge and conditions of work
An image of a letter from an old woman to one of the journalists at the
newspaper Varden (Skien/Porsgrunn, Norway), August 1997. The letter
arrived just after Varden had started using email addresses as signatures,
asking their readers for comments about that … “E-post” is Norwegian
for email.
(source: Varden and Erling Maartmann-Moe)
Use of artefacts always happens in a context that provides meaning to the use activity –
and thus to the artefact. Use is almost always a part of somebody’s activity so we would
assume that it should be possible to use the artefact in a way that supports this activity.
Users should be able to incorporate the artefact into their practice – even if in some cases
this means changing current practice. The artefact, once incorporated into the activity,
becomes a part of the concrete conditions for the activity, as an instrument for doing
things, or as an object of the activity with or without reference to physical objects outside
of the artefact. Knowledge in and about an activity constitutes the basis for including an
artefact in the activity. This chapter argues that the relations between knowledge and
conditions in a (work) activity explain how an artefact is used, and that changes in the
relation (or the two sides of the relation) contribute to use as a development process.
This chapter summarises and discusses how I understand use, suggesting concepts
and theories that I have found useful for a relational understanding of use in connection
with systems development. I basically see use as work, and argue that use-work can be
understood as a relation between work knowledge and work conditions, which is
Chapter 7. Use between knowledge and conditions of work
Part 2. Use
comprised by work objects and work instruments. Work – and use – is constantly
changing, not least due to the fact that work is permeated and surrounded by artefacts.
This chapter summarises my understanding of use as a set of relations – as a way of
explaining how and why use is enacted.
7.1 Use is work
Webster defines use as “The act of availing oneself of something as a means or
instrument to an end”, referring to an end external to operating the artefact, typically
found in the work in which the instrument is used. Gasser (1986) defines use of
computers in line with this as
any employment of computer-based information or analyses in the performance of other tasks.
Thus, computer use presumes the existence of other work—namely, the primary work of the
computer “user.” …
On the basis of this definition, the use of computing is embedded in a context of many other
tasks. Computing itself is usually a resource which supports the other tasks. It is difficult to
imagine (or to locate in an organization) uses of computing which exist for their own sake. … In
most cases it is fair to say that at least a component of most computing is a rational attempt to
employ computing as a resource for action. (Gasser 1986: 208 (original emphasis))
Thoresen (1999) defines use similar to Gasser’s “computing use” 1, as
work practice that involves operating the system for the purpose of the user’s primary work
[footnote]. Each user has a specific usage pattern, which denotes how often she uses the system,
which function/parts of the system she uses, and how frequent/infrequent each function is used
(Thoresen 1999: 6 original emphasis)
and her footnote says: “The primary work is the work for which the user is initially
employed. ... Computer work is only a part of the primary work.” Gasser and Thoresen
base their definitions of computer use on Strauss’ distinction between primary work and
articulation work2, defining computer use as articulation work done in order to get the
primary work done. The same emphasis on use of computers as articulation work is
found in Schmidt & Bannon (1992)’s classic definition of Computer Supported
Cooperative Work.
I want to argue that artefacts are more than a means to do the primary work: in many
types of work, operating the artefact is the primary work or a major part of the primary
work. This is especially true when the artefact is a representation at the core of the work:
the work object. When the representation is not the work object, it can be seen as an
instrument in work – which makes it reasonable to categorise use as articulation work. A
special case is when the computer itself requires extra articulation work. The view that
use of computers is extra work carried out in order to do primary work does not really
help us understand what kind of work use of computer systems is – except in cases
where the use coincides with the articulation work (like in CSCW or Gasser’s
augmenting work). It seems that use crosses the categories of primary and articulation
Use is more than operating a computer; it is embedded in work and in the way we
think and act in work. Use is usually not the primary interest of the user: while writing
this text, typing is not my focus – the computer and its text-processing program is a way
to perform writing. I write with pen and I write with the computer – pen and paper are
the easiest way to create a sequential structure for a text, the computer (and the printer) is
the easiest way to produce a text product. The computer (or pen) is not my focus at the
and to Dourish 1997’s “work-at-the-interface”
cf. chapter 5.2. Primary work includes tasks that contribute to organisational goals; articulation work is work tasks
that are needed in order to get the primary work done
moment of writing – as long as it is a part of my writing work. However, I write
differently when I sit at the table with pen and paper from when I sit by the computer; I
“think writing” differently depending on whether I am operating the pen or the computer.
I think and do writing differently more because the result is different rather than the
instrument – although the instrument is integrated in the production.
Use of a computer system requires knowledge about how use is integrated in work at
different levels; the operations of the system – where to push; the actions in which these
operations are a part – writing text or making a calculation; and at a more abstract level
the activity as a whole – why we do it. The levels are related and it is impossible to
understand one without the others. However, the analytical distinction between levels of
the work activity helps us understand use as a kind of work. Use is what we do, but
“what we do” includes the concrete operations we carry out as well as the goal-oriented
and motivational analytical level of our doings. Use of computer-based systems is
motivated by the work of which it is a part – which in turn is motivated by the long-term
result of the work.
o At the operational level, use of computers involves touching the keyboard or input
device of a technical device in order to produce output: visual, audio, executions of
other processes etc. Use thus means relating to the computer in a skilful manner, as a
condition for doing the work.
o At the action level, use is a purposeful action aimed at achieving some concrete
result. The goal-oriented actions are carried out through a set of concrete operations
(responding to the concrete conditions for doing the work). The action is planned and
carried out as logical units of work, producing (intermediate) results in the larger
production process.
o At the activity level, the long-term motivation of the activity is in focus; work
activities can be seen as made up of a number of more concrete goal-oriented actions,
each producing results that contribute to the overall motivation for the activity. The
activity is a collective matter; it gets its meaning from the social context in which it
takes part, and is a part.
I find this analytic distinction – between the overall motivated activities, the individual
goal-oriented actions, and the very concrete and condition-based operations – useful in
order to understand work as a planned and situated activity; the activity, the actions, and
the operations are levels of analysis of the same phenomenon, characterized by their
distance to the overall motive and to the concrete doings in the activity. Operations are
rhythmic and repeated features of actions carried out in response to the conditions in
which the actions are performed.
Use is something that happens at the operations level of the activity; the computer
system is part of the concrete work conditions. However, the concrete way of doing
things influences the way we think about the work – the computer system influences the
way we understand the action and its division into operations. In this way, the computer
system also influences the action and its goal. But the computer system that influences
how we understand the work action and its goal also influences the way we think about
the activity and how the long-term motive can be realized through concrete actions and
This perspective makes it possible to discuss use at different analytical levels – just
like work. As a way of working, use happens in primary work and in articulation work –
it makes more sense to talk about goal-oriented actions (aimed at the primary goals of
work) and the many operations we need to carry out in order to achieve the goal – of
which many will be invisible and characterized as articulation work. I therefore want to
keep the concept of articulation work for particular kinds of work operations and actions,
where the focus is on the relations between the concrete operation and at its location in a
Chapter 7. Use between knowledge and conditions of work
Part 2. Use
plan, at a task chain level. This approach also enables me to discuss fitting, augmenting
and work-arounds as operations based on knowledge; working around concrete obstacles
at an operational level requires knowledge and skills from other levels of work. The
knowing and meaning of the work is provided by its context and relations between levels
of work. Work is hence not just action: it is also the expected task chains and their
intersections: the patterns and routines – what we often call structure or plans – which
makes a basis for situated action. The studies of nursing in the Florence project
demonstrated that knowledge about relations between the plans and the conditions of
work, and of the task chains and their interconnections, was essential for doing a good
job – made explicit through the need for “overview”.
7.2 Work conditions
Work is situated and concrete, and the concrete conditions for work influence the way
work is carried out, at the operational, action, and activity level. Work conditions are the
concrete circumstances that make the work situation unique. The conditions for doing
work vary, and the intricate interdependencies of work tasks create uncertainty; we
cannot predict exactly what will happen due to contingencies in the work situation. The
physical location where work occurs, the arrangements of work tools, the proximity of
colleagues, the working environment (light, noise etc.) influence the particular character
of a work task. The practice of work includes details and trivial operations, situated
knowledges and creativity, personal preferences, accidental moves and unforeseen
Work conditions are always unique – even if they are similar to situations we have
experienced before; work is always different and similar. Reflecting on work processes
and situations over time makes us see some characteristics that are repeated, while others
change. The repeated characteristics make the basis for patterns and routines for work;
this is how it usually happens. And hence, this is how we expect it to happen.
Our expectations about a course of action are a guide for acting in the situation; it is a
basis necessary for sorting out the important from the trivial so that we are able to act.
Plans are such resources for action – but making a description to become a prescription
for action adds an evaluative element to the description. Expectations based on plans are
stronger, more like promises.
Work conditions are made up of the object of work: what we are working for, and the
instruments: what we are working with. We are working for an object, a result, and the
result plays a role in how we choose to work. The object of work defines the motivation
and the more concrete goals in work. In nursing, the motivation is (in general) to provide
care and treatment that enable sick people to get better and participate in normal
activities in society. The motivation for my writing is to contribute, as a member of a
research community, to a discussion about systems development as a field of research.
The object of work influences how we understand what we are doing, and how we go
about organising and planning what to do.
Work instruments are concrete artefacts but also ideas, concepts and understandings
– and how these interrelate. Fujimura (1996) provides an example of how a particular
understanding of cancer is materialised in instruments and procedures, and how a
different understanding of cancer needs different instruments. The instruments for work
suggest ways of performing work. The existence of thermometers and measurements is
based on a wish to measure bodily processes and states – and hence they encourage
taking such measurements. One reason for standards such as the temperature scale as
measured with a thermometer is, of course, the need to share knowledge about the actual
objects of work between people who work with the same objects or have the same goals;
most measurements travel well across contexts as pieces of information associated with
small, well-defined sets of possible interpretations1.
Computers can be part of the work conditions as objects or instruments2. As an
object, the computer is the representation of an object (and is a work object). As an
object of work, the presentation of the representation can vary with the equipment; the
“view” provided by a program – and the possible “views” provided by the equipment –
constitute the concrete conditions for work. The representation of numbers in tables or
columns or pie charts are ways of presenting an account – to an accountant the table
probably gives the same “inner picture” as a pie chart. The computer can also be a
representation of a representation (like my account in the bank would be part of the work
object for the bank accountants). In service and information work, the representation in
the computer is the object of work; even if the representation represents physical objects
the work is concerned with the computer representation (e.g. insurance).
Computers as instruments in work include materialisations of representations of other
objects and representations of work procedures and routines. The hospital is obviously
full of representations of patients, used as instruments for individual and (mainly)
collective action. Many of the instruments are representations of representations, like
temperature curves or the number of CK enzymes. The computer as a representation of
the object in this way becomes more than an instrument: it becomes an additional object
of work, and thus changes work at all levels.
Computer-based systems are instruments of work at all levels, and the characteristics
of computer-based artefacts have their proper effect as symbolic machines at these
different levels. Computers are machines; they do things, and they are symbolic
machines; they are running models that refer to the world (either represent a part of the
world or constitute an attribute of a part of the world). As machines, computers are
predictable (they behave the same way every time) and they look like computers even if
their software makes them behave like different instruments (calculators, text processors,
maps, video players). Computers are automatons that perform operations in predefined
sequences – and the user is normally involved in one or more steps and in one or more
sequences; just to start the process is the minimal involvement3.
The particular characteristics of computers as automatons – that the computer
performs an operation delegated to it – makes computers more similar to machines than
to stable artefacts like paper. The computer performs operations included as elements in
goal-oriented action, connected to other operations in the same action. Automatic
checking, calculation, searching and collecting of data etc. can be seen as operations
included in goal-oriented action. The computer performs work on behalf of the user. The
inclusion of automatons in work can be seen as the delegation of work operations to
at least, this is what is assumed. Fujimura 1996 discusses how standards can travel across contexts, cf. the concept
“immutable mobiles” in chapters 5.5 and 6.4
2 Engeström 1990 distinguishes between different types of artefacts by what role they play in the activity: “why”,
“how” and “what” artefacts, as a slightly different view than Wartofsky 1979's primary, secondary and tertiary
artefacts. The concrete “what” artefacts together with the rules of “how” artefacts are used to perform actions, in
which the “why” artefacts add interpretational basis for using the how and what artefacts. The patient record and
documents (“what” artefacts) together with the way of documentation (“how” artefact) are used to try to create a
meaningful image of the patient’s symptoms, on the basis of the explanatory model of illness (“why” artefact). If
the activity as a whole is to be changed, Engeström argues that a fourth type of artefact, the “where to” artefact, is
3 this is also the case if the user does not intentionally start the computer, as with automatic switches or pattern
recognition machinery
Chapter 7. Use between knowledge and conditions of work
Part 2. Use
machinery – sometimes a whole goal-oriented action (consisting of a collection of
operations that together leads to a specified goal) can be delegated to a machine. In order
for the computer to operate in a predictable and correct way, the user may also need to be
accurate in the way s/he operates the machine1. The operations that are delegated to the
instruments – their performance, input and output – are part of the work of the user.
New operations that arise because of the delegation – normally called “operating the
machine” – are often described in rather negative terms implying that the machine
controls the human. However, interaction with computers means to operate a machine; to
give the right input in order to get the output you want without having to do the
operations yourself (to save time or energy). All use of artefacts implies that humans
give in to the material form of the artefact in order to utilize its functionality. There is no
principal difference between operating the washing machine and operating a tax
calculation program – the main difference is the transparency of the machine operations
given by their presentation at the machine interface. When the machine operations are
invisible, we may feel uncomfortable with the fact that we delegate also the control of
the process to the machine.
My washing machine displays the operations in the process (wash, rinse, spin-dry) by
movements of the switch, and I can see and hear its operations. In addition the time
remaining until the machine operations are finished, is displayed. Symbolic processes in
computers are usually not presented in ways that make the user understand what the
machine does2. There is a delicate balance between operating the machine as a “tool” and
feeding the machine in ways controlled by the machine and thus losing the feeling of
autonomy at work; this balance has been at the core of Scandinavian working
environment politics and (parts of) the research on systems development since the 1970s.
The “tool” metaphor has therefore been used as a design ideal for systems development3.
I want to emphasise interaction with the computer as a skilled activity of users (and
designers before them), and that users’ autonomy and flexibility needs to be preserved in
order for work knowledge to be maintained and developed. Unexpected work situations
may require exceptional use of the work instruments in a bricolage style. Crisis situations
may require immediate action based on embodied and routine skills that “stretch” the
instrument to its limits. In everyday activities the normal variations that maintain the
“rule-ness” of the automatic processes also maintain work knowledge at all levels. Plans
materialised as structure for computer program executions are often fixed – thus other
structures and plans in the context need flexibility to enable the user to address the
inevitable variety and situatedness of everyday activity. Rigid systems that deprive the
users of too much of their work autonomy tend to have bad effects on both productivity
and quality of work4.
Use of computers in work often introduces – or strengthens – the formal and
representational aspects of work. The work of dealing with representations is carried out
which should not be confused with situations in which the machine is made to control human behaviour
cf. Dourish 1997; Hillestad 2003. See also Norman 1988; 1999. Andersen 1986 suggests to see computers as
media between designers and users, recent follow-ups of this view are Quintas 1998 and Carmel 1997 who claim
that as US software spreads all over the world it also spreads certain definitions of the world; work and the
organisation of work etc.
3 cf. Ehn & Kyng 1984; 1987. The tool metaphor has certain biases toward male-dominated production work (see
Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1995), and can be used to hide rather than reveal power relations concerned with a system
(see Kling & Scacchi 1982; Kling & Iacono 1984).
4 a long-term focus of Scandinavian working environment politics and systems development. The fact that dealing
with rigid systems is part of work and work knowledge has been reported for many years, e.g. Wynn 1979;
Suchman 1983; Suchman & Wynn 1984; Gasser 1986; Thoresen 1999 (cf. chapter 5.2)
at different levels of work; as operations like registering a dot on the temperature curve
sheet based on the reading of the thermometer in the morning nursing routine – as parts
of the goal-oriented action of following the temperature development – as one element in
evaluating (the effect of) the medication – as part of making a professional hypothesis
about how to best assist the patient’s recovery. Dealing with work conditions includes
handling relations between work objects and representations – of objects and
7.3 Work knowledge
In a study of flute making, philosopher Scott Cook describes how professional flute makers
negotiate the quality of a piece as it passes from hand to hand, making judgments that combine
technical and aesthetic criteria. He argues that the development of this shared accountability in
their practice is what allows those firms to produce flutes that are consistently the best in the
world. (Wenger 1999: 288)
Work knowledge is developed as we perform work in a work setting, adding experiences
of concrete examples of work objects and work conditions to knowledge gained through
professional education and professional activity. Work knowledge is to handle work
conditions – based on work knowledge. Work knowledge connects operations with the
larger actions and activities, in a social setting. And different knowledge is needed at the
different levels; work knowledge is the unity of the levels in which the different
knowledges interplay.
On the one hand knowledge and skills are personal, as they result from the
individual’s experiences and accumulation of knowledge. However, the person is always
a member of a social community in which the knowledge, the skills and the experience
make sense and contribute to the accumulation of shared knowledge. Learning and
experiencing is hence better seen as processes of negotiations between the individual and
her/his environment (the community) in which the results of the negotiation are brought
in and contribute to changing the community1.
Work knowledge is knowing in action – the act of knowing. Knowing is based on a
combination of action and reflection, not necessarily carried out at the same time. In
order to act one has to practice; practice is constituted through established actionconnections where the repeated elements, the rules, norms, patterns or the like, are
necessary but not sufficient to understand what goes on2. Concepts and verbal or
formalized expressions of knowing require some degree of regularity in patterns – and
explanations of the regularity. An excellent example can be found in Orr (1996)’s study
of copy machine repair technicians telling stories about repair jobs: how they look and
listen for signals of irregularities that may help them locate the problem. To the
individual becoming a member of a community of practice, it takes time to build up such
professional knowledge. The regularity of a practice makes reflection and verbalisation
possible, and thus makes possible a conceptual basis for understanding action that
contributes to knowing action. Work knowledge includes patterns and varieties,
similarities and differences.
The general relation between the whole and the parts seems to be useful also for
understanding work knowledge – very visible in the Florence project as a part of nursing
knowledge. The analytical distinction between operations, actions, and activities is
useful as an instrument for discussing the whole-part relation. Emphasising the whole of
see Dewey 1997
see chapter 5.7. I draw on Molander 1996 here, but also Frønes 2001 emphasises the need to understand both
patterns and action
Chapter 7. Use between knowledge and conditions of work
Part 2. Use
an activity as what gives meaning to the operations, makes it difficult to single out
isolated operations without paying attention to the whole. Emphasising operational
knowledge as essential to mastery of the activity, makes it difficult to talk in abstract
ways about activities without taking into consideration the concrete practices in which
they are materialised. The ability to deal with the whole-part relation requires knowledge
about work at both levels: the whole – the activity as a whole or the goal-oriented action,
and the parts: the concrete operations or actions that together contribute to the goal. The
concept articulation work is concerned with the whole-part relation as it denotes work
aimed at creating and maintaining this relation in the work setting.
The analytical distinction between operations, actions, and activities also makes it
possible to talk about a range of different knowledges. If we allow the “goals” above to
be composed of both long-term and short-term aims, of values and norms as well as
products and services, we allow for an understanding of the variety of work performance
that we find when studying communities of practice. The old dichotomy between facts
and feelings seems to get in the way for understanding how the virtuous worker practices
immediate actions, and how mastery of an instrument combines confident mastery with
intensely focused utilization of the instrument’s potential. The ability to balance the
needs of the single patient with the needs of the population of patients on the ward is
based on cool calculations of the available resources (number of people and time)
combined with the professional empathy for the single patient’s needs for care as a part
of his/her healing process. The feeling for the object of work combines rather than
separates our different ways of knowing1.
In line with this, I argue that the distinction between verbal and non-verbal
knowledge confirms the old dichotomy of body-mind, and thus makes us miss other
important distinctions (and relations) relevant to computer use. The (very common) work
of dealing with representations does not focus on the verbalised vs. the non-verbalised
(or non-verbalisable); instead work is concerned with making, communicating,
interpreting, combining and translating stories about the work objects – knowing that no
one story covers the whole truth. Molander (1996) suggests seeing knowing as consisting
of both calculative and evaluative thinking – as a “double grip”. I would like to rephrase
this as two relations: between the part and the whole (see above), and between the
embodied materiality of the representation and the object-process: the original work
object seen as something changing, as a process (the patient or the thesis, or the
relationship with a customer, an insurance client, a bank client). The representation may
be of any kind: conceptual, formalized, verbal, symbolic etc. and represents an aspect of
the work object-process: work is to relate these in a meaningful manner. This relational
work is the basis for professional action. It can be instantaneous (like when the heart
monitor alarm sounds in the Cardiology ward) or may be subject to reflection and
discussion (like interpretations of X-rays among doctors in the morning meeting).
Emphasising relations in order to see the interplay between different types of
knowing can be exercised on different levels of work. Watching nurses in action with an
asthmatic child demonstrated the situated nature of work knowledge as well as the
backcloth of general professional knowledge. Teaching a child how to breathe in order to
get the full effect of an asthma medicine illustrates that knowledge at all levels comes
into play: knowledge types like factual and evaluative, medical and emotional, detailed
and as a totality, situated presence and professional overview were obviously combined
in the instantaneous action. Nurses monitoring heart patients demonstrated (although not
so concretely) the same complexity of knowing when interpreting a break in the heart
rhythm presented on the scope screen. Dealing with representations also requires a
see Keller 1983 about McClintock’s research in biology
complex interplay of knowledges both when the representation relates to a physical
object (like a patient) and when the representation relates to other representations (like
the fluid balance of a heart patient). When the representation is a process (in the
computer) the knowing concerns the operation and its location in the action.
Work knowledge is what makes us act in ways that are evaluated as professionally
good and sound, in a work situation as well as in work over a period of time. Work
knowledge is therefore personal – it is the person who acts – and it is social / cultural –
the person acts in a community of professional practice, and both “parties” contribute to
evaluating whether the act is good and sound. The evaluation is based on norms,
standards, rules, values, practices developed over time and shared by all members of the
community – and maybe even recognised outside the community (like what is a good
nurse). The act is a situated action as it is shaped by the conditions present in the
situation, and the conditional constraints are considered when evaluating the action both
in the situation (by the actor) and in reflection afterwards (by the actor and other
members of the community). A good and sound professional act creatively utilizes the
possibilities in the situation in a bricolage manner, aiming at professional standards for
what is good and sound – or rather the best possible action given these conditions. The
ability to act in exceptional situations is based on routine – the ability to act immediately
only comes after a long period of practice – and the immediate, instantaneous action, the
action without reflection, is an unmistakable expression of expertise1.
7.4 Constant change in a world of artefacts
Change is inevitable. The world changes, and so do we. Changes can be slow or fast, and
they can be consciously designed or happen as an opportunity taken in the situation, in
the course of action. Work as situated action constantly changes as a consequence of the
ever shifting circumstances – while at the same time work is the same; it is routines and
patterns that transcends the single situation, and that change very slowly.
As human beings we try to improve the way we do things – life is development and
change. And human development and learning is part of everyday life and work: through
experience we develop expectations about what will happen – which act as a basis for
interpreting the world. This in turn may change the way we see – and do – work.
Learning happens, to a large extent, through use and refinements (or even inventions) of
material and conceptual instruments2. We improve the instruments we use in an activity
and by this change the activity (at some level) and the way we understand the activity (or
vice versa); which may in turn give rise to new improvements. Because “we” are
members of many communities-of-practice, we bring with us what we learn from one
community to the next so that other people learn from us, and so on. We all act in a
variety of arenas, and our actions in one arena are influenced by our experiences in
others3. The individual human being is a complex interplay of roles and experiences.
Frønes (2001) introduces a floodgate model describing change of social and cultural
norms and patterns including “the acting actor, the structural conditions and the
particular dynamics of the process” (p. 162). Frønes emphasises the motivation that
see discussion in Molander 1996: about Wittgenstein 1972 and Dreyfus & Dreyfus 1986
Säljö 2000, referred in chapter 5.7
3 Andreassen & Wadel 1989 list five arenas that influence the individual football player’s achievement in a football
match: home, education, work, friends, media. Ludvigsen et al 2001 makes a similar point when discussing the
behaviour of some sales people that can only be understood when seen in a larger context: former engineers
behave differently from sales people with no technical background
Chapter 7. Use between knowledge and conditions of work
Part 2. Use
makes the individual act contrary to the expectations of the group; which make her/him a
pioneer. The pioneer has a particular motivation that makes him/her less dependent of
general cultural and social conditions. Frønes discusses women in academia as an
example of slow socio-cultural change. The pioneers will be part of an academic system,
and to a generation of students in a small community the pioneer may be taken as a
normal motivational state-of-affairs or even dominate the community. Because the shift
of student generations is so fast, the student community acts as a floodgate: in a
floodgate system the water flows in and lifts the boat, and when the filling of water is
finished, the boat moves on to the next lock, where the same thing happens. Frønes
argues that cultural change can be understood as cultural floodgates induced by a new
generation that flows in – and flows out through the next floodgate. The motivation in
each lock becomes the motivation to move to the next lock rather than the high
motivation of moving up the river, as with the pioneer. When the cultural change in one
lock has reached a certain level, people flow on to the next, where the process repeats
itself. The changed practice in the floodgate system constitutes a new practice that turns
out to become normal practice and hence subject to general motivation. The pioneers
pass outside of the floodgate system – but can still act to motivate the people in the locks
behind them. This model of cultural change takes into account the time to change; if we
take the whole floodgate system into consideration, we can see that even if there is little
happening in the upper floodgate, the level of activity in the lower floodgates suggests
that changes can be expected.
In a long-term perspective, we can see how the collection of refinements and
inventions of instruments to improve practice contributes to an established working order
impossible to “undo”1. Bowker & Star (1999) demonstrate that medical diagnosis
systems have a historical basis in values and beliefs at different points of time (and
place) that has become materialised and made part of practice, and thus has constituted a
basis for further development of practice. Many “old” instruments (mental or material)
have become so taken-for-granted that they are not visible to us anymore; they are not
questioned and they are almost impossible to change. The history of medicine also gives
good examples of forced change; an instrument or a new understanding that has been the
occasion for changing practice – and through that influenced the general understanding2.
In this perspective it seems sensible to view tradition as change, emphasising
changing the “right” things so that the continuity as well as the contemporary aspects of
form and meaning are maintained3. Tradition is not static; it is constantly interpreted in
relation to the larger context of contemporary society and culture – and thus needs to
address that context. The ambition to change the right thing is interesting as a way to see
human development as a social and cultural development, but also as a background for
design as forced change.
In a larger societal perspective we can see the interplay between technologies and
their uses; how “needs” are invented as the possibilities for their fulfilment appear.
Changes in work life go hand in hand with technological development. In historic
afterthought it is easy to see patterns of technology development that parallel societal
and cultural developments4. Several such studies conclude that technology often is used
what Hanseth 1996 calls “installed base”
a well-known example is the attempts to get health workers to wash their hands as a way to reduce the mortality by
puerperal fever by transferring bacteria from one patient to another. Nowadays, every child in nursery school
learns to wash their hands before eating
3 see discussion in Stuedahl (forthcoming 2003)
4 this is a large area of research, with references from many years back, like the classic Weizenbaum 1976; Dreyfus
1972; Greenbaum 1979; 1995, and many other studies of the introduction of computers in work and society
to maintain existing organisational and institutional structures that would otherwise not
have been possible to maintain, basically dealing with increase in scale1. Development in
information and communication technologies together with2 development in the transport
sector have made a basis for a global market – both capital, work, and production – in
which products and services can be produced anywhere, anytime. The industrial
principle of just-in-time (storage) management makes it possible not to tie up capital to
storage, but rather plan to have parts arrive just in the right moment in the production
process, or the product delivered just in time for the customer to buy it3. Just-in-time
production includes moving parts of the production to places where labour and material
costs are lower than the costs of transport to the market. Technological development, in
particular the development of global infrastructures, makes the construction of “virtual
organisations” possible: technology makes problems of distance “disappear” through
telephones, mail, and computer networks4. A trend in large, multi-national companies
with local branches all over the world is to outsource parts of the production or service,
thus presenting themselves as work-around-the-clock companies5. Accompanying this
trend is also the trend to do away with rigid bureaucracies in order to design
organisations that can more easily and rapidly adjust to market changes. In what is called
“cloth hanger” organisational structures, management acts as coaches and there are no
middle managers; people on the “shop floor” are responsible for professional decision
making6. This makes a very flexible organisation that can change immediately if the
market changes, but that makes the employees responsible for the productivity as well as
for their group and the company as a whole. Some employees find this too stressful7.
The technical development that constitutes the basis for computer networks and
communication, computer-supported cooperative work, and mobile computing goes
hand-in-hand with a trend in organisation design which emphasises virtual organisations
and teams – made possible by technology. The trend stresses the opportunity for workers
to be flexible, choosing when and where to work8. In the industrial society the worker
sold his/her work hours from 9 to 5 to a particular work place, controlled by an
employer9. In the post-industrial (information) society, work is instead the activity
needed to produce a result, a service or a product; and instead of hours the worker sells
ideas, expertise, creativity, commitment, loyalty etc. where the capital is exchanged in
commitment of a person and his/her talents instead of work hours. The individual worker
is responsible for maintaining her/his personal exchange value – the employer buying
ideas does not necessarily pay for the time spent to maintain the basis for working out
good ideas. Selling work hours differs from selling results by the fact that in the latter
a nice analysis is found in Dooreward et al 1987; see also Yates 1989’s study of office technology development.
For general discussions, see Greenbaum 1979; 1995, Noble 1977, Braverman 1974
2 and – I think – more importantly
3 see Gustavsen 1986; 1992; Minzberg 1983
4 a constant interest within CSCW, see e.g. Feldman 1986; Eveland & Bikson 1986; Bowers & Churcher 1988;
Perin 1991 and more recently Hinds & Kiesler 2002; Kiesler & Cummings 2002; Armstrong & Cole 2002; Moon
& Sproull 2002; Robertson 2002; Mark 2002
5 cf. e.g. Sahay et al 2003; Heeks et al 2001; 2002; Hersleb et al 1999; 2000; 2001. See also Rolland 2003 on the
work of ship controllers in a multi-national ship classification company.
6 Minzberg 1983; Gustavsen 1992 (cloth hanger referring to the image: few top managers, no middle management
and a large and rather flat organization of the (professional) workers)
7 Qvale 1998
8 see e.g. Bakke et al 1998 about workers working from everywhere (including their home). Studies show that they
work more hours than workers who works when at work
9 Greenbaum 1995; Dahlbom 1996a; 1996b; Perin 1991
Chapter 7. Use between knowledge and conditions of work
Part 2. Use
case the worker is responsible for creating and maintaining the resources (knowledge,
skills etc) required to produce the results, whereas it used to be that the place where you
spent the paid work time took the responsibility for taking care of maintaining at least
some part of your value as a work resource1. Selling ideas and commitment also involves
the problem of defining what is good and when is it good enough. The possibilities of the
technology fit – and is made to fit – contemporary ways of organising work, and thus
how we think about work.
Work happens in this context, as part of this context. The blurring of borders between
home and work2, between work tasks, learning and entertainment makes my role as a
consumer and client to a larger extent influence my role as a worker – and vice versa.
The “user” is not what s/he used to be; in the 21st century s/he can take on a variety of
roles within the broad category of computer user and consumer – including programmer
and designer. We tailor, mend, misuse and invent ways of improving life, and bring with
us experience and knowledge from our various life arenas. Human development involves
work to improve our conditions – we can expect that change is constant! The classic
vision about technology as a liberator of human beings from paid labour may come true3.
7.5 Between knowledge and conditions in work; relations in use
I end this chapter with a summary of my view on use as presented in chapters 6 and 7.
Use is work, and is part of both primary and articulation work. Use is primary work
when the work object is a computer-based representation, and it is articulation work
when the representation is an instrument to carry out primary work. A special kind of
articulation work is the extra work introduced as part of using a computer. Computerbased representations may introduce an increased importance of representations in work,
to the extent that the representations become objects of work even if their physical
referents also are maintained as objects of work.
Work can be analysed at different analytical levels; as concrete operations carried out
in a situation; as goal-oriented actions carried out through a set of operations –
constituting the context that gives meaning to the operation; and as intentional activities
in which individual actions (and their operations) are a part and are given meaning.
Work knowledge requires knowledge about all levels, and the action space and
flexibility in work is made up by knowing about the connections between the levels.
Work knowledge particularly includes the relation between the whole and the parts – and
the analytical distinction between operations, actions, and activities is useful for
discussing this relation. The concept of articulation work specifically concerns the
relational work of balancing the whole and the parts.
Work is a social and individual activity in which the individual mutually influences
the community s/he is part of. By being part of several socio-cultural communities the
individual contributes to change and development in these.
Knowing in work combines different rationalities, combining factual knowledge
based on generalities, patterns and regularity (calculative knowing) with knowledge for
situated action (orientation or evaluative knowing) in a feeling for the object of work4.
at least in Norway and other Scandinavian countries, cf. the Act of Worker Protection and Working Environment
which also links to the old discussion concerning the gendered work life paying less for reproductive work that
looks like domestic work, see e.g. Cockburn 1983; Fletcher 1994
3 see the classic Gorz 1983 (Farewell to the Working class: An Essay on Post-Industrial Socialism)
4 what Molander 1996 calls “the double grip”, see chapter 5.7
Relational work can be instantaneous (like when the scope alarm sounds in the
Cardiology ward) or subject to reflection and discussion (like the interpretation of X-rays
by doctors at the morning meeting). This relational view on knowing as action focuses
on the relational sides of action-reflection, scientific-emotional, or detached-involved1.
Dealing with representations is deliberately not addressed by focusing on verbalised vs.
non-verbalised (tacit) knowing – based on the old dichotomy of body-mind; work is
concerned with making, communicating, interpreting, combining and translating stories
about the work objects – knowing that no one story covers the whole truth. Dealing with
representations can be seen as working with the relation between the embodied
materiality of representations and the original work object2. Representations come in
many forms: conceptual, formalized, verbal, symbolic etc. and represent aspects of the
object. The work is concerned with relating these in a meaningful manner as a basis for
professional action.
Computer-based systems are material representations of objects – or representations.
Working with representations includes dealing with the symbolic model of the object as
well as its concrete instantiation in a material form. Working with computers additionally
includes dealing with the automatic process and its presentation of itself. The translation
– or reproducing – of representational symbols to the object world is at the core of use
A relational view on use emphasises use as the relation between work knowledge and
work conditions, where work conditions include both work objects and work
instruments. Work knowledge is concerned with the professional activities concerned
with dealing with the work object, also when the object is represented in a computer
system. Computer-based artefacts as instruments for performing work express work
knowledge – they are work knowledge. Knowledge is distributed between people and
artefacts that are used skilfully in professional activity.
In this part of the thesis I have argued for a view on use which differs from the
traditional view that sees use as a relation between a human and a machine – however, a
view that fits better to design. I find it more useful to see use of computer-based systems
as work; as a special kind of work concerned with dealing with representations, where
the representations are instruments as well as objects of work. This view makes possible
the acknowledgement of the bricolage-like activities of using a computer-based artefact
in a totally “wrong” way — knowledge in action. And it becomes possible to see that
predefined plans and structures for action are used as resources in the moment of action,
rather than controlling the user’s activity. Finally, very importantly, it enables me to
transcend old dichotomies that prevent me from understanding work as a process of
balancing and combining – relating – a diversity of “things”: both theory and practice,
both concrete and abstract, both language and action, both body and mind.
if expressed as dichotomies they seem to get in the way for understanding how professional work is carried out
seen as an object-process, i.e. changing – be it a patient, a thesis or a relationship with a customer
Chapter 7. Use between knowledge and conditions of work
Part 2. Use
Part 3
Design is when designers design a design to produce a design.
The word “design” is used four times. The first usage is as a noun,
connoting the field of design as a whole in a very general manner, … The
second usage is as a verb, meaning the action or thought involved in the
act of designing. The third also is a noun; this time connoting a plan or
intention. Finally, the fourth usage again is a noun, this time meaning the
finished product. (Heskett 2001: 18)
A general definition of design is that it is a creative and constructive work process in
which a material is shaped to a useful artefact – the design result. The design result is a
description of the artefact-to-be (like architectural drawings and systems specifications)1.
Design means to “create or construct according to a plan”, and most design literature
emphasises planning2. The word “design” originates from Italian designo: drawing, and
the Latin root signum points to sign or mark3. Design is both individual and social, and
involves people with different skills and knowledges (like future users, managers,
marketing people – and informaticians) in what can be seen as multidisciplinary,
cooperative, constructive negotiation.
Systems development is concerned with a planned change of computer-based
information technology, as part of a larger process of changing the activity in which this
artefact is used in its larger context. Systems development is characterized by the design
and implementation of computer artefacts. I focus on the aspects of design not
emphasised in engineering; what goes on before the production of the artefact starts: the
ideas, the visions, the problem setting and solution etc. However, engineering is a
necessary part of building a working computer system, hence engineering knowledge
must be present when deciding on the problem and its possible solutions.
Design is seen as a product-oriented and reflective activity4, oriented toward visions
of the future. In this third part of the thesis I explore these aspects of design from a
relational perspective, drawing on general design theories and various design disciplines.
The fact that systems design aims to produce software influences the design process.
A relational view on design focuses on design knowledge as unfolding in relations
between the ideas of people who do design and the materials they work with. Chapter 8
starts with a model of design from general design theory, as a process of making visions,
sketches, and specifications. The rest of the chapter discusses this model based on
experiences from the research projects I have been involved with. Chapter 9 includes a
more theoretical discussion about design, and because the material in design is important
in accordance with e.g. Andersen et al 1986; Kensing 1987
cf. Webster for a definition; see also e.g. Winograd 1996; Cross 1995; Greenhalgh 1997
3 Webster: “a mark having a conventional meaning and used in place of words or to represent a complex notion …
something material or external that stands for or signifies something”
4 Andersen et al 1986; see chapter 2.3
Part 3. Design
I also discuss in detail formal representations of software as the material in systems
Chapter 8
Design processes
In 1901 the Phelps tractor was introduced as a direct replacement for the
horse in farm work. The Phelps tractor could be hitched to a carriage or
wagon, and farmers used a pair of reins to control the tractor just as they
would control a horse. The tractor was steered by pulling on the
appropriate rein; both reins were loosened to go forward and pulled back
to slow down and stop; pulling back harder backed up the tractor.
Although the interface of the Phelps tractor must have been much easier
for a farmer to learn compared with the unfamiliar levers and knobs on
other contemporary vehicles, the tractor was never a success. Whether or
not the Phelps tractor was a commercial failure because of its interface,
the point of this example is that good interface design requires a balance
between conforming to the machine mechanism and conforming to the
user’s conception of the task. There may be no virtue in slavishly
imitating the way the task was performed in the past because that
performance was shaped by an earlier generation of tools. The interface
designer must find the proper balance between forcing the user to
accommodate to the machine and adapting the machine to the user’s
preexisting model of the task. This challenge is particularly relevant to
the computer interface designer because the computer’s adaptability
places relatively few restrictions on the interface. (Gentner & Grudin
1990: 280)
Design in systems development is oriented towards conceptualizing a change to be
materialised in a computer system – the motives for change are often organisational or
managerial, such as improving quality or efficiency in the organisational production (be
it insurance, cars or patients). This chapter starts with a presentation of a model of design
from general design theory, as a process of making visions, sketches, and specifications.
The rest of the chapter discusses this model from a relational perspective, drawing on
empirical research. The four sections each discuss a particular aspect of design. Section
8.2 argues that we cannot design what we do not know. In section 8.3 I discuss the
interplay of different types of knowledge, basically knowledge from the use context and
from the design field. Section 8.4 looks into aspects of representations – the material in
systems design. In section 8.5 I explicitly locate design in a larger context of
development and change.
Based on a relational view, the chapter argues that design includes a variety of
processes that mutually influence each other. The research projects tell us about some of
the possible processes in design, and act as input to a diversified understanding of
8.1 Design is many processes
Design can be seen as a set of processes in which a vision of a particular change is
created, where a problem and its solution is decided upon, where the details of the
Chapter 8. Design processes
Part 3. Design
solution is worked out, and the specifications for a realization of the solution is made, so
that the artefact can be built. My first approximation to design is a model that describes
design as a sequence of phases each aimed at an intermediary product: a vision, a sketch
(or more), and a specification1.
8.1.1 A vision
A vision is a first image of a possible design result: a solution, or parts or aspects of it.
The vision expresses what is to be achieved in the process.
The first vision can be a crude idea of a structure, a particular functionality, or a certain choice
of technology. It is not possible to specify the vision clearly: a vision can contain contradictions
and logical impossibilities, or be very imprecise. The vision may be based on an idea of a
particular technical feature, a certain functional or aesthetic liking. (Bratteteig & Stolterman
1997: 294)
Stolterman (1991) claims that the vision comes into being very early in the design
process, often when designers meet employers for the first time and before any analysis
of the situation is made: the vision is generally not based on an analysis of the present
situation. Visions often come into being when working on understanding the situation,
trying to “define the problem”. The vision expresses a definition of the problem to be
solved; finding a solution means choosing a particular definition of the problem
In the Florence project the vision for the WorkSheet System was a combination of
the understanding that nurses need “overview” – of patients, medical doctors, equipment,
beds, medicines, medical journals, lab tests etc. — and the graphic, object-oriented
interface of the Macintosh which made possible a materialisation of “overview” as a map
of the ward, resembling the way that the nurses already organised the information they
needed. For the informaticians the vision suggested an object-oriented organisation of
patient information (basically as patient and bed objects); for the nurses the vision
concerned a way of organising the information they needed to provide an overview. The
vision of overview was not made from analyses of existing work instruments; the
WorkSheet System replaced a variety of smaller, informal scraps, notes, and lists2.
Schön (1983; 1987) emphasises that design is a “problem setting” rather than
“problem solving” activity; when the problem is defined, the method for solving it is
often (close to) given. We find ways of understanding the situation that enable us to
suggest problem definitions and solutions that we understand. Schön calls this a process
of “naming and framing”. We frame the situation so that we can name a solution.
Similarly, Lanzara (1983) describes how designers use metaphors and games to arrive at
problems and their solutions. Metaphors help us to see a situation “as-if” it was different,
how the situation at hand resembles problems and solutions we have seen before3.
Games encourage us to think “what-if”: what if things were different? Games encourage
questioning the taken-for-grantedness of the existing solutions that inevitably influences
how we think about a problem. Metaphors and games encourage us to shift between
perspectives. Buchanan (1995a) claims that the ability to shift between different
perspectives4 is a basic skill in design, for designers to create and evaluate visions.
Ferguson 1993 uses the concepts vision, sketch, and drawing in a similar way as Stolterman 1991 uses vision,
operative image and specification. See also general design methods literature, e.g. Cross 1984; 1994 and
discussions about the nature of design, e.g. Margolin 1989; Margolin & Buchanan 1995; Jones 1970
2 see e.g. Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987c, see figure 24
3 a metaphor is a rhetoric figure “which elucidates similarity in difference” Alvesson & Sköldberg 2000: 89
4 what he calls “placements”
Visions seem to be based on experience1, where recognition of (particular aspects of) the
situation is necessary in order to arrive at a suggestion for (parts of) a solution.
Visions focus on particular aspects of the imagined artefact as if it were in operation.
Darke (1978) tells how experienced architects start the design process by familiarising
themselves with the site to get a basis for thinking about a solution – a particular
architectural principle or style that the building should comply with. The artefact-to-be is
imagined in its use context, hence the designer needs knowledge about that.
The making of a vision happens when the designer(s) is put in a situation where s/he
starts thinking of a possible design result, typically when s/he meets the employer (client,
user) and the design process formally starts. Visions are created when the designer looks
for a solution to a particular problem; visions are product-oriented – and the orientation
toward the product is what fuels the design process. The vision as an image of a solution,
needs to be made explicit in order to enable discussions about the solution with codesigners, employers, users, and clients.
8.1.2 Sketching
Sketching is a way of working out the details of a material solution2. In the Florence
project the first sketch of the WorkSheet System was made by the nurses at a project
meeting3. The sketch was a rough drawing on a piece of paper, and looked like a map of
the part of the ward that hosted the acute patients and the monitoring equipment (the
inside team). The sketch was used as a suggestion for the layout of screens and paper
reports. To the informaticians, the sketch also gave ideas as to how the data could be
organised in the database, and what the functionality of the system could be.
Sketches are used as tools for thinking about how the vision can be materialised.
Sketches depict – represent – the form, the function and/or the structure of the artefactto-be as they are being made. The layout of the WorkSheet System was an image of the
form that also conveyed a basis for imagining the functions: presenting patient
information at a glance, updating the system by moving patiens between beds, printing
sheets with patient data on them for additional notes during the shift. The sketch also
conveyed an image of structure: presenting patients according to the organisational
division of work tasks and structuring patient data according to an object-oriented logic.
Working out more of the details of the solution involved making sketches of data
structures, functionality, and how the limitations in the available software, screens and
paper reports would influence the details of the form, function and structure of the
Working out the solution means to decompose the artefact-to-be into logical
components that can be worked with – or further decomposed or detailed. Each
component will be worked on separately – but seen in relation to other components,
paying attention to the way in which the component is connected to and interacts with
other components – making it necessary to create a structure for the whole system.
Decomposition means “black-boxing” parts of the artefact-to-be in order to avoid
thinking about all the complexity, all the time. Black-boxing makes it possible to work
with several interdependent uncertainties. The “what-if” and “as-if” envisioning is also
present in sketching, often referring to suggestions for solutions and trying to see the
consequences of a particular design decision for the rest of the design.
Harman 1984
Cross 1995; Arnheim 1995. Henderson 1991a; 1991b; 1999 discusses the importance of visual thinking in
3 Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987c; 1988a
Chapter 8. Design processes
Part 3. Design
In the artefact as a whole, some components may be very dependent on other
components. In order to start working on the solution when the uncertainty is large, some
components can be put aside as “placeholders”1 in order to stabilise a particular
perspective for some time, so that it is possible to work on other components that the
placeholder influences or depends on. Black-boxing and the use of placeholders are ways
of working that deal with the level of uncertainty concerned with working out a
particular part of the solution; handling the paradox of maintaining the uncertainty
simultaneously with making decisions to end that uncertainty. Black-boxing parts of the
product enables us to work with one “box” in detail at a time – all we need to know is the
ways in which this box interacts with other boxes, and how characteristics of the box in
question are shared or related to characteristics in other boxes. A placeholder may be
stable for some time period and then maybe changed if the design of other components
turns out to take an unexpected path or turn out to be impossible for some (practical)
reason. During sketching, there are normally some (sets of) components that are
placeholders, some (sets of) components are being worked out in detail, some (sets of)
components are not worked out at all – they may be well-known or even existing as
material, finished components that can be built into the artefact, or they may be totally
unknown and therefore postponed until the designers know enough to start working on
Sketching is a way to create and evaluate suggestions for material solutions. Newman
(1998) discusses sketching as thinking, especially thinking about design of “invisible”
artefacts like a computer system – although sketching very often happens in dialogue
with others, as communication. In systems design various forms of systems descriptions
are used as means for thinking and communicating, achieving and communicating
understandings of the future information system2.
In the world of engineers and designers, sketches and drawings are the basic components of
communication; words are built around them. Visual representations are so central that people
assembled in meetings wait while individuals fetch drawings from their office or sketch
facsimiles on whiteboards. Coordination and conflict take place over, on, and through drawings.
Visual representations shape the structure of the work and determine who participates in that
work and what its final products will be. They are a central component of a social organization
based on collective ways of knowing. (Henderson 1999: 1)
A sketch can make a vision available to others, and sketches are mainly used for
communicating about visions and solutions. Sketches are by definition unfinished and inthe-making, hence they open up for others to join in the process, to co-sketch or change
the sketch, or to use elements from other sketches in their own sketch3.
8.1.3 Specifications
Specifications are detailed descriptions of how the design result is to be produced. The
specification is normally considered the end result of the design process; it is supposed to
give instructions for building the artefact by the designer or other people. In cases of
mass production or strong division of labour in the development process, design ends
with a specification for production of the artefact by non-designers4. Specifications are a
medium of communication; specifications are de-scriptions to be used as pre-scriptions5.
A specification also often plays the role of a contract between the employer and the
Tellioglu, Wagner & Lainer 1998
cf. e.g. Bratteteig 1983; Bødker & Hammerskov 1982; Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987b
3 Troussier 1987; also emphasised in Newman 1998
4 like programmers, carpenters, tailors, etc. see e.g. Krystad 1997
5 Bratteteig 1983; Nygaard & Sørgaard 1985
designer(s), or between designers and programmers (sub-contractors) about what to
In order to act as a prescription for producing the artefact, the specification needs to
be precise and unambiguous. The specification should guide the producer of the artefact
in building and evaluating the artefact-to-be during the process of building, and both
instructions about the product (artefact-to-be) and the process (organisation of the
production work) may therefore be included. There is normally a set of conventions for
making and using a specification; the work instructions normally make use of a
particular language to express the necessary level of precision and detail. The description
language: text, symbols, and graphics, includes concepts meant to be precise and
unambiguous in a professional context. Some organisations add criteria for the design
decisions which will inevitably emerge during the production process – outside of the
formal design process – specifying which priorities to make; like time, cost, or quality or
some other risk considered crucial to the success of the artefact1.
A specification process includes two interacting processes: 1) working out a material
realization of the vision, and 2) working on anticipating problems concerned with the
practicalities of the suggested solution. The person who is to build the artefact in
accordance with the design (the programmer, carpenter, tailor) inevitably interprets and
evaluates the specification with reference to the situation at hand – which may differ
from what the designer has imagined. A complete and unambiguous specification is
impossible unless the context of specification and the context of production are limited
and well-defined – almost identical – with respect to the range of interpretations2.
However, if the artefact is not unambiguously defined by its context (such as a piece of
machinery defined by its surrounding pieces), its ambiguity will introduce some
uncertainty to the process of using the specification as a basis for making decisions while
building the artefact. The uncertainty includes the various invisible and implicit, even
subconscious, interpretations of the specification made by both its creator(s) and its
user(s). Interpretation and evaluation of the specification may lead to “deviations” from
the instructions, based on professional judgement (understanding and skills) – or lack of
such. Large deviations from the specifications imposed by situational conditions are
normally reported, and may even be discussed with the designer (and/or the employer).
Small deviations are often not documented or reported, and one result is that the
specification ceases to be a correct documentation of the design result3.
The Global Software Outsourcing project provides a number of examples of how
seemingly unambiguous specifications are subject to very different intrepretations at
their source in Norway and in their outsourcing collaborating team (building software
according to the specification). The result has been pieces of code that did not meet the
quality expected by the Norwegian software staff.
In small and closed contexts a stable and thoroughly worked out sketch can be used
as a first, rough design specification. In the Florence project the Worksheet System was
built on the basis of the sketch made by the nurses and a few additional sketches of
structure and functionality made by us4. In cases where the designer herself/himself
works on producing the artefact, s/he may not need a formal specification – but s/he may
need to have thoroughly worked out some parts of the artefact-to-be through sketches
Boehm 1988
professional vocabularies and languages are attempts to close and enable sharing of the context of interpretation
3 a well-established fact in software development, see e.g. Parnas & Clement 1986
4 Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987c; 1987d, see section 8.4
Chapter 8. Design processes
Part 3. Design
and use them as specifications1. Lack of formal specifications leaves more of the creative
work to the builder of the artefact.
8.1.4 Levels of concretization
Working out visions, sketches and specifications for building an artefact are processes
included in the design process. It may be tempting to see them as phases following each
other, each producing an intermediate result. However, the development of visions,
sketches, and specifications often happens as iterations; the process of sketching may
lead to new or changed visions. In working with the specification, the designer may have
to rework both visions and sketches – and hence remake the specification. It also may
happen that the time and resources for building the artefact are very different from the
assumptions underlying the specifications, so that the visions and specifications must be
Stolterman (1991) suggests that making visions, sketches, and specifications for
building the artefact can be seen as different levels of abstraction in the process of
designing an artefact2. The designer needs to work on different levels of abstraction
simultaneously in order to come closer to a design result. Mörtberg (2001) refers to the
same process as working with different levels of concretization, which I find is a more
precise characterization of the process than abstraction. With this perspective, design is
working on concretizing the vision, ending with a specification prescribing (the
production of) the artefact. Design work moves between visions and specifications, and
sketching is one of many ways of supporting the movements in and between envisioning
and materialisation. The making of a specification includes developing an image of the
artefact3. The Global Software Outsourcing project illustrates that the Norwegian
specification work leads to very precise expectations of what the resulting software
should be.
8.2 We design what we know
How are visions created? In the Florence project we experienced several different ways
into envisioning. In the Asthma&Allergy ward we departed from existing paper systems,
and negotiated with the nurses which of them to computerise. We ended up developing
two prototypes: the Procedure Archive system – a success –, and the Kardex system – a
failure!4 The Procedure Archive was an electronic archive of procedures, but through the
easy update provided by the text editor, the computer added value compared to the
previous typewriter-produced archive.
The design of the Kardex prototype (see chapter 6.3) demonstrated that our
understanding of the existing paper-based Kardex was too superficial; our design
reflected what we had understood. Understanding the reasons why an artefact has a
particular form requires an understanding of the professional thinking it is based on –
that we did not have. Even if the nurses talked about “overview” we did not understand
enough to make the connection between the (to us) abstract concept of “overview” and
the ways in which people and artefacts were arranged in order to provide overview to the
nurses. The Kardex system was built based on a careful analysis of the existing paper
sometimes prototypes are needed in order to work out a specification for parts of the system that are particularly
risky or difficult to build or otherwise evaluate
2 see also Bratteteig & Stolterman 1997; Löwgren & Stolterman 1998
3 what Naur 1985 calls “a theory” of the artefact and how it is built
4 see chapters 3.1 and 6.3. The failure is reported in Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987a; 1987c
Kardex artefact – in accordance with principles of systems analysis. We experienced that
copying the paper form to the computer screen was not a good idea – the “paper+”
strategy1 did not utilize either the properties of paper or the properties of the computer2.
There are a number of studies demonstrating that work is more complex than what is
visible on the surface, and that a system that is not based on the more complex rationale
for work does not succeed in supporting that work. The new computer-based system
introduced in a printshop is an excellent example3. The system apparently fitted the
printshop on a surface level; it supported a stepwise execution of a print job at one
machine. However, Bowers et al report about problems because the system did not
address the negotiations between the print jobs and the collection of printing machines as
a whole – like the splitting of a print job into parts to enable it to be shared by several
machines, or the shifting relations between work operations allowing for situatedness
and flexibility in work. The system did support the work of accounting and the
observable steps in a single print job with a single machine, but not more.
In the Global Software Outsourcing project the lack of explanations of the code in
the old system made the Russian programmers try to simply translate the code into the
new programming language rather than rewriting the same functionality with the form
and structure of the new technology. One programmer suggested a different design, but
the suggestion was rejected because the project manager did not want to take the risk of
suggesting a new design since they did not understand the system. When the Russian
team after nine months came to understand the original system, one of the programmers
commented that further enhancements of their design could be difficult – and that the
rejected design suggestion probably would have been more durable and maintainable.
The many examples of “beginners’ code” received by the Norwegian software
company from the Indian programmers can also exemplify this problem. It might be that
the Indian programmers put on the job actually were inexperienced. However, a more
likely reason for what appears as the systematic delivery of beginner’s code is lack of
knowledge about the use situation – confirmed by the fact that the code improved as
knowledge about the system increased. As an example of “beginners’ code” the software
manager in the Norwegian company described a piece of code to handle a table, where
the procedure chosen would be inadequate as a solution for the number of table entries
expected – which he could see immediately. My interpretation was that little knowledge
about the expected use was needed in order to dimension the table to handle the data
adequately4. Nicholson (1999) tells a similar story about a British County hiring an
Indian software company to build a social security system – but since the Indians had
little knowledge about the local UK social security system, they had problems writing
appropriate code.
These examples illustrate how the designers’ understanding of the future use
situation is traceable into the artefact and its form, function and structure – most easily
traced when the designers understand very little about the work, of course. Examples of
failures illustrate the point well, but so do examples of success. The design of the
WorkSheet system in the Florence project is one such illustration. Before the design, we
had quite a long period of mutual learning with the nurses in the Cardiology ward. We
introduced a point in time where we should together decide on a system, based on
suggestions from both nurses and informaticians. The nurses suggested the system – but
Newman 1985
discussions about copying paper artefacts to computer artefacts; see e.g. Sandahl 1999; MacKay 1999.
3 Bowers et al 1995; Button & Sharrock 1997
4 a typical school situation would focus on making of the table in isolation, paying little or no attention to
requirements from the use context and more to exercising the ability to create a table in the first place
Chapter 8. Design processes
Part 3. Design
just as importantly, we understood that their seemingly trivial suggestion was nontrivially grounded in nursing practice, and that their design actually supported overview
and information processing and sharing in the ward – i.e. nursing. Moreover, the system
turned out to be difficult to build.
The WorkSheet System can also be used to point to the knowledge needed in design.
The image of the map was used as a way of concretizing how the vision could be
realized in a computer system. The map was an image through which nurses and
informaticians could meet and cooperate. To the nurses the map offered a better structure
of information they needed during their work than the existing hand-written notes and
lists. A paper report of the map-like information structure would still preserve the flexibility of paper; the nurses could carry it around, fold it, take notes, add and subtract
information. To the informaticians the map suggested an object-oriented structure and
presentation of data. The map of the ward was used as a specification for screen and
report lay out.
Figure 23: Macintosh prototypes from the Asthma & Allergy ward Mutual learning
sessions, Einarsrud & Granholm (1986)
The idea of having objects on a screen obviously came from the small Macintoshes that
we had placed in the ward some weeks earlier in order for the nurses to get some handson experiences with computers. They had made small documents and they had tried a
couple of games, but most importantly: they had experienced a computer with a
graphical user interface and a mouse – which made it possible for them to imagine
objects being moved around on the screen. The link to moving patients and beds is
It is trickier to understand how the idea of “overview” was implemented in the
WorkSheet System. The Work Sheets were designed from visions about their use,
detached from, but still paying attention to the available technologies of paper and
computers. This detached attentiveness enabled a focus on the roles and functions of the
current aids (scraps of paper, forms etc.) in work and match their roles with (what the
nurses knew to be) the technological possibilities – a knowledge that was provided
through the period of mutual learning. Indeed an intricate relation between what they
knew as embodied work knowledge and what they knew as disjointed pieces of computer
experience and conceptual information about computers. And we (the informaticians)
knew enough about nursing to recognise their idea and to acknowledge the fact that their
design took us beyond the surface of nursing practice.
Figure 24: Examples of scraps replaced by the WorkSheet System
These experiences illustrate that what is design and what is analysis can be difficult to
single out in design: our understanding of the area we are designing for deeply influences
what we are able to suggest as problems and solutions – our understanding of the
possibilities that technology can offer steers our attention and focus and makes our
understanding of the world very biased. In the Florence project the role of work
knowledge was crucial: knowledge as embodied, enacted, and reflected, and as knowing
operations, actions, activities and their relations. The meeting of “deep” nursing
knowledge with “deep” computer knowledge enabled a meeting of ideas rather than of
form, and through this made change possible in both knowledge domains.
Analysis and design together can be seen as action rather than reflection: analysis
and design seen as efforts to learn and understand is change, and happens in action as the
change comes about. The action in the Florence project involved deeply rooted
knowledge as well as a more shallow, just sufficient knowledge about our co-designers’
knowledge. The action consisted of relating these areas of knowledge. Design involved
the ability and willingness to understand different ways of reasoning, grounded in
different areas of knowledge, and to shift between them without losing ground.
Chapter 8. Design processes
Part 3. Design
8.3 Mutual learning
Mutual learning is an important part of participatory design. Mutual learning means that
users and designers learn from each other during the design process, and both qualify
themselves with respect to the systems development process they are involved in. In
section 8.2 I discussed the idea that systems design includes both understanding and
creating: the way we understand a phenomenon influences the way we give form to it,
and vice versa. The understanding part of design is “fed” by learning processes during
design and before the actual design takes place. Mutual learning is important when
different categories of people participate in the design process, typically users and
informaticians (but also designers and employers). Mutual learning typically deals with
knowledge about the application area and the work that the future computer system is
supposed to support, as well as technology and possible applications of the technology in
that work.
Mutual learning means sharing knowledge about the professional perspectives
involved in the development process. The idea is to share knowledge that explains the
basic principles and values in the work, not educating in the disciplines. In the Florence
project the process of “mutual learning”1 included the period where the main goal was to
get to know each other’s knowledge, competencies, perspectives as a basis for
collaboration about defining problems and solutions. Design was present as a
background for mutual learning.
Understanding and analysing the use context is more difficult than one would think,
and even careful analysis in close collaboration with the users may lead to inflexible and
fragile design results. Getting to know nursing took hours and weeks of field work
(observations and interviews) helped by ad hoc lectures and explanations by the nurses.
In addition the nurses joined some informatics-based activities like systems description
and discussions about information flow, and testing of prototypes. Some of the
differences between the nurses’ perspectives and the informatics perspective
incorporated in those techniques were valuable sources for learning, both about ourselves
and about nursing. Getting to know – or at least to recognise – how nurses think, know,
and act took time, not least because one part of the learning was concerned with seeing
and overseeing our own bias. Mutual learning is such a voyage of discovery; a relational
process and a collaborative effort.
In the Florence project we decided that teaching nurses about computers should be
different from the kind of teaching we were used to with informatics students; we needed
to discuss and decide what nurses need to know in order to get enough technical fantasy
to participate in design. We concluded that nurses need to know about computer use and
about technological possibilities. Learning about computer use included excursions to
other hospitals, talking with the local nurses and doctors about their computer systems,
and seeing real computers used in real (and familiar) work. Learning about computer use
also included using computers; we lent two Macintosh computers to the ward so that the
nurses could get a feeling for graphical user interfaces (GUIs), object-oriented interfaces,
and use of mouse as an input device2. The dilemma with teaching is, of course, that the
teacher selects what to teach, and thereby influences the result3. We wanted to encourage
a nursing-based technical fantasy among the nurses, hence we were very careful to
always have more than one example, and to provide examples (prototypes) that included
the first phase of the Florence project was labelled ”Mutual Learning”, cf. the title of Bjerknes et al 1985
this was in the early 1980s, and the Macintoshes were really small boxes – with 64K RAM … see figure 23
3 what Kristen Nygaard used to call ”wanted manipulation” (cf. also Bråten 1973)
obvious errors to demonstrate their unfinished character1. Through this collection of
exemplars of computers the nurses met informatics without having to totally leave their
own “home” area of knowledge.
The mutual learning period was ended by the decision to design a system. The design
decision in the Cardiology ward continued as a relational and collaborative effort. The
design suggestion was based on knowledge about nursing (in that ward) combined with a
certain level of technical fantasy (gained through experience with Macintosh computers
and visits to other computer installations). The suggestion by the nurses of an objectoriented user interface is (to me) a clear example of how the “stable” basic knowledge
can be the origin of “new” thinking if provided with the right kind of input. The
technical fantasy that the nurses demonstrated in this case came from meetings with
different technologies, meetings designed to provide information about the broad variety
of possible technical forms – it worked. Both concrete hands-on experiences, displays of
technical possibilities, discussions with colleagues using other computers in work, and
our own discussions and “lectures” about what computers can do and be, acted as input
to the development of their own images of technological possibilities.
In the other direction we, the informaticians, needed more than observations of their
work: we needed explanations and introductions to nursing, to relevant medical subjects,
we needed discussions about the identity of nursing – different from doctors and nursing
assistants, and we needed experience from nursing as everyday practices dealing with
bodies, illnesses, healing processes, pain, sorrow, joy, relief, depression, worries, various
personal relations, combined with the practicalities of the number of nurses on duty, the
unavailability of the doctor, the arrival of lunch to be distributed, the lack of clean
towels, the negotiation of patient schedules with ward schedules and X-ray and lab
schedules etc. It was only possible to recognise the scope and suitability of the various
solutions after some time, after some familiarity had been achieved that made sorting
things out possible. Deliberate teaching from nurses at work was essential for our
achieving this degree of understanding.
The objective of mutual learning is to enable future users to participate in design, to
do parts of the design. Design of computer systems is not their profession, and their
responsibilities should be concerned with designing a work instrument rather than how
the instrument is realized (as a computer system). We succeeded in engaging the
Cardiology nurses in the design of the WorkSheet system.
The design decision happened as a process of three stages, according to the following
procedure: 1) both nurses and informaticians make a list of suggestions for systems to
build, 2) together we discuss and negotiate the lists, and 3) decide on one system
together. The first part was not so difficult. We made a list with several systems – we
were concerned with technological challenge and felt that the suggested design should
have a certain technological quality, i.e. that the technology should be utilized to support
nursing information in an innovative and solid way. One important goal of the project
was to demonstrate how computer technology could be used to support a particular
profession, which meant both to build new applications based on the profession and to
utilize the potential in the technology. The wish for a technological challenge added to
the quality discussions: we wanted the research project to be challenging also in the
technical sense: we wanted the programming to be difficult – and to be recognised as
such by colleagues and fellow researchers.
The nurses of course thought differently, and discussed systems that could ease their
everyday work. But both our lists included the Work Sheet system with high priority, so
we agreed to build the system. We, the researchers in the project, gave the nurses the
Einarsrud & Granholm 1986
Chapter 8. Design processes
Part 3. Design
power to suggest and decide on the design, and that decision was surprisingly difficult to
make1. The sketch worked as a shared communication device for talking about the future
system – it worked as a boundary object2. In line with the Application perspective the
basis for evaluating the system was widened. However, even then (and knowing that
even a poor system can be a good research result) it was not easy to share the power of
design decisions with the nurses. But because we were familiar with nursing, we could
follow the nurses’ reasoning about the system; we understood their evaluation of the
system and accepted including this in the common basis for design.
A successful process of mutual learning creates new possibilities for applying
computer technology. The simple WorkSheet system is a piece of implemented nursing
values that could not be designed by any of the two groups alone – and would not have
been acknowledged by us (the informaticians) without a basic knowledge about nursing.
Many of the essential characteristics of mutual learning are difficult to understand, and
sometimes very hard to accomplish – like what it means to share the power to decide in
the design. Mutual learning means planning and carrying out a social and individual
change process. Mutual learning means that one has to learn and teach as a part of
system development – in addition to other system development activities. The teaching
part has to do with enabling a learning process in a group of (future) users. The planning
of this process depends on a minimum of knowledge about these users: their
preconditions for learning. The preconditions for learning tell the teacher which level
s/he can start teaching, the ambitions and requirements that can be made with respect to
the learning objectives. In mutual learning in systems development, these preconditions
vary a lot, and some of the “students” do not even want to learn!
A basic part of mutual learning, as experienced in the Florence project, is respect of
each other as knowledgeable collaborators3. Mutual respect requires a minimal level of
knowledge in order to recognise what counts as knowledgeable behaviour in the other
profession. Mutual respect is the basis for mutual trust, which makes the basis for
listening to new things, things you do not understand, without rejecting them – basic to
all learning. Trust is needed for handling differences in an unprejudiced way, to accept
without feeling un-knowledgeable or superior, to not feel threatened by a difference in
In mutual learning the management and organisation of work is intertwined with
performing work, expressing the basic position that design does not and cannot occur in
a vacuum. Design as a consciously planned creative and constructive work process in
which a material is shaped to a useful (specification of an) artefact, relates to people and
things throughout the process. Mutual learning – or participatory design – is not just a
way of organising design, it is design.
My point is that the durability and robustness of a design is strengthened if the design
is based on knowledge about the principles underlying the work, explaining the
rationality of contemporary organisation of and practices in work. The journey of the two
professional fields enhances the range of possible visions, covering more than
informatics – including both nursing and the common area of knowledge developed
through the mutual learning process. As mentioned before, I see the fact that the
WorkSheet System was used in the ward for months after the project was ended as a
proof of its quality – added by the fact that it was used by the consultant (the head
Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1988a
the notion of “boundary object” originates from Star & Griesemer 1989
3 cf. e.g. Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1988a; Bratteteig 1995; 1997. See also Hägerfors 1995
doctor) as a quality standard for new systems in the ward1. The continuity of nursing
knowledge in various forms crosses the relation between the present and the future.
In design we need to address the current way of working – as this is what we are to
change through our design. However, the observable surface of how things are done is
not sufficient. It goes without saying that the designer, who is not a knowledgeable
worker in the use context – cannot possibly possess this kind of knowledge. The trick is
therefore to cooperate with those who do possess this knowledge so that ideas about
possible changes can be developed as a collaborative voyage of discovery.
8.4 Material knowing
In chapter 5.7 I discussed what it means to know something in work, a combination of
practical and intellectual skills in action. I argued for seeing knowledge as the interplay –
the unity – of practical skills and conceptual understanding. This is sometimes routinized
into almost automatic, immediate actions or operations, and sometimes the combinations
are reflected in action as when somebody learns a skill through mimicking a “master” or
following a recipe, or consciously improves and develops a skill or knowledge. In this
section my aim is to discuss what it is that informaticians know.
The design suggestion for the WorkSheet system made by the nurses in the Florence
project was surprisingly difficult to build – the nurses had no qualifications for taking
into consideration if the solution was difficult or easy to make. The technology that
inspired them (the Macintosh) did indeed exist, but the technology we were to work with
differed in some important respects. In chapter 6.5 I described the process which
followed the construction of a simple illustrative prototype: we started working on
making the real system with a NORD500, with the application generator UNIQUE on
top of a SIBAS database, and with SINTRAN operating system.
Figure 25: ND-100 and Tandberg terminal
see chapter 3.1.5
Chapter 8. Design processes
Part 3. Design
We departed from the specification constituted by the nurses’ sketch, confirmed by the
textual prototype discussed with the nurses (simply made with the standard NOTIS text
processing program).
We started designing the database, logically – quite easy to do as the structure of the
data fields was immediately obvious from the specification. The only decisions we
needed to make were if we needed more data fields and how many characters each of the
fields should contain (see figure 26).
The design of the report was the tricky part as we had to simulate an object-oriented
layout by splitting some of the fields, presenting parts of some of the patient record fields
in pieces over several lines in order for them to look like objects (see chapter 6.5). Figure
27 shows the layout of the screen and report, figures 28 and 29 show some of the code.
Figure 26: Sketcher of the data structure of the WorkSheet System
Figure 27: WorkSheet System design prototypes: overview of “inside team” and patient
The presentation design was interesting in several respects. The difficultly of simulating
an object-oriented layout made us reconsider the choice of UNIQUE as a programming
tool. When discussing the options with our contacts at Norsk Data, they heavily
recommended the generators as they took care of all the security checks needed for a
multi-user database application. We accepted that as a reason carrying much weight
because we wanted to avoid spending too much time and effort on learning the
intricacies of SIBAS and SINTRAN, to manually code the handling of the database (e.g.
maintaining consistency) and the concrete handling of input and output. We wanted to
make a realization of the nurses’ design suggestion, and continued our struggle to work
around the limits of the programming tools. The challenge was to make the various
abstraction levels work together and still apply to a different (computer) logic: the
SINTRAN and SIBAS logic at the bottom, and an object-oriented logic at the top, facing
the user.
Figure 28: Code from the WorkSheet System: the start screen
As informatics researchers, the challenge of making something work that was considered
impossible was tempting. We saw an opportunity to stretch the technology in the
direction of the object-oriented paradigm that just had begun to materialise1. We were
certain that it was possible to work around the limits of the report generator, and did not
want to lie to our co-designers, the nurses, about that. Besides, the project was a research
project and even if we did not make it, or did not make a very robust system, the failure
could be a basis for learning something interesting (at least about the power of computer
see e.g. interview with Alan Kay (Steinberg 2003). For a discussion about object-orientation, see Kaasbøll 1996
Chapter 8. Design processes
Part 3. Design
manufacturers and their software packages … cf. the starting point of the Florence
project, see section 3.1.1).
However, as the the WorkSheet system took so long to materialise, motivation in the
Cardiology ward decreased1. The nurses could not understand why it took so long; they
had already seen the system as a text-based prototype – what made us wait so long
before returning with a working system? Had we lost interest and abandoned the project?
The programming activities, the testing, the discussions with the programmers at Norsk
Data, the many hours of testing and error detection, waiting for support, were all
invisible also because they were carried out in our working environment at the university
and not among the nurses in the Cardiology ward. Fortunately, we communicated
enough for them to not give us up.
Figure 29: Code from the WorkSheet System: patient registration
this crisis is described in Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1988a
We reported to the research community1 about the system and our experience of the
difficulties of building this very small, simple system. However, the challenge of
building a simple system is seldom appreciated by the fellow builders. The WorkSheet
system was not fancy; it was small and simple and exactly what the users wanted. I still
will claim that it was a serious design challenge, and that the challenge included both the
implementation, the design decision, and the process of creating the basis for this design
decision2. The challenge in the implementation particularly demonstrates the interest of
“stretching the material” beyond its previous – apparent – limitations, much in the same
way as Annbjørg Lien stretches – collaborates – with her fiddle (see chapter 6.2).
Thoresen (1989) discusses different quality standards in systems development,
connecting them to patterns of female and male systems development practices; listening
to the users’ wish for a simple system contrasts with the wish to get to know and
experience the latest, coolest technical gadgets3.
Figure 30: A printout of a real WorkSheet System report
A similar point is made by Findal (2002) in her analyses of a large number of female
architects. Findal claims that there is something different in the female architects’ houses
(seen as a class of architects rather than as individuals) that is not apparent at first sight.
In many female architects’ houses the architectonical solution can be characterized by
“simultaneity” in the sense of synchronism, or simply put: architecture where many
at the CSCW conference in 1988: Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1988a
the technical challenge is discussed in Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1988b. A more general discussion about values
embedded in informatics is found in Bratteteig & Verne 1997
3 remember that the simplest system may be very conservative and just translating a paper form to a computer
screen (what Newman 1985 calls “paper+”), and a fancy solution may turn out to be more durable, scalable, robust
Chapter 8. Design processes
Part 3. Design
considerations are made and many activities can happen at the same time1. In the
simultaneous house a room is interesting as more than a volume of space and its
proportions, functionality, availability, streams of light and practical detail: rather than
the (knowledgeable) observer’s opinion of the visual form, the focus is on the versatility
of functions oriented towards the user. The consequences of the principle of simultaneity
can be sensed when present in the room; simultaneity can be used to characterize both
production and reception of the architecture. More specifically, female architects’ houses
have an organic enclosing orientation towards function, more concerned with the
practicalities of function than its style. Findal refers to the design of the very practical
Frankfurter-kitchen by Margarethe Schütte-Lihotzky, a rational solution of a kitchen
with limited space – but with an important feature: a wide sliding door that opened the
kitchen toward the living room and thus combined the kitchen workplace with the rich
spatial quality of participation in the shared living space of the family2. Female architects
often emphasise communication, says Findal, and they emphasise use to a much larger
extent than male architects normally do. Instead of making function the goal of the
design, female architects tend to take function as the starting point. The design is guided
by the function, and the form is the result of a dialogue between architect and user. The
house should grow from the inside – like an organism – based on the user-employer’s
expressed needs, utilizing architectonical principles of forming3. The focus is on
development of function rather than form-based innovation.
8.5 Design contexts
In line with the application perspective (chapter 3.1.1) the quality of an artefact can only
be evaluated in the use situation, in the context of use4. The quality of a design process
can similarly only be seen in the context in which it is a part – both the design context
and the larger use context constitutes frames that delimit and give possibilities for the
In the Broadcasting Company, the design of the small web publishing program was
only a part of the large organisational, technical, and professional rearrangement –
started because of the (perceived) impossibility of not changing. The design of (the first
version of) the web publishing program happened in an ad hoc way: one of the members
of the programming team made it one evening, tested it on his mother, and only a week
after it had been taken into use (by the local users)5. The small effort was, however,
crucial in the larger change process. The production of programs to be integrated with
the web publishing program, like programs for importing and presenting sound, images,
and film, was seriously delayed, and created problems for users.
The difference between small design efforts and extensive change is reported many
times in systems development research literature. Sandahl (1999) tells about a news
agency that replaced paper-based TV program information provided by the TV
companies with electronic documents coded in SGML, where the change in this small
piece of work is a step in larger rearrangements (automating the production of TV
based on Merleau-Ponty’s concept of synchronism (Merleau-Ponty 1962)
unfortunately, the sliding door has disappeared in many kitchen designed after Schütte-Lihotzky …
3 Findal draws on Foucault’s concepts panopticon and (the opposite) heterotopia, where heterotopia denotes
singular spaces with particular atmosphere beyond the perceptual, referring to Foucault 1997; 1985; 1995
4 a computer is after all not a piece of art – at least normally not … (an exception is virtual art, e.g. Marius Watz’s
decoration of virtual public space in Norway (see )
5 see e.g. Revil 2002
program information making fewer data entry steps and reducing the potential for data
entry errors, and also moving deadlines). The same holds for the introduction of SGML
to produce the university lecture catalogue in 19981 – in 2003 the catalogue has
disappeared as a paper document, and the web as an electronic information source has
taken over. The frame of reference has changed from an encyclopedia to a mass-medium
with corresponding shifting of the responsibility for getting the information. The tool for
producing the printed catalogue has become an important part of the new information
infrastructure at the university.
Design often takes place in a larger development process, like the cases described
above. Sometimes the design part is lacking, like in the case with Lotus Notes. Lotus
Notes can be seen as a software product that can replace existing products (and
collection of products). Obtaining Lotus Notes is therefore not seen as systems
development2; there is often not a systematic design of the tailoring of the application3,
and most often no training is given. Because of lack of knowledge about the possibilities
in the software, one may end up with unwanted solutions. In a trade union (UNI) that
obtained Lotus Notes the normal way of working varied between the employees:
secretaries and administrative staff, and the elected management; who had to travel to
meet their local associations (their voters) and motivate the local group members. The
standard Lotus Notes application did not fit this organisation of work; the standard
access hierarchy gave the managers access to all employees’ documents while the
employees only saw a small set. However, when the managers were out travelling all the
time, the secretaries encountered problems because they could not access the documents
they needed. The easy solution was, of course, to give the secretaries access to the
mangers’ accounts by giving them their passwords – and thus giving them the access to
all employees’ documents.
Design differs with respect to the design context and the relation between the design
context and the use context; the projects reported include a variety of design processes.
The Florence project demonstrated a design from scratch – as a research project we even
did not have a problematic situation: just a mutual interest in experimenting with
computers. The design related to earlier design results, mainly architecture and work
organisation, as stable structures that expressed basic principles in the local nursing
practices. The Lotus Notes studies provide the other end of the scale; an off-the-shelf
system (that needs local adjustments) where the design is carried out in a software
company, and where there are no systems developers involved in the organisational
change process.
The TRIM project includes two different types of development: the web consulting
company often designing a web-based system as a new system, aimed at profiling the
company and therefore spending time on the problem setting and solution – quite
independent of other systems in the company. In this sense the design resembles the
design in the Florence project, where analysis and design is intertwined and stretched out
in time. In the Broadcasting Company, the small web production program is a piece in
the larger development – and gets entangled in a web of other small pieces. The
unplanned style of design within the larger, well-planned change contributes to hiding
the fact that the design is restricted by its designed context (including all sorts of media
as well as new organisational structures).
Jenssen & Sandahl 1997; Tone Sandahl, personal communication January 2003
Bratteteig 1998. Only the police department (POL) carried out a proper systems development process – and
succeeded in utilizing the support for project organisation that they wanted
3 Bratteteig 1998. Lotus Notes was in most cases purchased by an enthusiastic middle manager, who involved the
vendor in adjusting the system to their work. Sefland 1998 describes how Lotus Notes can be tailored by users
Chapter 8. Design processes
Part 3. Design
The FIRE project studied a long-term relationship between a computer consultancy
and their use organisations, where the computer consultancy had adopted the structure of
the use organisation both in the organisation of software and software production1. The
Global Software Outsourcing project describes two Norwegian consulting companies –
with long relationships with their customers (like in the FIRE project) – and where the
design process is a part of a distributed development process where the split between
design and implementation is experienced as difficult and not at all clearcut.
The projects suggest a discussion about the role of design in systems development.
Design as product development is present in several of the projects – especially if we
include the fact that some of the programming tools are software products made far from
the design context. Systems development includes distributed design, and in particular, a
distribution of phases of the system development – making them phases rather than
parallel and interacting processes.
The projects encourage a discussion if it makes sense to distinguish between design
and implementation. The experiences from the Florence project and the Global Software
Outsourcing project indicate that the separation is problematic. My interpretation is that
the visions guiding the design are based on both ideas and materials, and that the ideas
include knowledge about the use context that cannot easily be communicated with
descriptions aimed to instruct material transformation. Although the knowledge
underlying the idea – and thus the vision – is visible to the knowing reader, it has been
demonstrated that it is not visible to new readers.
Designers design – but the artefact is influenced by many other sources and people.
Dividing design and implementation makes implementers design and designers test –
hence they need to develop an image of the code. A new task – an articulation work task
– occurs mediating between design and implementation in outsourcing relationships. A
new role – as business development – arises in design processes where the design is a
piece of a large development (organisational or business-wise). The adjustments and
tailoring of an of-the-shelf product like Lotus Notes may be experienced as design, but is
limited to surface changes – like picking your favourite from a “smørgåsbord” rather
than ordering a particular meal.
The FIRE project also illustrates that users may want solutions that fit their current
work – that may turn out to be not very robust to change. However, users who combine
knowledge about their profession with use experience, may develop visions that utlilise
the technology in new ways in their work. In section 8.2 I argue that we design what we
know – this also holds for the users. Design may be used to preserve the present
organisations – in fact many technologies do just that2. The FIRE project demonstrated
that the world may change in ways not foreseen by the designers: if the computer-based
system is based on a functionality that ties work conditions to work organisation, even
small changes in work conditions or work organisation may be difficult to realize in the
system. The existing structures of a system can make new services difficult3.
The challenges in the design are concerned with how design is defined by the design
context. In addition, the relation between the design context and the use context
influences the design process – the use context may influence how the design process
can be organised and carried out. The design processes I have studied (and participated
in) have all had close links to the use context – it seems that not having a design process
may cause more trouble. In these cases the organisational change goal has been obvious,
but the process of change has not been taken care of. Some of the organisations using
which is not unusual, and reported already by Weinberg 1986
see e.g. Dooreward et al 1987
3 Bjerknes, Bratteteig & Espeseth 1991
Lotus Notes have made the use of Notes mandatory – accompanied with new types of
control mechanisms made possible by the technology (displaying work results,
monitoring work task flow). The possibility for administrative support in Notes has
resulted in more administration in work – although most of the increased administration
involved automated routines. Anyway, the work was changed.
The design (and development) processes I have studied have all dealt with
information systems, aiming to support information processing and coordination – the
articulation work and the administration of information concerned with the physical
work objects (e.g. patient information). Various approaches to the information have been
followed: information as a basis for autonomous professional decision making (the
Florence project), a professional tool (the Broadcasting Company), or information as
representing a service machinery (like the governmental wage system).
Design is concerned with the future. The story about the Broadcasting Company is a
story about a large change, where the vision for the future is a news agency operating in
all media – and the systems are steps across the bridge from today towards the
envisioned future. Design can hence include both long-term and shorter-term pieces, and
relate more or less explicitly to the current situation. Seeing systems development as
continuous redesign is a way of taking this view into the systems development discipline.
Design is concerned with the durable aspects of artefacts – the characteristics that
survive time: the historical patterns independent of shifting technical forms and
solutions. The Florence project designed the WorkSheet system in a timeless manner –
preserving the tradition by changing the material forms while keeping the ideas. The
WorkSheet system is an example of tradition as change – tradition as continuity and
extension into new forms. The work in the Cardiology ward was changed in a way that
made use of the existing knowledge, the work in informatics was changed as we opened
for a wider evaluation of the design result by including nurses’ use standards in addition
to the informaticians’ standards.
Chapter 8. Design processes
Part 3. Design
Chapter 9
Design between ideas and materials
A running program is often referred to as a virtual machine—a machine
that doesn’t exist as a matter of actual physical reality. The virtual
machine idea is itself one of the most elegant in technology history, and is
a crucial step in the evolution of ideas about software. To come up with
it, scientists and technologists had to recognize that a computer running a
program isn’t merely a washer doing laundry. A washer is a washer,
whatever clothes you put inside, but when you put a new program in a
computer, it becomes a new machine.
The virtual machine idea clarifies an important problem—what exactly do
programmers do? What activity are they engaged in when they make a
program? Are they technical writers? (Their job is to compose what
might be mistaken for technical documents.) Are they mathematicians?
(The “documents” they create tend to be full of mathematical notation
and might be mistaken for equations or proofs.) Neither: they are machine
designers. … A program is a blueprint for a virtual machine—a blueprint
that gets converted into the thing itself (the executing program, the
“embodied” virtual machine) automatically when you hand it to a
… The virtual machine: a way of understanding software that frees us to
think of software design as machine design. (Gelernter 1998: 24)
This chapter aims to present a view on design which focuses on relations between the
ideas of the people who do the designing and the materials they work with. Discussing
design ideas as a basis for design visions makes it possible to discuss how designers – as
cultural and social human beings, as individuals and members of a community – leave
their mark on the designed artefact. The other input to design visions is design materials
and materialisations – which make possible a discussion about how existing,
contemporary technology limits and creates opportunities for design. The interaction of
ideas and materials happens as combinations of intellectual and concrete perceptible
Design is work concerned with making visions and specifications through more or
less formalized tools for describing or presenting the artefact-to-be. Design is oriented
toward the product of the development process: the product motivates the process by
being the basis for planning, performing, evaluating, and organising work. I therefore
start this chapter by discussing the artefact-to-be; the object of the specification and the
aim of systems development – the computer system. The fact that systems development
(normally) results in a working computer system influences both ideas and materials in
systems design. The next section (section 9.3) locates the design process in a larger
context; of the team in the organisation and as a decision making process where power is
enacted. The last section summarises the understanding of design in systems
development as presented in this part of the thesis.
Chapter 9. Design between ideas and materials
Part 3. Design
9.1 Concrete abstractions
Building an artefact requires knowledge about the building material, and in systems
development the material is software.
What is software? A running program is a kind of machine – a strange kind that gets power and
substance from another machine, namely the computer itself. An executing program is a
machine that has been “embodied” by a computer in roughly the sense that a hand puppet is
embodied when you slip your hand in. (Gelernter 1998: 23, original emphasis)
Software is expressed as program texts that prescribe computer behaviour; the program
text represents the structure for a program execution. Programming means writing
program code, implementing it, and testing it in a computing machine (or on paper).
Programmers need to know how to instruct a computer by means of a program so that the
computer operates in the way they want. This requires knowledge about programming
and of how programs are realized in a computer.
Design in systems development ends with specifications and does not normally
include programming – only when concrete system presentations (prototypes) are made
as a way to analyse and decide on a piece of the specification. But the specification
describes software and is meant to be used in software production: the content of the
specification is software, and the specification language (tools and techniques) aims to
support an easy transition to software code. Many systems development methods assist a
fluent and even partly automatic transition from system descriptions (of the world) to the
code, like object-oriented analysis, design and programming1. The logic of abstraction is
the same all the way through the overall systems description to the code.
Discussing the material in systems design means to discuss the characteristics of
systems modelling (specification) languages and techniques. I will do so by discussing
their logic as similar to the logic of programming languages and techniques. In the rest of
this chapter, when I talk about software as material used in design, I mean the logic of
software that is built into systems descriptions through their content, their perspective
and the languages and techniques used.
This section discusses what characterizes software as a material, so that we can look
at inherent properties in this material which place limitations on design. Software is
basically an abstraction of a symbolic machine. To build software is to create symbolic
structures for concrete, symbolic machine processes to be performed in a controlled and
predictable way.
9.1.1 Structures and processes
A program is a sequence of instructions to a computer.
There is a certain kind of similarity between a program and a full orchestral score (i.e. what an
orchestra plays from): the full score is a sequence of messages or instructions to an orchestra.
The orchestra performs the full score, and the result is music. Corresponding to this, a program
consists of messages to a computer. The computer performs the program, and the result is
blinking lamps, letters and drawings on TV-like screens, thick piles of paper with letters and
numbers. (Kirkerud 1985: 13, my translation)
Programs are textual expressions representing structure for instructions to a computer to
execute a program. Programs are written as words and codes designed to be relatively
readable to human beings, (more so than binary or hexadecimal code – which translates
equally well to machine instructions). Programs normally perform operations on data;
add, subtract, replace etc., and most data represents a part of the world (money, books,
patients, customers etc.). Programming means to create a program that can be
Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987b. I mainly discuss object-oriented systems development approaches in this thesis
materialised as a program execution in a computer representing monetary transactions,
the weather, patient information, library collections etc.
A program describes structure; patterns and rules, limitations and variations, for a
process. The notions of structure and process are central to understanding systems and
systems development. Structure refers to relatively stable constructions, process here
refers to predicted change; like a calculation as an execution of a mathematical formula
given a set of variable values (like 2+2=4). A system is a predictable and controllable
process; a process totally decided by a structure (we want 2+2 always to be 4)1. Structure
means concretized abstract mechanisms for delimiting what a program execution can do,
and processes are program executions seen as sequences of predefined system states. A
bottle deposit automat “recognizes” bottles for deposit refund and those on which no
deposit has been paid. As a bottle enters the deposit automat, the automat registers the
bottle, checks if it is defined as a refund bottle, if yes; adds the correct amount to the
refund calculation, if not; returns the bottle. When the receipt button is pushed, it
calculates and prints the receipt.
Programming generally includes construction of a “structure of formal symbols that
can be manipulated according to a precisely defined and well-understood system of
rules” (Winograd & Flores 1986: 85). A second characteristic is “a mapping through
which the relevant properties of the domain can be represented by symbol structures.”(p.
85) The mapping is done with formal languages so that programmers “can agree as to
what a given structure represents” (p. 85). Thirdly, “There are operations that manipulate
the symbols in such a way as to produce veridical results” (p. 85) so that it is possible to
write programs “that combine these operations to produce desired results.” (p. 85) The
structure controls the process so that the machine behaves in a predictable way.
An abstract description of the solution to a problem which may be solved by a
machine is called an algorithm. Algorithms express structure for processes. Algorithms
are an essential part of the knowledge and skills of an informatician. Algorithms can be
characterized by properties that refer to the way the process is structured.
The modern meaning for algorithm is quite similar to that of recipe, process, method, technique,
procedure, routine, except that the word “algorithm” connotes something just a little different.
Besides merely being a finite set of rules which gives a sequence of operations for solving a
specific type of problem, an algorithm has five important features:
Finiteness. An algorithm must always terminate after a finite number of steps. …
Definiteness. Each step of an algorithm must be precisely defined; the actions to be carried out
must be rigorously and unambiguously specified for each case. … [F]ormally defined
programming languages … are designed for specifying algorithms, in which every statement
has a very definite meaning. … An expression of a computational method in a computer
language is called a program. …
Input. An algorithm has zero or more inputs, i.e., quantities which are given to it initially before
the algorithm begins. …
Output. An algorithm has one or more outputs, i.e., quantities which have a specified relation
to the inputs. …
Effectiveness. An algorithm is also generally expected to be effective. This means that all of the
operations to be performed in the algorithm must be sufficiently basic that they can in principle
be done exactly and in a finite length of time by a man using pencil and paper. (Knuth 1973: 46)
The process enabled by the algorithm is the result of the software design. Algorithms
emphasise the general, abstract class of program executions (represented in written
procedures), where a particular program execution is an instance of the class.
cf. Mathiassen 1981. The impossibility of proving that a program execution is “totally decided by” the structure is
discussed in e.g. Dijkstra 1978; Dreyfus 1972
Chapter 9. Design between ideas and materials
Part 3. Design
Executional abstraction is so basic to the whole notion of “an algorithm” that it is usually taken
for granted and left unmentioned. Its purpose is to map different computations upon each other.
Or, to put it another way, it refers to the way in which we can get a specific computation within
our intellectual grip by considering it as a member of a large class of different computations; we
can then abstract from the mutual differences between the members of that class and, based on
the definition of the class as a whole, make assertions applicable to each of its members and
therefore also to the specific computation we wanted to consider. (Dijkstra 1976: 1)
Both processual and structural properties of software as a material are intangible
although they have tangible representations; the structure can be represented through
texts, the process is present as an execution but can also be simulated in a computer or by
hand. The material is only accessible through textual expressions that are linked together
by referring to different abstraction levels of a system’s structure. The material is in a
way doubly intangible: i) it is only tangible through abstract representations – referring
to the structure of the program execution: ii) the real result is a process, thus the material
knowledge in programming also includes the process of materialising the program text
into a machine. Being familiar with the material includes knowing its transformations
when going through compilation, similar to the process of burning a glaze on pottery; the
greyish glaze comes out differently depending on speed, temperature and heating pattern
in the kiln1. Its representation as a text – to be interpreted by both humans and machines
– enables the skilled programmer to create an “inner picture” of the execution, of the
process2. The ability to foresee a program execution by reading a program text
(representing its structure) is a basic professional informatics skill, similar to musicians’
ability to “hear” music when reading the score.
An example of an algorithm is Quicksort, sorting a set of cards (or whatever needs to
be sorted) in an elegant way. It makes use of some basic abstraction mechanisms:
recursion (referring to itself), and calling a procedure (a repeated set of operations).
One of the best all-round sorting algorithms is quicksort, which was invented in 1960 by C.A.R.
Hoare. Quicksort is a fine example of how to avoid extra computing. It works by partitioning an
array into little and big elements:
pick one element of the array (the “pivot”).
partition the other elements into two groups:
“little ones” that are less than the pivot value, and
“big ones” that are greater than the pivot value.
recursively sort each group.
When this process is finished, the array is in order. Quicksort is fast … Quicksort is practical
and efficient. … This quicksort function sorts an array of integers:
/* quicksort: sort v[0] .. v[n-1] into increasing order */
void quicksort(int v[], int n)
int i, last;
if (n <= 1)
/* nothing to do */
swap(v, 0, rand() % n); /* move pivot elem to v[0] */
last = 0;
for (i = 1; i < n; i++)
/* partition */
if (v[i] < v[0])
swap(v, ++last, i);
swap(v, 0, last);
/* restore pivot */
quicksort(v, last);
/* recursive sort */
see e.g. Willcox 1970. Kari Maartmann-Moe tells that she mixes her own glaze for the pottery she makes, from
different mixes of pigment powder with ready-made glazes. Her special blue glaze is a result of years of
experimenting with colours as well as with adjusting the kiln (speed, temperature and their combination).
Kari Maartmann-Moe, personal communication
2 cf. Perby 1987; 1988; 1995, see chapter 6.4
quicksort(v+last+1, n-last-1); /* each part */
The swap operation, which interchanges two elements, appears three times in quicksort, so it is
best made into a separate function:
/* swap: interchange v[i] and v[j] */
void swap(int v[], int i, int j)
int temp;
temp = v[i]
v[i] = v[j]
v[j] = temp
(Kernighan & Pike 1999: 32-33)
Knowing how the computer is to execute the operations specified in an algorithm (a
procedure) is the second core characteristic of software as a material.
9.1.2 Abstractions and simplifications
A program text is a prescription, a structure, of a generalised process in a computer
system. To build computer structures includes abstraction and simplification. The
common way to abstract in computing is to construct patterns that cover more than one
instance of a phenomenon (general patterns): we normally want to make computer
programs for more than one instance of a process, and we want to automate routine
processes. We simplify in order to find – create – properties common to several
processes, or properties that vary in limited and predictable ways.
We simplify by abstraction: we abstract from details and concrete materials, and
construct levels of abstraction and detail as a way of handling the complexity of the
phenomenon we address (the hospital, the library, the bank etc.). In this way the
description is decontextualized so that it can cover more instances.
[T]he role of abstraction … permeates the whole subject. Consider an algorithm and all possible
computations it can evoke: starting from the computations the algorithm is what remains when
one abstracts from the specific values manipulated this time. The concept of “a variable”
represents an abstraction from its current value. It has been remarked to me … that once a
person has understood the way in which variables are used in programming, he has understood
the quintessence of programming. (Dijkstra 1978: 11)
Abstraction deals with levels of machine behaviour: as a physical machine referring to
wires, magnetic disks, integrated circuits; as a logical machine referring to a collection of
logical elements made from physical components (like or-gates); and as an abstract
machine referring to a collection of abstract symbolic processors that is designed to
resemble aspects of the world modelled1. The abstract machine is described in modelling
languages so as to secure their logical consistency as well as the feasibility for
materialising the abstract machine into a physical one.
Abstraction is the most fundamental tool of system design. Abstraction allows systems to be
considered at different levels of detail, to be broken down into individual components, and to be
reassembled again. The act of systems design is the creation and manipulation of abstractions.
User interface behaviors (e.g., file copying, printing, and selection) are abstractions over the
behavior of the programs that they control; the programs are sets of abstractions (e.g.,
instruction sets, memory architectures, and bus interfaces) over raw transistors and electrical
pulses. Even at that level, we cannot escape the abstraction of binary signals, imposed over
continuous voltages.
Abstractions help us manage complexity by allowing us to hide it selectively. In systems design,
abstractions typically function as “black boxes.” They are defined by the nature of their
interaction with the outside world (human users or other pieces of code−the “clients” of the
abstraction), which typically are defined in terms of the available functionality, procedure call
Winograd & Flores 1986
Chapter 9. Design between ideas and materials
Part 3. Design
conventions, and return values−what we typically refer to as the “interfaces” to the abstraction.
The system’s internal mechanisms, which describe and control how it goes about doing the
work it does, are intentionally not available for inspection. By hiding mechanism in this way,
the two main uses of abstraction in systems design can be achieved. First, systems can be built
in terms of complex components with simple interfaces, rather than in terms of basic, raw
mechanism (allowing us to build systems like spreadsheets out of mathematical packages and
interface packages). Second, systems with the same interface can be regarded as equivalent (as
is the case with programming language compilers or microprocessors). (Dourish & Button
1998: 414)
Abstraction by decomposition and recomposition expresses ways of professional
thinking. In order to overview a complex system, the construction (and reading) must be
done at various levels of abstraction, where a set of expressions at one level can be
represented by one single expression at a higher level of abstraction – and so on.
[R]epresentation is in the mind of the beholder. There is nothing in the design of the machine or
the operation of the program that depends in any way on the fact that the symbol structures are
viewed as representing anything at all. (Winograd & Flores 1986: 86)
The logic of the abstraction resembles mathematics by being a self-contained world,
closed in order to be controllable and predictable, and with descriptions of structures and
processes only possible in that world.
The process of preparing programs for a digital computer is especially attractive, not only
because it can be economically and scientifically rewarding, but also because it can be an
aesthetic experience much like composing poetry or music. (Knuth 1973: v)
The beauty of a program – or a whole system – lies in the simplicity of the representation
as well as in the elegance of the utilization of the technological possibilities1.
[P]rograms could have a compelling and deep logical beauty … [However] algorithms are often
published in the form of finished products, while the majority of the considerations that had
played their role during the design process and should justify the eventual shape of the finished
program were often hardly mentioned. [I wanted] to publish a number of beautiful algorithms in
such a way that the reader could appreciate their beauty, and I envisaged doing so by describing
the⎯real or imagined⎯design process that would each time lead to the program concerned.
(Dijkstra 1976: xiii)
Generalization and simplification are ways of thinking and interpreting the world in
professional programming activity. Even close to the machine, there are always different
ways of representing what you have in mind2. Choosing between these alternatives is
partly a matter of personal preference (do you emphasize computational speed or
minimal code) and partly dependent on external requirements (particular hardware or
environmental constraints – which may make speed or minimal code a constraint rather
than a personal preference), or even limitations in knowledge. Design is choices and
decisions all the way down to the program code.
It is a programmer’s everyday experience that for a given problem to be solved by a given
algorithm, the program for a given machine is far from uniquely determined. In the course of the
design process he has to select between alternatives; once he has a correct program, he will
often be called to modify it, for instance because it is felt that an alternative program, would be
more attractive as far as the demands that the computations make upon the available equipment
resources are concerned. (Dijkstra 1978: 33)
Generalization and simplification are ways of abstraction that characterize systems
development. There are two different directions of abstraction involved: the first has to
do with creating a model, composing the structures and processes that make the model
do what you want, at higher and higher levels of abstraction. There is also a different
direction of abstraction concerned with the materialisation of the model into the concrete
machinery. I call this process concretization because it is the utilization of computing
machinery rather than its internal logic that drives the process (see 8.1.4). Abstraction
Gelernter 1998 has a thorough discussion about machine beauty
Dijkstra 1978
and concretization are processes of selecting and creating key characteristics of a
representation, aiming for layers of representations that link real world phenomena to
computer program executions. This process is at the heart of software creation.
9.1.3 Representations
The program text describes, refers to, represents things and operations in the (real life)
world in a way that prescribes program executions in a computer. The representation is a
model of a part of the real world that itself is a part of the world: a model is a construct
that is designed to be similar to a selected set of characteristics of the part of the world
that it refers to1. The work of making a model is normally a part of working out the
specification: a textual / graphical description of the model to be translated – or rather
rewritten and transformed – into the more detailed and concrete level of a program text.
Modelling is a core activity in design.
Modelling can be seen as a process of translating real-world phenomena to
computerisable models. Knowledge about how to make a computerisable model is
therefore basic for the translation. The way of abstraction described above is basic to
programming computers. The same type of abstraction is “inherited” in the more abstract
systems descriptions and their techniques for creating the right type of formalisms.
Abstraction permeates computing through levels of logically defined machines ranging
from the physical wired machinery to the closed logical abstract model which refers to a
real world phenomenon.
The model has to operate within the logic of the abstraction even if its “contents”
refer to a part of the world to which a very different type of logic seems to fit2. An
electronic patient record is a representation of the patient, that can be operated on a
computer: you can search for information, integrate different sets of information (lab
test, X-ray pictures, text etc.) that would be more cumbersome to do using the paperbased patient record. Operations on the representations, like adding a test result or
reporting a decision on medication, influence actions concerned with the real patient –
but the patient and the patient record are conceived as different entities and not mixed.
Representations of money are different, and virtual money actually interacts with real
money: operations in the bank’s computer influence how much money I have and thus
immediately influence my actions as to what I can buy in a shop by means of moneyrepresentations (cards) or real money (coins and notes, themselves representing
exchange value).
Representation is an act of signification3 in which the sign is “something that stands
to somebody for something [else] in some respect or capacity” (Ehses 1989: 192). If we
know the code to intrepret the sign, we can draw the relationships between the
materialisation of the sign and the phenomenon referred to. Signification includes both
denotative and connotative codes and hence draws on different experiences of the
All representations influence the way we act and understand the world and get
embedded in our way of living; a classic example is the clock representing time – deeply
embedded in Western society and culture, even our identity5. A second example is the
see Holbæk-Hansen et al 1975
2 some good descriptions of representation processes that include two sets of reasoning: Suchman & Trigg 1996
describes detailed steps in an AI project, Gregory 2000a describes a large project where different logics met
3 Ehses 1989 refers to Eco 1979 and Peirce
4 denotation is referential and direct; connotation is suggestive and indirect, additional cultural meaning. Ehses
1989; Bratteteig 1983; Trudgill 1974; Gumperz & Hymes 1972; Schegloff 1972; Hymes 1972
5 see Weizenbaum 1976 for a discussion
Chapter 9. Design between ideas and materials
Part 3. Design
medical categories – including what counts as life and death – that also have the
properties of being historic, cultural, social decisions by someone and a deeply
embedded aspect of culture, social life, and identity1. Representations as categories and
logic bring forward some aspects2. The representation often makes use of existing
concepts from the language of the use domain, and in this way “glue” the real life
interpretation to the computer representation. When based on existing characterizations
and organisations of activities and things, the model tends to build on current
interpretations and strengthen the existing order. However, a computer model may
change the meaning of a concept, e.g. by relating it differently to its context of use (i.e.
modelling it in a way that violates the similarity in which the concept has the particular
meaning). Or the concept can be very context-dependent at the outset (like “pink copies
go to the archive” in a paper-based organisation of work), which does not make sense in
a computerised system (but are still reported to exist!).
Systems development literature emphasizes technical quality – engineering quality –
as the basic quality of the system; technical quality is the basis for any functional and use
quality3. Technical properties like robustness, portability, correctness, modifiability,
maintainability, testability, efficiency are elements of technical quality4. These properties
will guarantee system properties like predictability, reliability, security, flexibility,
control, usability and feedback.
Systems descriptions are hierarchical, interrelated sets of representations that at one
end are concerned with making a quality machine and at the other end are concerned
with a good fit with other real-world artefacts and actors. Systems decriptions represent;
they describe translations within the space between the machine and the world. Systems
descriptions also materialise – make manifest – how the conceptualizations that express
the symbolic system can be turned into a physical machine5.
The need to relate both to the machine (the predictable automaton) and the world
(unpredictable, messy, fuzzy, changing) may inspire the systems designer to shortcut the
links by simplifying the representation of the world in ways that make the transition to
the machine easier, or by letting some levels of representations not match very well.
Dourish (1997) points to the difference between an error message at the interface and the
actual error in the computer, and makes the point that the user’s chances to really
understand what has gone wrong are lessened by the lack of informative presentation of
the real computer processes6.
Applying formal systems description techniques and languages as “glasses” to
interpret the world means applying a systems perspective – in the sense of hierarchical,
predictable, structured processes – on a phenomenon that may be all but that. Applying a
systems perspective is necessary in order to make a computer system, as argued in 8.3.
However, a closed systems perspective may seriously limit the range of solutions and
problems. It is worth noting that many systems development methodologies encourage
starting with a systems perspective very early in the systems development process thus
introducing such limitations.
see Bowker & Star 1999
like language tends to bring forward the things for which words exist, cf. e.g. Schribner & Cole 1981
3 Bjerknes, Bratteteig & Espeseth 1991. See Petroski 1965; 1992; 1994 for numerous stories about engineering
failures that demonstrate this point (and argue that error is essential in educating an engineer).
4 cf. general software engineering literature, e.g. Sommerville 1989: 591, adds: economy, integrity, interoperability,
modularity, validity, generality, reusability, resilience, clarity, documentation, understandability.
5 Petroski 1994
6 see also Hillestad 2003
9.1.4 Building representations
Systems design is concerned with envisioning and modelling, and evaluating the models
and descriptions with respect to the material as well as what is modelled. The model is
partly made as a whole from the top, and partly through a composition of parts, bottomup. The shaping of a model is oriented towards a specific purpose or perspective (for
someone and by someone), thus the selection of characteristics is not accidental1.
[I]t is not so much finding the answers as finding the questions that is difficult’. A client does
not identify the ‘real’ problem, but presents instead a solution of his own that has failed. The
real problem emerges as part of the designing process itself: from dialogues with the client,
from research into his business. A clear formulation of a need or functional requirement is not,
in general, available. (Joseph 1996, p. 338)
I will illustrate the building of representation with some reflections about representing a
book in a library system – a common example in systems modelling courses. A book is a
physical thing with certain characteristics that the librarian would be interested in: its
ISBN number, author, title, year etc. Moreover, it would be classified according to the
library classification system. In addition we need to decide if paperback and hardcover
editions are to be seen as the same even if they have different ISBN numbers. And what
if the library has three copies, how should this fact be represented? Is a journal a book
and can it be treated like a book? On an everyday basis we do not bother about these
characteristics; they are taken for granted and embedded – or they are not important to
our actions. But in a machine representation we need to. Maybe we have to introduce a
conceptual distinction between a book and a copy, and we may want to overrule the
distinction between hardcover and paperback by the ISBN system. We have to decide if
we want to make the fact that a book is in the library or on loan a characteristic of the
book, or if we want a relation called a loan. We have to decide if we want to link books
and borrowers so that we can see the books that a person has borrowed and who has a
particular copy of a book.
When representing even a simple things like a book, it turns out that it is embedded
in activities that are not unambiguous and that relate to separate characteristics of the
book. The book can be interpreted very differently by the librarian and the borrower, a
teacher or a student. In order to construct an unambiguous description of a book that
satisfies the properties required by the activities of which the book is a part, we may
have to invent new properties ― that may in turn influence our interpretation of the
book. The ISBN system that distinguishes between hardcover and paperback copies of
the same text, is an example of a categorisation fact made for someone for a purpose, but
as a buyer or borrower of books I have to relate to it.
The basic movement in making representations is between the logic of the machine
and the logic of the application area (the use context). The logic of the machine is the
logic of software, of automation, of hierarchies of systems and subsystems, of
predictability and control of automated processes. Bucciarelli (1994) calls the world that
the designer is to design “the object world”: “the domain of thought, action, and artefact
within which participants in engineering design … move and live when working on any
specific aspect, instrumental part, subsystem, or subfunction of the whole.” (p. 63). The
object world includes the abstractions as well as the concrete parts of the machinery that
embody the abstractions.
Object world thinking is … abstract and reductionist. Models of the sort prevalent in science,
and in large part derived from science, are essential to work within object worlds. The
engineer’s ability to abstract from a concrete situation, to see an object as a collection of forces,
the discussion about categories having politics (Suchman 1994a in debate with Winograd 1994) both concern
decisions about materialisations (the height of a tunnel: Winner 1986; the distance between railway tracks: Latour
1996) and categories as concepts (cf. also Bowker & Star 1999). See also Huff & Cooper 1987
Chapter 9. Design between ideas and materials
Part 3. Design
or as a network of ideal current generators connected in series and in parallel, is key to problem
solving and to managing complexity within object worlds. One of the crucial skills conveyed as
part of disciplinary training is the ability to look at a design, or a collection of objects, and to see
them as an abstraction to which scientific principles can be applied.
Object world work is … work within a discipline. … [M]embers of the same discipline … will
share a common language and a common set of tools—that is, a way of seeing—which allows
them to work together on a shared problem at a level of detail available only to those who are
members of the discipline.
Object worlds also have conceptual hierarchy. To engineers, nature appears to have structure
and to be hierarchically organized, reflecting different levels of scientific abstraction. …
Designers must choose the correct level on which to operate at each state of the design process.
(Bucciarelli & Kuhn 1997: 212)
In systems development the object world is computing. The building of a representation
is an activity within the object world, in which we conceptually address the concrete, real
thing that we want to model with the modelling language. We move back and forth as we
express characteristics of the object of modelling, imagining activities in which it is
involved that all have representational counterparts. Through the act of representation the
designer establishes connections between what is (the current) and what will be (the
future). This creative process creates knowledge1. The designer works with relations:
o between the abstract and the concrete: between the concrete book and the choices in
the abstract description of properties in the library system of which the book is a part.
We make abstractions and concretizations that interplay as they are being made.
o between the whole and the parts: a description of the book that includes the necessary
properties and still preserves a coherent description. The book has some properties to
me as a reader, a different set of properties are apparent to me as a researcher
(student) looking for theories about e.g. design, a different set of aspects are
important to the librarian. The book on my desk has a different meaning as a part of a
library than as a book I have borrowed from a colleague or have inherited from my
grandfather. A good illustration of how properties appear at different analytical levels
is the bicycle, where emergent properties of the bicycle as a whole are influenced by,
but not decided by, properties of its parts2.
o between language and reality: between the concrete book and the concept of a book,
e.g. deciding how to deal with hardcover and paperback issues. Language is used in
the movement between abstract and concrete, and whole and parts.
o between things and relations: between the book as an artefact and its meaning in
relation to the librarian, the borrower, the teacher; the model includes relations like
loans and reminders of overdue loans.
9.2 Ideas are personal and social
Every designed object incorporates and expresses a set of assumptions and values about the way
we live. (Rees 1997: 130)
Design processes start with visions. However, in reality design does not really start with
visions; design never starts – or “starts” with some ideas that the designer has prior to a
design situation, ideas that will influence and be influenced by the concrete design
situation3. Design is “a reflective conversation with the materials of the situation”4 and
the reflective conversation is based on values, beliefs, aesthetics, ethics; professional
Stage 1986; 1989 refers to Israel 1979. See also Mathiassen 1981
see Checkland 1981 for a simple introduction to systems thinking
3 see e.g. Krystad 1997
4 Schön 1983: 175
skills and knowledge that can challenge and bend the material. I call these professional
skills, values, beliefs etc. ideas, to indicate that they are basic perspectives that govern
design both content-wise and methodologically. Our world view in general is part of our
way of designing, and the notion of ideas makes it possible to discuss how the designer
influences the design process.
9.2.1 Ideas
Ideas are beliefs, values and attitudes that we have generated and incorporated through
our lived life, and that we draw upon when we face a new situation. Ideas come from
education and experience in a culture, community, social and professional settings. Ideas
from different contexts interact with and influence each other; professional, political,
human, economical, personal values create a mix that constitutes our world view1.
Ideas are fundamental principles or values underlying decisions in design,
influencing the choice of material to work with and how to work with it. The architectual
idea “in harmony with nature” is a basis for how the design process is planned; which
design techniques are chosen, which materials are used, and how they all constitute a
whole that fits the architect and her/his idea of “in harmony with nature”. The idea of “in
harmony with nature” can be seen as an architectural fashion, but also as ecological (or
romantic) sets of cultural and societal values – professional ideas influence society and
vice versa. The aim to be “in harmony with nature” influences
o which material to use to build a house (for example the exterior of the house (stone,
brick, wood), the roof (stone, wood, grass), laminate wood, tar instead of paint), and
– partly through this –
o the structure, function, and form of the house (such as the location in the terrain,
making the house centre around the fire place, base heating on natural sources,
include large windows to make the surrounding nature visible from the inside – or
small to save energy), and
o the design techniques (like cogging joints).
Ideas are closely connected to knowledge, both personal and social sides of knowledge.
In educational science attitudes or ethical objectives are wanted and legitimate,
especially in teaching of professional skills2. Knowledge is often arranged in relation to
basic attitudes that express a paradigmatic basis or set of values, as they are often tied to
particular interpretations and knowledge.
Ideas (like values, attitudes and principles) are professionally desirable3 and act as
general guidelines to professional activities and concrete situations. The professional
situation must be interpreted in a skilled way to avoid using “inappropriate principles”,
or not adjusting the principles sufficiently to the actual situation. Values and principles
may contradict each other, and the design process can be seen as a negotiation between
different values – sometimes represented by different people4. In many design situations
negotiations between different principles or perspectives (represented by different
people) are needed. It is possible to be explicit about values and principles, but it is not
always easy for novices or non-professionals to see the consequences of a given
considerably more sophisticated explanations of the development of personal identity can be found. My point here
is that the professional basis for our ideas cannot be “pure” even within the professional realm.
2 Handal & Lauvås 1983; Schön 1983; 1987; Freidson 1970
3 see e.g. ACM’s ethical rules (ACM 1993b) and IFIP’s ethical rules. Attitudes about use of computers are found in
legislation like the Norwegian Worker Protection and Work Environment Act and the Data Agreements in worklife (similar legislation is found in other Scandinavian countries, see Mathiassen, Rolskov & Vedel 1983). See also
attempts to focus on “general” values, e.g. Friedman 2001’s “value-sensitive design”
4 see Stuedahl (forthcoming 2003) for a discussion
Chapter 9. Design between ideas and materials
Part 3. Design
principle used in a new or complex situation. Ideas contribute to the totality and the logic
in the design, but can also act as a straitjacket. It happens that culturally accepted ideas
are used as excuses for other motives.
Ideas are formed from attitudes and values, as parts of culture and thus dependent on
time and place. Ideas like “user-friendliness” are based on the wide distribution of PCs
available to the consumer market, and on graphical user interfaces enabling object
oriented user interfaces (e.g. Xerox Star, Macintosh, Windows) and making use of
American-English language and icons (e.g. the American mailbox or trash can). Ideas
like this influence the software design process in ways similar to the architect example
above. Another example is the principle of consistency between user interfaces of
various programs in an information system, emphasised by e.g. Shneiderman (1998),
who claims that consistency is one of eight golden rules for good user interface design. A
different attitude is advocated by Grudin (1989a), who argues that the principle of
consistency may contradict the overall aim of making usable, user-friendly interfaces.
Presentation of information on a screen should be designed to look different if there is an
important difference in content or importance, in order to attact the necessary attention of
users to particular system states so that dangerous situations can be avoided. Other
examples are the attitude that use of “GO TO” is bad programming practice based on the
fact that GO TOs make the program text difficult to read and maintain1.
The notion of “overview” that guided the design of the WorkSheet System in the
Florence project is an example of an idea held by the nurses that was acknowledged by
the informaticians – we held ideas about participatory design. The two ideas were basic
to our actions in the project, and led to our accepting the vision that the nurses created
(the map of the ward).
Professional and ethical attitudes interact with organizational culture and its explicit
and implicit norms and values. Values and norms are important structuring properties of
an organization: human behaviour organizations interact with norms and values (rule and
is ruled by)2. If the environment is basically unpredictable, and the transactions between
involved parties are complex and/or vary a lot, control and stability in the organization
may take the form of clan culture. This culture relies on a set of common attitudes and
values among the clan members as a basis and guide for their activities in order to create
a sufficient degree of predictability and control of members’ behaviour3. Norms and
values interplay and integrate with other structuring properties in an organization (like
power and meaning structures). Our interpretation of a situation depends on our
personally held values as well as on our role in the situation.
Attitudes and values change slowly and are basic to the continuity — and change —
of a tradition.
9.2.2 Where do ideas come from?
Ideas come from education and experience in our lived life. We live in a community – or
rather a number of partly overlapping communities – and share their culture, history and
knowledge. In design, the significant culture is expressed through the professional role
taken in a concrete design process.
Our ideas come from all aspects of our lives – the professional sides interact with the
political, human, economic, and personal sides. An illustration of personal experience
Dijkstra 1968
Giddens 1984; Schein 1997; Bødker 1989
3 Ouchi 1980; Williamson & Ouchi 1981; Williamson 1994; Ciborra 1981;1993. In the bureaucracy, interaction is
predictable, thus ”ready made” decisions – rules and routines – are possible control mechanisms. In the market,
the transactions are brief, simple, well-known, and predictable.
influencing design is Hopper’s story about how she got the idea of GO TO-statements
while working on the development of the A-0 compiler in the early 50's:
[With] UNIVAC I only had 1000 words of storage ... [and] there wasn't room enough to keep a
whole lot of junk in there while I was doing the compiling process.
I promptly ran up against the problem that in some cases, after making a test, I would jump back
in the program for something I had previously processed and at other times I would jump
forward in the program to a section of the program which had not been written and I did not
know where it was. In other words, there were two types of jumps to be coped with: one which
went back in the program; the other went forward in the program. Therefore, as the program
was put together, a record was kept of where each subroutine was: they were numbered; the
operations were numbered. And if I wanted to jump back to Operation 10, I could look at the
record and find which line Operation 10 was at. But if I was at Operation 17, and I wanted to
jump to Operation 28, I didn't yet know where it was.
And here comes in the curious fact that sometimes something totally extraneous to what you are
doing will lead you to an answer. It so happened that when I was an undergraduate at college I
played basketball under the old women's rules which divided the court into two halves, and
there were six on a team; we had both a center and a side center, and I was the side center.
Under the rules, you could dribble only once and you couldn't take a step while you had the ball
in your hands. Therefore if you got the ball and you wanted to get down there under the basket,
you used what we called a “forward pass.” You looked for a member of your team, threw the
ball over, ran like the dickens up ahead, and she threw the ball back to you. So it seemed to me
that this was an appropriate way of solving the problem I was facing of the forward jumps! I
tucked a little section down at the end of the memory which I called the “neutral corner.” At the
time I wanted to jump forward from the routine I was working on, I jumped to a spot in “neutral
corner.” I then set up a flag for Operation 28 which said, “I've got a message for you.” This
meant that each routine, as I processed it, had to look and see if it had a flag; if it did, it put a
second jump from the neutral corner to the beginning of the routine, and it was possible to make
a single-pass compiler and the concept did come from playing basketball! (Hopper 1981: 11)
Every designer is trained within a tradition where particular perspectives are encouraged
and preferred. Proper training can teach you to see and recognize good design, but to get
new ideas is more difficult1. Buchanan (1995a) claims that design visions emerge
through shifts of “placement” rather than through analyses of particular aspects of the
present situation. An important design skill is therefore the ability to systematically shift
one's perspective or placement2. A placement is a perspective or conceptual position
from which a designer analyses the future design solution (or problem definition). A
placement is characterized by the way it focuses on the problem, and Buchanan discusses
four such placements that can be seen as sets of ideas that can help the designer to shift
placement: signs, things, actions, or systems:
Understanding the difference between a category and a placement is essential if design thinking
is to be regarded as more than a series of creative accidents. Categories have fixed meanings
that are accepted within the framework of a theory or a philosophy, and serve as the basis for
analyzing what already exists. Placements have boundaries to shape and constrain meaning, but
are not rigidly fixed and determinate. The boundary of a placement gives a context or
orientation to thinking, but the application to a specific situation can generate a new perception
of that situation and, hence, a new possibility to be tested. Therefore, placements are sources of
new ideas and possibilities when applied to problems in concrete circumstances. (Buchanan
1995a: 10-11)
The placement influences the way in which the designer “names and frames” the
problem as well as what kind of vision that emerges from the designer's encounter with
it. The naming and framing will influence what is conceived as problems, issues, and
solutions, and change the range of possibilities in which new design visions is discovered
and created. Buchanan therefore emphasises the ability to shift placement and reposition
oneself in a systematic way as important in design. Placements enable the designer to
creativity is not evenly distributed in the population, see e.g. Martindale 1989; 199; Glover et al 1989; Gruber &
Wallace 1989; Amabile 1996; 1999
2 Buchanan 1995a: 13
Chapter 9. Design between ideas and materials
Part 3. Design
shape the design situation, to position and reposition problems and issues at hand with
respect to the participants involved.
Individual designers often possess a personal set of placements, developed and tested by
experience. The inventiveness of the designer lies in a natural or cultivated and artful ability to
return to those placements and apply them to a new situation, discovering aspects of the
situation that affect the final design. What is regarded as the designer’s style, then, is sometimes
more than just a personal preference for certain types of visual forms, materials, or techniques;
it is a characteristic way of seeing possibilities through conceptual placements. However, when
a designer’s conceptual placements become categories of thinking, the result can be mannered
imitations of an earlier invention that are no longer relevant to the discovery of specific
possibilities in a new situation. Ideas are then forced onto a situation rather than discovered in
the particularities and novel possibilities of that situation. (Buchanan 1995a: 11)
The idea about placements seems possible to combine with a relational view,
emphasising the movements between different perspectives (abstract-concrete, wholepart, language-reality, things-relations). Buchanan encourages systematic shifts of
perspectives, like deliberately zooming in and out to create a many-dimensional space of
possible abstractions, elements, concepts, relations etc. Each movement may challenge
the current vision – which makes the ability to stop moving important.
The vision is normally referred to as something that “guides” the designer, what
Ferguson (1993) calls “the mind’s eye”. Experienced designers use the vision as a
heuristic tool in the choice of what and how to think about the situation. The vision is a
way for a designer to restrict the range of possibilities in the design process, a means to
handle and navigate through the enormous amount of information and possibilities
normally present in a design situation. The vision provides the tension between what is
and what should be and; Arnheim (1962) emphasises this tension as a source of energy
necessary for the effort of restructuration in thinking, and as providing its direction.
The vision is situated, based on the designer’s ideas applied in the situation; the
problem stated, various problem definitions, the contextual characteristics. The ideas are
given form in the situation as a vision, and it is in this form that the ideas guide the
design process. The ideas cross the various placements taken: they guide the envisioning,
the materialisation and form of the ideas.
Design includes the ability to see something as something else, or to stretch the
imagination beyond the material limitations. In the 1980s the Dynabook was envisioned
this way long before the technology made it possible: what if the computer was powerful
and lightweight and the screen was small as a book?1 What if we use the way that we
normally organize our papers at the office desk as an inspiration for the user interface?
The desktop metaphor used for screen layout mimics a desk with several open
documents at a time, partly overlapping, and where it is easy to move between them. Our
repertoire of metaphors and games is developed through education and experience in
professional as well as socio-cultural settings.
Our sharing of stories about situations, problems, diagnoses, and solutions can make
us learn new things without having the concrete experience ourselves. Storytelling is a
well-known way of sharing and reflecting on experiences, to expand the individual
repertoire in a community where there is enough knowledge and experience to appreciate
the point of the story2. It is also a way to enhance the imagination and knowledge about
the world, used in design for inventing images of user behaviour3.
Professional judgment and actions are based on knowledge, achieved through
experience and reflection on professional practice (and education)4. Because of the
Liddle 1996
Orr 19960
3 Bucciarelli 1994; Bucciarelli & Kuhn 1997
4 see chapter 5.7
differences in personal experience, two individuals do not experience the same situation
in the same way; the situation is interpreted differently and the reflection afterwards
differs, depending on previous experience and knowledge. However, the interpreted
experience is a part of a larger community of practice, maintaing and negotiating the
range of individual differences in professional knowledge and acting as part of the
9.2.3 The personal touch
Design literature is full of great designers: the genius, mysterious, lonely designer – a
great man, who (in order to maintain his recognisable greatness) leaves his mark on the
artefacts he designs. His “signature” is a trademark, a brand, visible in his repertoire of
ideas and the ways in which the ideas are given form in visions and material artefacts.
The designer’s wish to trademark the design needs, however, to balance other concerns
like users’ needs and ideas, and environmental concerns.
The myth of the genius designer emphasizes design ability as something personal
that appears mystic and given. Löwgren and Stolterman (1998) discuss design ability as
a composition of several abilities, and everybody possesses some of them – to a varying
degree – and can train more:
All people have design abilities. It is not like some are born designers and some are not. The
basic properties are normal human properties and can be found in everybody. All of us carry out
design actions in our everyday life. … Some of us are more creative and are good at using their
imagination, some are better at giving form or seeing how things fit together in various
compositions, others are better at evaluating a design with respect to logic and functionality, etc.
(Löwgren & Stolterman 1998: 88 (my translation))
Cross (1995) also maintains the view that design ability is something that everybody has
and can develop further. Design ability is composed of a number of qualities that most
people possess in a variety of ways and can train. Experiences with the material are
necessary in order to know where the limitations and the possibilities are: a feeling for
the material1. A good deal of experience is needed in order to be able to create patterns
of experiences so that it is possible to rearrange knowledge to fit the situation at hand.
Schön (1983) gives a series of examples of how a professional designer has
“conversations with the material”, and how a designer-teacher teaches design by
demonstrating the way he carries out the conversation with the material in a given
situation (see chapter 5.7).
Schön (1983) claims that when we meet a new or incomprehensible phenomenon, we
use our creativity or intuition to try describing the phenomenon. The description is often
a result of trying to find phenomena that appear similar to the phenomenon we face: we
try to see it as something else that we already know. We actively use what we already
know to understand, handle, and act in new situations.
Kuhn calls such processes “thinking from exemplars.” Once a new problem is seen to be
analogous to a problem previously solved, then “both an appropriate formalism and a new way
of attaching its symbolic consequences to nature follow” – “follow,” that is, from reflection on
the similarity earlier perceived. When the two things seen as similar are initially very different
from one another, falling into what are usually considered different domains of experience, then
seeing-as takes a form that I call “generative metaphor.” In this form, seeing-as may play a
critical role in invention and design (Schön 1983: 183-184)
Designers’ thinking in metaphors should be understood as a process, in which we
approach defining the problem rather than solving it. When the problem is defined the
solution is partly decided upon – we cannot possibly suggest a solution we are not aware
Schön 1983; Keller 1983
Chapter 9. Design between ideas and materials
Part 3. Design
Envisioning is based on the individual’s capabilities in the design situation (which is
normally a collective endeavour). Design is a creative process, thus some creative skills
are needed. Theories about creativity emphasise that the creative person has the ability to
think creatively, s/he needs knowledge and skills about the domain, and needs an
environment that encourages creativity1. Creative thinking is divergent or lateral
thinking2, different from convergent thinking used in logical reasoning where you draw
conclusions on the basis of a set of “converging” known facts. Divergent thinking
emphasises the range of thoughts and ideas connected with a problem.
Amabile (1999) argues that creativity includes three components: i) expertise in the
area of concern, ii) creative thinking skills refering to “how flexibly and imaginatively
people approach problems” (p. 78), and iii) motivation, where the intrinsic motivation
stemming from genuine interest in the task and love of the work totally overrules any
extrinsic, exterior motivation (like money or status).
Expertise and creative thinking are an individual’s raw materials—his or her natural resources,
if you will. But a third factor—motivation—determines what people will actually do. The
scientist can have outstanding educational credentials and a great facility in generating new
perspectives to old problems. But if she lacks the motivation to do a particular job, she simply
won’t do it; her expertise and creative thinking will either go untapped or be applied to
something else. (Amabile 1999: 79)
Amabile compares problem-solving with walking in the woods. Many organizations
seem to prefer fast problem-solving, but Amabile compares this to following welltrodden paths and shortcuts – and learn nothing new. The creative person tends to spend
longer time, but tries new paths – even creates her/his own path, and may come out at an
unexpected place, having learnt a lot.
A range of knowledge and skills are necessary in the design process:
• To create requires a creative and analytical design ability.
• To decide requires critical decision ability.
• To work with a client requires rationality and communicative abilities.
• Design of functional properties requires insight and knowledge about use.
• Design of structural properties requires insight and knowledge about technical matters.
• Design of ethical properties requires insight and knowledge about the world and ideals.
• Design of aesthetic properties requires an ability to give form and compose. (Löwgren &
Stolterman 1998: 85 (my translation))
A certain level of personal knowledge and skills is needed in order for the individual to
contribute in design – although the individual’s skills can be compensated for through
the right composition of a team3.
[E]ach individual brings to his or her object-world deliberations a personal rendering of
scientific principles and technical possibilities. We can even speak of different styles, of tacit
knowledge or of personal knowledge, and to do so is not soft but necessary if our intent is to
understand how participants in design add flesh to the bones of an idea and how ideas are
embodied in particular hardware or systems.
Though tacit or unarticulated, an individual’s personal knowledge is critical to the quality of the
design. The “feel” that designers bring to their work is part and parcel of the know-how that
enables them to bridge the gap between the formal, abstract knowledge of underlying form and
the practical concreteness of the immediate object. …
… different facets of different participants’ object worlds are usually not made explicit in
formal technical presentations, nor is their form prescribed by any set of rules. But this kind of
tacit understanding is critical when a real object is the focus of attention. The singular shows its
own quirks and special features and demands tailoring of generic knowledge, no matter how
Martindale 1999; Guilford 1950; Kirton 1989
see de Bono 1999
3 in line with Andreassen & Wadel 1989
sophisticated or detailed, to fit the special circumstances of the immediate design task.
(Bucciarelli 1994: 77)
In the team, the fact that individuals contribute differently may widen the range of
perspectives (placements) present in the design process. Engineers may see the object
world differently. However, their ability to create representations understandable to other
engineers, means that their differing areas of knowledge complement each other1.
9.2.4 Representing as craft
Craft is associated with handicraft: we make things with our hands, and the skills needed
are very much concerned with our senses: haptic, sight, hearing – and sometimes even
smell. The notion of craft points to the interconnections between how we act, think, feel,
and how we use our skills, knowledge, and intuition in design. Craft is based on the
understanding that cognitive and manual activities are effectively the same2. Systems
design may be seen as a symbolic or “intangible” craft3 where the skills concern the
manipulation of symbols and representations. I discuss craft in general before I go into
what systems design as craft might be.
The notion of craft refers to a person’s detailed control of a process, control that is
the consequence of craft knowledge4. But the word has changed its meaning during the
last three centuries; in the eighteenth century craft was related to a way of doing things
rather than making things, and “the craft” still connotes power and secret knowledge.
[T]he word “craft” derives from the Middle English craeft, which simply means strength or
power. We must remember that because such forces were regarded with suspicion, the work
retains some residual meaning of arcane intellectual skill, or even deceitful cunning … In later
meanings the word referred to a more specific power, namely specialized skill or dexterity in the
manual arts. It also referred to a calling or occupation, or the members of a trade who share that
skill. (McCullough 1998: 20)
In the twentieth century “craft” is separated from “the pursuit of beauty (art) and purpose
(design)”5. However,
in a practical sense you cannot divorce craft from design. The craftsman or craftswoman is as
much a designer as any product designer: to make something requires choices regarding the
structure and appearance of the object as well as a strategy for making it. (Dormer 1997: 12)
Craft means skilfully creating an artefact. According to McCullough (1998) skill is the
learned ability to perform a useful process well. It emphasizes applying and practicing
skills and knowledge, but it also indicates involvement in the work process and a local
grounding of the work. ”To craft is to care” says McCullough (1998: 21).
Craft remains skilled work applied toward practical ends. It is indescribable talent with
describable aims. It is habitual skilled practice with particular tools, materials, or media, for the
purpose of making increasingly well executed artifacts. Craft is the application of personal
knowledge to the giving of form. It is the condition in which the inherent qualities and
economics of the media are encouraged to shape both process and products. … It remains about
the individually prepared artifact (McCullough 1998: p. 22)
”Skill resides not in the inputs or outputs of a labor process but in the process itself.
Inevitably, skill resides in a performance.” (Scarceletta 1997: 190). Craftspeople express
themselves through activities rather than words; the primary mode of expression is not
verbal. Craft includes thinking in intentions, abstractions, reflections and plans, but the
thinking is expressed in movement, which becomes form. Movements in craft become
spatial form. Space is essential: craftspeople think in three dimensions. When spatial
Bucciarelli 1994
Greenhalgh 1997: 41
3 cf. McCullough 1998: 22
4 Dormer 1997: 7
5 Dormer 1997: 6. See also Greenhalgh 1997; Cooley 1988
Chapter 9. Design between ideas and materials
Part 3. Design
thinking is to be expressed in two dimensions, some aspects are lost – on the other hand
some overview can be lost when wandering in three-dimensional terrain.
As an attempt to theorize craft Godal (1997) characterize craft as activity-based (or
activity-carried) knowledge, basically knowledge, skills, and feeling for movement and
use of the body – and rhythm. Such knowledge necessarily includes knowledge about
their body, movement, of grips and positions in patterns in activities, of steering
movements for coordination of balance and dexterity1. Godal’s characterization of craft
skills and abilities has to do with the fact that the crafted artefact is physical and threedimensional – like boats, utensils, ceramics. Their characteristics are:
o dexterity. Ability to feel dimensions (tactile), surface structure (rough, smooth,
dented), form (tactile), pressure, soft and hard, cold and warm.
o sight, visual estimate, conception of size. Sight includes e.g., ability to aim, evaluate
distance, see form and colour.
o knowledge and feeling for colour: colour and nuances of particular materials and
processes. Feeling for colour includes knowledge about rules and traditions, to judge
colours and mixes
o hearing – we hear what we are doing and react to what we hear. Hearing depends on
our special feeling, to musicality
o knowledge and feeling for smell and taste
o knowledge and feeling for space: both moving in space, developing a unique inner
picture, and crafting in three dimensions. Form is unique
o knowledge and feeling for form: areas and space, abstractions and patterns, relations
between and in the form, creating an inner picture, calculations
o knowledge and feeling for the material: through all senses (each and all together),
and about selection, making, use and products, suitability
o knowledge and feeling for the product in the making: appearance, function, strength,
durability, flexibility and tailorability
o knowledge and feeling for tools and utensils (what the tool does, concretely)
o knowledge and feeling for progress, current and rhythm from the inside, work speed
and rhythm, structure in work, order of work and breaks, to foresee work
o knowledge, skills and feeling for patterns of activities. The patterns carry knowledge,
a sort of summary of what we know. Knowledge about sequence
o knowledge and feeling for learning, problem solving and creating
o knowledge and feeling for cooperation, often non-verbal communication, indicating
cooperative effort by body movement in a work activity
o knowledge and feeling for the craft, mastering, knowledge about the craft, ethics,
common value and symbols, quality standards etc.
The skills presented here concern the senses (five) and the spatial form of the physical
object (two).
Craft relies on tacit knowledge. …
Tacit knowledge is practical know-how, and it exists in people. Consequently tacit knowledge is
learned and absorbed by individuals through practice and from other people, it cannot usually be
learned from books. Books are effective sources in helping a student to understand the
principles of practice, but the actual business of learning is usually best done by face-to-face
teaching or apprenticeship with people who are already themselves practically knowledgeable.
Students or apprentices need to be shown how to make things.
However, different sorts of tacit knowledge have different sorts of relationships with explicit
knowledge. (Dormer 1997: 147-148)
my mother used to be a tailor and I remember moments of magic when she was to improve the fit of a dress or a
jacket (sometimes as part of its making), and made one small lift with her hand – which made the garment look
totally different
Tacit knowledge means personal knowledge1, and comes close to what Godal (1997)
calls activity-carried knowledge: it is transferred (carried) by activities where the
craftsperson performs the activity. The skill is achieved by learning the activity under
guidance or by imitating some more knowledgeable craftsperson(s). According to
Polanyi, learning tacit knowledge means learning by example.
You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even if you cannot
analyze and account in detail for its effectiveness. By watching the master and emulating his
efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art,
including those which are not explicitly known by the master himself. (Polanyi 1978: 53)
McCullock (1998) introduces the term “digital craft” exploring how computer-aided
design can be seen as a development of craft skills. He emphasises the symbolic nature
of computers and thus the interpretational skills as more important.
The craft artifact … is …as much a product of the eye as of the hand. Vision appreciated its
qualities of proportion, material economy, and workmanship—recorded harmony. In the process
of production, the artisan’s eye for detail continually assesses the artifact’s condition. For
example, the eye can watch for material stress through visual cues such as dents or
deformations. The eye can follow the imperfections and eccentricities of the material, such as
the cracks in fine leather, and make those into assets. The eye can find quality in such
workmanship by others, and this is an important basis for appreciation. Vision finds cultural
identity, too, as form and ornamentation bear tradition. Much that we appreciate in craft, the
eyes understand.
Literate notation is different. In a way it is more visual still—indeed it lets the eyes take over. In
doing so it opens abstractions, invites organization, and administers invention. But visual
literacy requires education, whereas handicraft can be learned doing or simple training, and this
has separated professions from trades. Moreover, the literacy needed for scripted notations such
as writing or programming often comes at the expense of a more general visual literacy
practices in reading images. (McCullough 1998: 32)
Systems designers make use of complex technology in order to do the work, as work
tools as well as work materials. Computers are also used as tools in other crafts, e.g.
graphical design, industrial design, and architecture2. One of the key features of the
computer is dematerialization, in continuance of mechanization and mass production of
standard products. “Common sense becomes visual sense” (McCullough 1998: 46): we
read images rather than feel the artefact, the hand is less important. The kinaesthetic and
tactile sensitivity of hand skills is replaced with interpretations of representations, where
form is partly in the representation and partly in the phenomenon that is represented.
Form in the representation can be seen directly, in the same way as graphical language
elements often present structure in a distinct way (graphical symbols, “boxes and lines”,
indentation in texts). Seeing form in the phenomenon represented is an analytical
activity, where the representational aspects of the language are important (system
architecture, logical structure like class structures (hierarchies of subclasses), interface
Systems design is not physical, embodied, activity-based knowledge – it is
experience-based knowledge where the experience is production-oriented (also found in
the physical processes of making pottery and cooking, and partly knitting). When the
product is a computer system, the spatial and kinesthetic need to be replaced with
processes, while system descriptions need two-dimensional analytical seeing, seeing in
the sense of seeing as well as understanding. Instead of dexterity, ability to create an
inner picture and imagine the logic of the process (how it influences other processes,
changes states etc.) is needed. Dexterity and seeing are ways of deciding on the
suitability of some material, i.e. in selecting materials, tools etc. The suitability refers to
the material as well as the tool (e.g. how the representation is transformed during
Polanyi 1966; 1978, see discussion in chapter 5.7
see excellent discussion in McCullough 1998
Chapter 9. Design between ideas and materials
Part 3. Design
production of the program in the computer (i.e. the compilation)). The spatial references
do not apply, instead quality characteristics of the symbolic and representational nature
of computer-based systems can be inserted: the knowledge and feeling for the
appearance, durability, flexibility, tailorability of the system, and for the progress,
current and rhythm of work, the structure and order of work, the predictability of the
work. The recognition, knowledge, skills, and feeling for patterns in the activities, and
for problem definition and problem solving. The last two aspects of craft knowledge are
about the craft itself, its history, ethics, values, symbols, and quality standards, and of the
ways of working: the cooperation, communication, and knowledge in the community.
In traditional craft, the eye constantly monitors the effect of the hands to guide the work toward
some abstract vision. One might argue that the ability to recognize correctly emerging results
was intrinsic to traditional crafts. If you had seen enough similar artifacts before and lived with
them all your life, it was fairly easy to make another one. Because each piece was slightly
different, there was always room for a bit of experimentation. Because the conduct of the work
was less mediated, there was a shifting back and forth between work and play. (McCullough
1998: 233)
The making of systems descriptions can be seen as bricolage; the bricoleur uses materials
and tools at hand to make something work1. Hård (1994) discusses the process of finding
the right shape for a diesel engine, where the engineers test numerous variations of the
same machine part convinced that if they can get the shape right, the machine will work
better. Bricolage refers to the trial-and-error approach of testing a part, making a small
adjustment based on the hypothesis of what is wrong with the first one, and testing again.
And so on, until the “right” – the good enough – shape is found. Bricolage in this sense
refers to the application of a combination of practical and theoretical skill: the vision of
the machine that makes the engineer try again and again to find the right form is based
on a theory about the machine – that may be about a machine which has not yet been
built2. The activity consists to a large extent of trying again and again, crafting the
machine part, testing, evaluating, crafting etc. Both crafting, testing, and evaluating are
based on the theoretically grounded vision of the machine and its behaviour, and of
practical translation of the vision into a real machine. Bricolage is thus skilled behaviour
based on a vision that expresses the goal of the activity (which can be theoretically
grounded), utilizing practical, often tacit knowledge about the phenomenon that the
vision points to. Bricolage is normally not accidental, it is a process of diagnosing and
making-in-the-making; the expertise stays in what you tinker with and how. Both the
relation between the whole and the part, as well as the relation between the concrete and
the abstract guides the work.
Bricolage means paying attention to the material we work with in order to do what
we want to do. Bricolage involves evaluation of the material with respect to the vision.
Sometimes the material is emphasized, e.g. if we discover a piece of really good material
it can be the source of a vision and thus to a standard of evaluation.
It resides in a practitioner’s ability to find and interpret subtle visual, aural, and tactile cues
where novices see no information at all. In this sense, technical work seems to resemble a craft.
Craftspeople have long been valued for their ability to render skilled performance based on
intuitive feel for materials and techniques. (Whalley & Barley 1997: 49)
Design of software includes the crafting of something that works. The joy of creating an
artefact that works is one major driving force of design. The joy of making a machine
work is partly just that: to create an artefact that embodies your vision — and performs
the operations you want it to do. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” — and in
systems design “the eating” is human activity. The joy of systems design resembles the
cf. Levi-Strauss 1966, see chapter 6.5
see Hård 1994; 1998; 1999 for discussions about bricolage. Bowers & Pycock 1994 give a good example of a
bricolage-like process of collaborative design
joy in any discovery in the sense that it deals with finding things out — but also making
its representational framework (simplifying, structuring, sorting things out). To a
biologist, knowing plant anatomy enhances the beauty of the flower1. The beauty of a
computer system is the combination of the logic of the artefact as it works together with
the logic of the use context.
Barley & Orr (1997a) describe technicians as craftspeople in a way that can also
apply to systems developers.
Technical work sits at the intersection of craft and science, combining attributes of each that are
normally thought to be incompatible. It is a cultural anomaly in which mental and manual skills
coexist inseparably, if not always comfortably. ... Therefore, … it is more productive to identify
technical work by a loose constellation of attributes, several of which are not normally
juxtaposed in traditional frameworks for classifying work. Although individual instances of
technical work may fail to evince all characteristics, all cases will possess the majority. Four
traits comprise the constellation we propose: (a) the centrality of complex technology to the
work, (b) the importance of contextual knowledge and skill, (c) the importance of theories or
abstract representations of phenomena, and (d) the existence of a community of practice that
serves as a distributed repository for knowledge of relevance to practitioners. (Barley & Orr
1997: 12)
Systems development relates to the relations between real-world situations (where
problems, needs and wishes arise) and computers (where programs are executed). Both
these worlds include scientific and practical knowledge, and the combination of these
worlds necessarily involves combinations of different sets of practical and theoretical
knowledge. Studies of technical work support the view that technical work combines
different sets of knowledge and logic. The skilled craft is in combining the two (or more)
types of knowledge, i.e. the science of modelling with the practicalities of the machine.
As in engineering, the technician’s melding of mental and manual work also blurs the
distinction between craft and profession. … Technicians resemble professionals in that their
work is esoteric enough that few outsiders can claim to possess their skills or knowledge. It is
also relatively analytic and often requires specialized education. (Whalley & Barley 1997: 41)
Studies have repeatedly shown that technicians work at the empirical interface between a world
of physical objects and a world of symbolic representations. Using sophisticated technologies
and techniques, technicians orchestrate the connection between the two. Technicians act as the
link between a larger system of work and the materials on which the system depends.
Depending on context, the materials of relevance may be hardware, software, microorganisms,
the human body, a manufacturing process, or a variety of other physical systems. Similarly,
depending on context, relevant representations may consist of data, test results, images,
diagnoses, or even theories. (Whalley & Barley 1997: 47)
“Pragmatic knowledge is based primarily on efficacy and personal experience: the test is
whether something works” (Pentland 1997: 115). However, technical work combines the
pragmatic knowledge with scientific knowledge, “based on logical arguments supported
by objective evidence” (p. 115). A crucial difference between scientific and “mere”
pragmatic knowledge is the belief that scientific knowledge “transcends time, space, and
culture” (p.115), independent of the individuals involved in their production (their
interests or biases), whereas pragmatic knowledge is subjective and value-laden. “To say
that something “works” implies that it works well enough for the purpose at hand, which
may vary from time to time and observer to observer.” (Pentland 1997: 115).
Concepts like craft and bricolage originate from areas where concrete, physical
artefacts are built. I argue that they are also useful for understanding building of concrete
physical computers, even if the building of symbolic systems is conceptual rather than
perceptual. I have tried to demonstrate that the notion of “craft” can act as more than a
metaphor: many of the same embodied processes are also present when the artefact to be
constructed is conceptual (at least in its first form). Software as the characteristic
material in systems development is not visible before the system or a whole part of the
Feynman 1999
Chapter 9. Design between ideas and materials
Part 3. Design
system is finished so that it can be executed — the system is only perceptual through
program executions1. Modelling languages and prototyping tools contribute to
visualising the representation before the system is finished — also representations are
physically present and made so that form mediates content (through structure). Bricolage
is the craft of tinkering with a representation so that it becomes a boundary object; a
source for thinking about its function in use as well as a medium for communicating
about its materialisation. This requires a combination of different areas of knowledge.
Furthermore, skill and knowledge in system design is a craft in that it is partly embodied
and concerned with the ability to see and construct knowledge.
Pycock and Bowers (1996) discuss the skills involved in making good specifications
as the work of “getting others to get it right”. Their example is from specifications used
for manufacturing in the fashion industry, but their analyses and conclusions are relevant
to system design. They claim that making such specifications is itself a skilled activity,
where knowledge about the relation between the specification as a representation of the
artefact and the resulting artefact is essential.
9.3 Dealing with differences
When design is part of a broader context, its definition broadens. Jevnaker (1995) offers
a business-based definition of industrial design as:
[A] multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach, and a creative and complex activity.
Industrial design is assumed⎯in a value adding way⎯to be able to give characteristic and
visual quality contributions, and to tie together knowledge from various activities in the
organizational value chain (from idea, product development, buying, production, marketing
etc.); e.g., knowledge about the material, technology and knowledge about user needs.
The integration of the multidisciplinary aspects, including aesthetics and the meaning and
functionality of the product to its users, is of particular importance to qualified industrial design.
(Jevnaker 1995: 3-4, my translation, original emphasis)
Systems development takes place within a context, and the aims and framework of the
process are often decided by sources we cannot influence much. The conditions that
influence design limit the degree of freedom to decide on problems and solutions.
[T]he designer operates in a larger setting, which is both facilitated and constrained by
interactions with other people. … [D]esign in a large organization is shaped by factors and
forces that transcend the considerations of an individual designer. [There are] two levels at
which an organization constrains the space of possible designs: the explicit level of working
with the differing goals and needs of the many parties in a large organization, and the tacit effect
of an organization’s unique culture. (Winograd 1996: xxv)
This section looks into the context of systems design and aims to discuss how contextual
factors influence the design process, and hence the design result. I depart from a view
that systems development includes technical, social and individual changes and their
interactions. The many changes involve different people, knowledge, activities,
perspectives, artefacts — and the relations and similarities between them must be
combined to create a direction for the change.
Differences are essential to systems development. There are differences between
design and use both concerning the context, its social and cultural norms, interpretations,
and activities – and development itself implies making a difference. Many of the
differences are expressed through the people doing the systems development work, as
they expose differences and act differently. Systems design is about creating an artefact
similar to knitting: it is not possible to test the sweater before it is finished, but it is possible to try on the sleeve or
the body beforehand (see Bratteteig 1988)
and creating the process of making the artefact, including handling differences between
people, interests, technologies etc.
Diversity and heterogeneity are not bad or to be avoided. But we need to address the
differences in order to handle them. This means that we should emphasise
communication and exchange of different interests and interpretations rather than a onesided focus on the development of the same understanding – the sameness will inevitably
be limited to the object rather than its interpretations and meanings in a context (in
different contexts).
Software design and diversity traditionally do not go well together: in order to
develop software, the designer focuses on similarities, repeated patterns, general routines
– all similarities in which diversity creates problems. Software is normally made to
replace routines by automation. In some situations diversity may cause severe problems,
for instance when the work is organised so that more than one person needs access to the
system in a particular state. An example is an emergency ambulance control room, where
each person is using a standard set-up so that all the people at work immediately can
interpret and can take over each other’s work (and work stations) in an acute situation1.
A less dramatic example – but nevertheless possibly life-threatening – is a medication
documentation system used by nursing assistants in Turku2, where the system allows for
flexibility and diversity of use, supporting individual and independent styles of work.
Because the information travels across individuals’ work tasks in the distributed work
organisation, serious medication errors can occur if the various interpretations of the
system’s representation of medication are not coordinated. As the system is based on the
organisation of work rather than the object of work (the patient with a medication need),
the object of work may suffer: the patient may get the wrong medicine.
Systems development involves making an artefact, but also making the development
process3. In this section I discuss some aspects of the heterogeneity of design processes
that need to be considered, interwoven with the craft of design in very complex ways. I
discuss how the task delimits and gives opportunities to the design process. As many
interests are present, design also involves dealing with different interests. The second
subsection discusses decisions in design as negotiations between the various interests
involved. The last subsection includes a summary of my view on systems design as
relations between ideas and materials.
9.3.1 Creativity on demand
Systems development is normally commissioned by someone and for a purpose not
decided by the systems designers. To create on commission is well-known from arts and
crafts as well as from design4. I delimit the discussion to a commission from an
organisation as the context for systems development — and thus also constituting the
frame for the design organisation. The commissioning body creates the framework for
systems development. The systems design situation is thus defined by the employer as
well as the designer, and in this way the use context influences the design context. The
unfortunate effects of strong ties between the development and the use contexts in the
FIRE project, is a telling example.
Putting together a project team dedicated to a particular design task, all the while maintaining
the hierarchy of the firm, gives rise to another level of complexity [in design]. Here a matrix of
representation finds use: Rows are different design tasks, columns agents in the firm’s
cf. Bowers & Martin 1999
Markku Nurminen, personal communication April 2003
3 in line with Andersen et al 1986, see chapter 2.3
4 Stolterman 1991 makes this a point
Chapter 9. Design between ideas and materials
Part 3. Design
organization. The difficulties of pulling off smoothly this dual allegiance are well known.
(Bucciarelli 1994: 311, (note 5 p. 141))
To discuss the design of the design process, we need to start with the characteristics of
systems design. Systems design is not a linear process of problem definition and problem
solving, and problem definition and problem solving are not two distinct activities — or
phases. Problem definition is analytic: the designer(s) decides what the problem is and
thus the requirements to a solution. Problem solution is synthetic and provides
suggestions to fulfil each and all requirements. But design is not a simple, linear process
— and problems do not behave and line up for the sequence of analysis and synthesis.
On the contrary: design typically happens in situations where a set of vague and not very
well formulated problems exist, the information is confusing and even contradictory,
there are many clients and stakeholders, and many decision makers — a very unclear and
confusing situation. Except for the most trivial design situation, all design is
fundamentally indeterminate: there are no clear limits or conditions to design1.
Systems design shapes an artefact as well as the process of shaping that artefact. The
division of labour in the systems design process is often decided from the division of the
solution into elements and wholes — and vice versa.
[T]he division of labor in design [is] ambiguous. Where you place the boundaries between
different tasks, how you break up the entire job of design, is no straightforward process. The
boundaries of subsystems—and thus, to an extent, of object worlds—are themselves ambiguous
and subject to negotiation and renegotiation. Nor are the boundaries absolute even when this
negotiation has taken place, since coordination and overlap are both necessary and unavoidable.
Design is thus best seen as a process of communication, negotiation, and consensus-building.
No one person, no one object world, dictates the form of the design or even knows the design in
its totality. (Bucciarelli & Kuhn 1997: 214)
A systems perspective on the process is not uncommon as both the commissioning body
and the project management would want to control the project and through this reduce
risks and uncertainties2. Moreover, a systemic division of elements — and corresponding
tasks — makes necessary a good deal of boundary work; communicative construction
and integration with respect to the whole. A strict division of labour according to
elements makes such integration more difficult to achieve, as it does not support the
movement from elements to totality, which leads to lack of knowledge and overview.
This is a reported problem in systems design; Curtis et al (1988) report that one of the
major problems in systems development is the uneven distribution of knowledge about
the application area.
[D]ifferent participants with different perspectives and responsibilities in the design process,
who work within different object worlds, will construct different stories according to their
responsibilities and interests. Interests here means technical, professional interest. This is not
too difficult to accept. There need be no inconsistencies in these different accounts—they are
like ships passing in the night. This is usually not the case, but design is organized to minimize
conflict in this respect. Different participants can claim different stories about different aspects
of the same object, perhaps at different levels of detail. (Bucciarelli 1994: 71)
To develop a vision about the solution that can be shared among the designers is crucial
to the design: it gives direction to the many smaller design processes both in terms of
content and work.
During the process of design a well-organised design team develops a shared image
of the final design, which can give the individual designers a basis for interaction and
collaboration. The vision serves as a means to concretize the shared goal and task of the
team, even if individual designers may interpret and account for the image in different
ways, based on their particular knowledge and skills. The shared vision is a result of a
negotiation in the group based on one or more individual visions.
Buchanan 1995b: 14
discussed in Bratteteig & Stolterman 1997.
The production of novel and useful ideas by individuals or small groups1 is often
labelled creativity. In system development, creativity definitions are related to
innovations, human capacities, or product value with corresponding arguments and
theories: focusing on the product and the production process, the creative person, or how
to achieve a creative environment, respectively. Amabile (1996; 1999) combines the
various approaches to a unified view on creativity as a characteristic of a social process.
She emphasises that the organisation of a creative process also influences the amount and
quality of creativity.
In business, originality isn’t enough. To be creative, an idea must also be appropriate — useful
and actionable. It must somehow influence the way business gets done — by improving a
product, for instance, or by opening up a new way to approach a process. (Amabile 1999: 78)
Creativity can be increased by carefully designing a supportive organisation. Amabile
claims that managers can influence all three characteristics of creativity: expertise,
creative-thinking skills, and motivation (extrinsic, but also intrinsic motivation). Her
studies confirm other studies of creativity2, claiming that a creative environment includes
freedom and autonomy of work, challenging tasks, and adequate resources, as well as a
creative management, culture, and work group. The managerial practices that affect
creativity “fall into six general categories: challenge, freedom, resources, work-group
features, supervisory encouragement, and organizational support” she says (p. 80).
Obstacles to creativity are found in conservative, conflicting, or authoritarian
environments that may include detailed control of work, restricted personal limits,
routine tasks, and time pressure. Too much time pressure is reported to result in loss of
“Perhaps the most efficacious is the deceptively simple task of matching people with
the right assignments” says Amabile (p. 81). She proposes to “matching people with the
right assignments” (p. 81) so that they can use their expertise and skills in both
motivating the task as well as in performing it. “Perfect matches stretch employees’
abilities.” (p. 81) says Amabile, and makes the same point as Andreassen & Wadel
(1989): the right match is between “so little that they feel bored but not so much that
they feel overwhelmed and threatened by loss of control.” (Amabile 1999: 81). Finding
the right match is often difficult and always time-consuming.
Work-group features are a second point concerned with design of the team as a way
to increase creativity. Amabile stresses that “If you want to build teams that come up
with creative ideas, you must pay careful attention to the design of such teams.” (p.92).
She emphasises a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds and a mutual supportiveness
in the group. In a balanced team, the strengths of each role counter-balance the
weaknesses of others. “Most teams require this balance at all stages of a project.” (Cadle
& Yeates 2001: 338)
Because, when teams comprise people with various intellectual foundations and approaches to
work — that is, different expertise and creative thinking styles — ideas often combine and
combust in exciting and useful ways. (Amabile 1998: 82)
Diversity is a starting point, but the team members also need to recognise and respect
each other’s different knowledge and perspectives. In addition, Amabile claims that the
team must share an interest (excitement) in the goal, and a commitment to the team. She
acknowledges that heterogeneous teams require more time and effort from their members
to succeed, but she argues that her research demonstrates that this is necessary in order
for the team to be creative (including originality, usefulness and ability to act).
Peng (1994) emphasises that design involves creating a common understanding of a
vision, and articulating this vision into a commonly agreed “operative image”. The
see e.g. Harman 1984; Couger 1994; Couger et al 1993; Rhodes 1987; Fischer et al 1994
such as McGrath 1990
Chapter 9. Design between ideas and materials
Part 3. Design
shared image is not something which is easy to agree upon, and Peng describes the
process as a “blending of competencies”.
Through group discussion, the participants in the design process can build a shared
understanding of user-sensitive issues and can develop a common vision of how to meet
requirements for ease of learning, ease of use, and user satisfaction. (Karat & Bennet 1991: 269)
The operative image plays a crucial role in situations where no single group member has the
necessary skills nor possesses enough information to understand and handle all aspects of the
work process. In these situations the operative image enables the work group to discuss and
interpret a problematic situation in a meaningful way and to plan an adequate reaction. This is
why any member of the group usually can explain the situation and point out what, if anything,
has gone wrong (Bansler & Havn 1991: 149-150)
A way to increase the number of placements present in the design process is to include
people with different areas of knowledge and experience — an argument for including a
number of different professionals such as users and designers — in the design group. In a
study of design projects, Peng (1994) found that heterogeneity among the participants
was important to the result. A design process benefits from having a range of placements
that enables a variety of interpretations and perspectives on the future computer system
and its use context. Harman (1984) claims that if more and different elements are
brought into the creative process, the process becomes more creative. There is, however,
a limit to how many placements can be handled by a group. Creativity involves selection
and composition and an overflow of placements may result in reduced openness and a
more strict selection.
A number of other aspects of creativity also need to be supported. Freedom means
giving autonomy to deciding the means but not necessarily the end. Resources like time
and money need to be considered: too much and too little does not work. “Interestingly,
adding more resources above a ‘threshold of sufficiency’ does not boost creativity.”
(Amabile 1999: 82). Supervisory encouragement is necessary to maintain intrinsic
motivation — and lack of encouragement and negative feedback are effective ways to
kill any creativity. Organisational support refers to the whole organisation oriented
toward appreciating new ideas and encouraging an open and sharing environment that
nurtures ideas and diversity.
The design of the task may put limits on the creativity. Design is part of a larger
process of development that determines the limits, basically through the definition of
problems to be solved, the range of possible solutions, the resources to do it (time and
people)1. The limits (and possibilities) can be very concrete, like deadlines or access to a
specific group of people in the design team, or limits on the type of hardware and
software. Access to people means access to knowledge: who participates from the design
and the use side determines the knowledge and ideas present in the design process.
Two characteristics of object-world thinking figure largely in these examples: (1) the urge to
control complex affairs through a division and segmenting of process into independent
components, and (2) reading time as either a resource or a metronome ticking away in the
background. (Bucciarelli 1994: 110-111)
The most important factor influencing the organisation of systems development is time
and human resources2. Time restrictions determine how fast the solution has to be
developed, and thus how much time can be spent on the various stages of this work. If
the time limit is too tight, the developers will have to reuse earlier solutions to a larger
degree and thus define the problem to be solved as more similar to previously solved
problems. The management of time as a resource includes structuring the timeline of the
Borum & Enderud 1981; Andersen et al 1986, see March & Olsen 1976; Cohen, March & Olsen 1972; Bachrach
& Baratz 1962 (for more general discussions of power, see Dahl 1957; 1990 and Lukes 1974
2 Greenbaum & Stuedahl 1999; 2000
project, defining the logical development of the artefact, and distribution of time to
particular tasks, defining their relative importance within that timeline.
The other essential resource in systems development is people. Who participates will
decide which competence and creativity is present — at the individual as well as at the
team level. Just as important as including the right designers is their access to people in
the use organisation who can be involved in building up the knowledge of the design
team (and reflexively so). Users involved in design extend the range of knowledge, skills
and imaginative placements that can be incorporated into the design. Competent and
open-minded users are crucial to developing knowledge beyond the surface of the
current arrangements. Goldschmidt (1996) claims that groups make better ideas than
individuals; experiments have demonstrated that individuals make more ideas than the
similar number of individuals as members of a group, but that the fewer ideas in the
group are better in the sense of being syntheses of more than one viewpoint as well as
being more developed1.
Systems design also happens in a specific design context, created as the design task
is designed. The design context is often part of a larger design organisation, and thus
happens in a community of practice that may serves as a distributed repository for
knowledge which is relevant to the designers in specific cases.
The group process itself contributes to shaping the design result through social
processes in the group, where the group dynamics (the social characteristics of
individuals and their composition into a team) influences the individual contributions to
the group as well as their reception and further development2. Ideas and knowledge are
created on the basis of what has taken place earlier — in the group and in the individual.
Studies of decision-making in groups conclude that consolidated groups take more risks
than individuals3 and thus may be open to novelty. An open atmosphere depends on the
mutual trust and confidence within the group, where the members acknowledge that the
group includes and extends the collection of individuals (e.g. negotiating a shared basis
that incorporates all individual’s knowledge. It should be possible for all the group
members to explain and account for the group.
Group development processes take a lot of time, especially when it comes to learning
and creating a mutual understanding. Task-oriented groups — like most system design
groups would be — normally develop through a series of stages4, influenced by the
individuals, the group as a whole, and the task. A well-known model of group
development5 includes stages of forming (from individuals to creating the structure of a
group), storming (negotiating and disagreeing about the form, reaching agreement),
norming (creating and performing according to accepted work styles and relations), and
performing (carrying out the task). In practice these four stages overlap, and a group may
be at several stages with different aspects of its work at the same time6. Groups can even
go back to an earlier stage, like when a suppressed conflict takes the group back to a
storming phase. Design of systems-design processes requires a set of different tasks and
competencies than systems design – but systems design is the core rationality of the
division of tasks.
discussed also in literature on multidisciplinary teams, e.g. Bailey 1984; Jantsch 1980; Bratteteig 1994c
2 see e.g. Peng 1994; McGrath 1990
3 Baron 1986
4 McGrath 1990
5 Tuckman 1965. Others suggest that groups have other temporal patterns (like rhythms) to synchronize their
activities, e.g. McGrath 1990
6 Cadle & Yeates 2001
Chapter 9. Design between ideas and materials
Part 3. Design
[T]he formal education process teaches engineers to succeed in the object world, but overlooks
the large social components of discussion, negotiation, exchange, integration, and consensus
building that are a fundamental part of the design process (Perlow & Bailyn 1997: 333)
A major influence on systems design is also the technical conditions for the solution,
both as imaginary resources and as practical limitations and possibilities. Technical
development influences what we think of basically through the metaphors that we use as
sources of imagination and evaluation (the “as-if”s and “what-if”s). The stories about the
development of the WorkSheet system in the Florence project as well as the problems of
introducing Lotus Notes as a groupware system illustrates this point well.
9.3.2 Negotiating reality
Power is an important element in all decision-making, also in design. Many people
influence decisions in design; the designers and the commissioning body (the employers)
as they negotiate and frame the task, the users as they provide knowledge — and
interpretations — about the use contexts, the designers who interpret them, the social
processes in the team as well as in the larger organisational contexts involved.
“Specifications that seem clear at the outset are stretched and challenged by the design
process itself; ambiguities, incompleteness, confusions, and contradictions are uncovered
as part of the process of discovery that is design.” (Bucciarelli & Kuhn 1997: 213). The
consequences of a design decision may, however, not be possible to foresee for the nontechnical people involved.
Designing design means to combine the design of an artefact with that of designing a
human, social process. In this, the navigation between multiple interests is a basic
activity. A number of theories dealing with power in decision-making point to the fact
that it is not the strongest argument that “wins”; it is rather the actors that can involve the
most allies or create alliances with the right (strongest) other actors, at the right moment,
that will dominate the course of action1.
From uncertain beginnings … participants in design add to, manipulate, and transform a
customer’s expectations and, in time, develop a shared vision of the artifact―how it is to be
made, how it will perform, how much it will cost, even how to fix it if something goes wrong.
“Shared vision” is the key phrase: The design is the shared vision, and the shared vision is the
design―a (temporary) synthesis of the different participants’ work within object worlds. Some
of this shared vision is made explicit in documents, texts, and artefacts―in formal assembly and
detail drawings, operation and service manuals, contractual disclaimers, production schedules,
marketing copy, test plans, parts lists, procurement orders, mock-ups, and prototypes. But in the
process of designing, the shared vision is less artifactual; each participant in the process has a
personal collection of sketches, flowcharts, cost estimates, spreadsheets, models, and above all
stories―stories to tell about their particular vision of the object. The shared vision, as some
synthetic representation of the artifact as a whole, is not in documents or written plans. To the
extent that it exists as a whole, it is a social construction―dynamic, plastic, given nuance and
new meaning at each informal gathering of two and three in a hallway or at formal meetings
such as scheduled design reviews. (Bucciarelli 1994: 159)
Power is exercised through the agenda2: who decides what is possible to discuss and take
into account; who participates; which solutions are actually possible; and thus which
problems are defined as such and therefore may be addressed; and in particular which of
these elements are not present.
In the Scandinavian research on systems development, identifying the exercise of
power has been very important. User participation in systems development is a power
issue: in the Iron & Metal Worker’s Union project the goal was to increase the power of
the workers through knowledge about alternative technology solutions (and thus problem
cf. Actor-network theory and STS: Latour 1987; 1991; 1996; 1999a; Callon 1986; Callon & Latour 1981; 1992;
Abbate 1994; Akrich 1992; Pinch & Bijker 1987; Hård 1993; 1998
2 Borum & Enderud 1981; Bachrach & Baratz 1962; Lukes 1974
definitions) through the institution of the union. The power relation in systems
development is both about the authority to decide over resources (like the artefact) and
the authority to decide over people (inscription is taken as an example of this).
“Every designed object incorporates and expresses a set of assumptions and values
about the way we live. Design is an argument” says Rees (1997: 130). Basic to systems
development is that design includes the power to create the artefact and use includes the
power to utilize it: the power shifts between design and use. Involving users in
development can be seen as an attempt to minimise the uncertainty of how an artefact
will be used, i.e. prolong the power of design into the use period. On the other hand, the
users may be interested in stretching their power into design in order to get a design
result better suited to their purpose. Bråten (1973) suggests that in order to break the
monopoly of power of the dominating group, power itself and the framing of the process
should be made the topic of the discussion. In line with the Trade Union Projects, he
suggests “counter-expertise” as a strategy to strengthen the position of the weak party1.
Alternatives are essential in order to create the similarities basic to any process or
product. The power of the learnt experience was illustrated well in the Florence project,
by the nurses’ use of Macintosh interface design as a basis for suggesting the WorkSheet
9.4 Between ideas and materials; relations in design
I end this chapter with a summary of my view on design as presented in chapters 8 and 9.
Design is aimed at creating visions about symbolic machines to be used in a context of
use. Basic to the design process are the ideas and knowledge that give limits and
opportunities for framing the vision, and the materials in which the vision can be made
real. We design what we know. In systems design, the material is representations of
software – representations that act as prescriptions for realizing software and thus
necessarily incorporate software logic2.
Creating objects, data, or processes is a craft that involves knowledge about
computer systems as well as of human activity and use of computers in information
processing. In systems modelling we try to extract or construct the basic information
(data, processes etc.) that can be identified (constructed) in the current activity and also
be essential in the future changed activity. We want to find elements of work that survive
a technological shift – like between paper and digital equipment. We want to make the
solution durable and robust for other kinds of change. We want to make a solution that
breaks away from the current technical solution, not just replacing the old solution with a
new version of the same.
Systems design creates structure for computer programs. The structure and processes
constitutes a model that refers to a real world phenomenon and that – when realized and
executed in a computer – becomes a part of the world that interacts with the original
phenomenon. Software design is to create such models: both the internal design of the
model as a closed world (the mathematical logic) as well as the mapping of real world
phenomena to the formalizations of systems design – and furthermore of the computer to
the real world (the presentation of information in the user interface). Education of
systems developers emphasizes the crafting of the internal logic of a model through
systems description techniques and tools. The matching of this logic with the logic of the
see Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1995 for a discussion about this
a view that fits with Salzman & Rosenthal 1994’s discussion on software design in a wider context
Chapter 9. Design between ideas and materials
Part 3. Design
employer, the various user groups, the customers, the consumers etc. are not taught very
Thus systems design is the negotiation and combination of many different
knowledges, logics, interests. The design of the system is influenced by the design of the
design process itself – but not in any unambiguous, causal ways. The development of the
process within the defined limits may lead to elusive problems and solutions. An
important inheritance from the Scandinavian systems development tradition is the focus
on identifying and discussing sources of power.
Design is the combination of many processes. The processes include movements
between diverse aspects and interpretations of the world: structure-process, whole-parts,
things-relations, abstract-concrete, language-reality. But the most important movements
are those between the logic of the use context and the logic of the machine. From this
perspective design implies designing mutual learning, in which the relational
competencies of dealing with differences is fundamental.
Part 4
Systems development as design-use relations
[A] cook is not a man who first has a vision of a pie and then tries to
make it, he is a man skilled in cookery, and both his projects and his
achievements spring from that skill. (Ehn 1988: 55)1
Systems development can be seen as relations between design and use. Design is
oriented towards building an artefact for a set of use situations, while use of the artefact
constitutes a realization of the designers’ intentions and simultaneously an incorporation
of the artefact into use which the designers could not predict. This may lead to the
artefact being used in new ways, giving visions or needs for redesign. From the point of
view of an artefact’s lifecycle in an organisation, the interplay between design and use in
systems development is obvious: the relations between design and use over time can be
seen as a continuous process in which periods of use (and maintenance) are followed by
periods of (re)design. The interplay between design and use, moreover, influences each
of these processes, in different ways.
This part of the thesis aims to discuss relations between design and use as a way to
understand systems development as a change process. The discussion is based on
empirical data and theoretical sources presented in previous chapters. I argue that
systems development can be explained as changes in the relations between design ideas
and use conditions. However, design ideas and use conditions interplay with other
aspects of design and use; design and use must be included in the discussion as relations.
The three following chapters discuss diverse relations between design and use. In
chapter 10 I discuss relations between design and use departing from a movement from
design toward use. Chapter 11 goes into relations of the other direction, from use to
design. Chapter 12, finally, summarises by looking into how these relations mutually
interplay and constitute relations between design and use.
Ehn refers this quote to Winch 1958
Part 4. Systems development as design-use relations
Chapter 10
Design Æ use
The arrival of a new technology in the household is a social and cultural
as well as a technological event. … the arrival of a new television set will
tend to relegate the old one to a secondary status. No longer will it be in
the control of the dominant figure of the family or be perceived to be the
family’s to share. The discarded technology will be denied its place at the
power point of the household. It will shift physically to less significant
places, to the kitchen (where old black-and-white telvision sets tend to
languish) or to a child’s bedroom (usually the boy’s) where it will
become part, especially as the child gets older, of a converging teenage
techno-culture of sound, vision, and computer games. It might also shift
out of the household altogether as a gift to a disadvantaged friend or
relative. Many television sets and video-recorders, not to say telephone
handsets and obsolescent games-playing consoles, continue their careers
in this way. In their progress, they articulate the social and cultural
division in contemporary society and the differential access to our
increasingly pervasive information and communication-based culture.
... As the technologies shift around the household so, too, is the skills and
competencies associated with their use, though not necessarily in a
uniform or uncontested manner. … This technological seepage is, of
course, social. It involves not just the physical movement of machines
around in the household, but their changing functions as the households
and the technologies change. … Machines are inherited, technologies are
replaced and displaced, and patterns of use are reconfigured. All this
involves both regulation and reregulation as well as the management of
conflict over access and use. (Silverstone & Haddon 1996: 68-69)
Design normally influences use through the design result; the artefact, as it is introduced
to the use context. The artefact is designed to be enrolled in a practice, and materialises
the designer’s visions about this practice – at least the vision that the designer agreed to
materialise. These visions may be quite different to the actual practice. The degree of
influence of the artefact on use varies by the ease of fitting it into the practice, and by its
reception in the use context.
A new artefact changes the work conditions and through this changes the work – at
least at the operational level. Systems development often aims to accommodate such
changes and therefore needs to understand this kind of change and also why an artefact
may be used differently from its planned use. A better understanding of how new
artefacts contribute to, but do not determine, change can be achieved by addressing the
relation between work conditions and the work activity as a whole.
This chapter aims to discuss how we can talk about the ways that design influences
use through the artefact. The topics discussed are taken from empirical and theoretical
sources that deal with this relation. I start with discussing the fact that the artefact has
incorporated suggestions for use behaviour. This is of concern to designers as well as
users, and is widely discussed in literature. Computer-based systems are normally
designed to accommodate change, and the next two sections discuss small and large
Chapter 10. Design → use
Part 4. Systems development as design-use relations
changes in use, respectively. In these sections I depart from visions of change ranging
from small-scale improvements to breaking old habits. In the last two sections I continue
the discussion about change, but here I focus on the process of change as referring to
characteristics of the artefact. I discuss the utilization of characteristics of computing
technology; automation and flexible symbolic machines, respectively. The final section
summarises the chapter, taking the change back to the use context.
The chapter as a whole is concerned with how use; the use context, the users; relates
to design through the artefact.
10.1 Suggesting use behaviour
Any artefact is based on visions about how it will be used, hence assumptions about use
behaviour are implemented in its form, function and structure. The visions concern what
operations, actions and activities the finished artefact will be a part of, and how. It is
possible to analyse these assumptions by identifying which actions are supported,
encouraged, hampered or not possible. Such analyses concern the affordances of the
artefact: “the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental
properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used … A chair affords
(“is for”) support and, therefore, affords sitting.” (Norman 1988: 9). Form communicates
The form, function and structure of the artefact encourage certain activities and
certain ways of performing them, and discourage others. Certain patterns of behaviour
are set – engraved, inscribed – into the artefact as
o it supports particular activities in particular ways: it is designed to be part of some
activities, i.e. to represent or execute programs that contribute to certain goals in the
use context (in the activity and/or in the organization). Like any other formal
representation and routine, the artefact is decided on and designed in advance as a
means to improve or secure achievement of the objectives of the activity (as this is
defined to the designer).
o it contributes to the performance of some actions within the larger context by being
designed with the aim to produce certain changes in the organizational production
line. It incorporates a particular view on the action.
o it requires the user to do certain operations in certain ways by connecting
representational forms in sequences and procedures (like a specified sequence of
filling in a computerised form, where some data fields are automatically filled in and
some are not).
The patterns of behaviour express the planned activities in which the artefact is to be
included. This applies to all artefacts and tools. To the user the possibilities for acting in
ways that are not in accordance with the patterns are important because the patterns may
not cover all situations that happen or will ever happen in which the artefact will be used.
The concept “inscription”, introduced by Actor-network theory, denotes a “program
of action” that is wanted by the artefact owner and implemented in the artefact through
some material. Latour (1991) tells the story of a hotel owner who wanted the guests to
leave their room keys at the desk. After unsuccessful attempts of written and oral
reminders – larger and larger signs – he added heavy weight to the key so that the key
became uncomfortable to carry around, and the hotel guests started remembering to
deliver it at the desk when leaving the hotel. The program was successfully inscribed in
the key-artefact when the heavy weight was attached to the key – it has sufficient
strength to succeed.
Actor-network theory uses the concept “inscription” to emphasise that artefacts
impose control of user behaviour. It is the users’ operations that are influenced as the
employer-designer chooses a random material and a random form that will prevent the
user from behaving in certain unwanted ways. A similar example is the collection of
design efforts and arrangements that aim to prevent drivers from driving faster than a
suggested speed limit (which is calculated with reference to the probability for
accidents). The collection includes traffic signs, road markings, “sleeping policemen”,
cameras for automatic photographing, police cars driving by, police wo/men, speed
controls (often even broadcasted beforehand), the existence of fines and even withdrawal
of the driver’s licence. In the FIRE project a study of functional integration in a hospital
setting revealed that the aim to increase the access control to sensitive documents in the
hospital had resulted in long and tedious login routines to all sub-systems – and they
were not functionally integrated. The result was that a number of systems were opened in
the morning, and left open; each computer terminal was dedicated to one system, and
everybody could go to one of the terminals and get access “its” system. The security was
reduced because of the security arrangements.
However, the regulation of user behaviour can be more effective in a computer
system, as certain actions can be made impossible. Cash withdrawal terminals are
designed so that you cannot withdraw more money than you possess in your account.
They are also designed so that you get back your card before you get the money – in
order to make sure that people don’t forget their cards in the machine by accident.
Woolgar (1991)1 uses the concept “configuring the user” when he describes how
technicians work out patterns of user behaviour that become inscribed or prescribed,
presupposed and implemented into the artefact as defined sequences of operations that
the user and the artefact will perform. Woolgar offers a critique of the process of
deciding the ways in which the artefact is to be used; as it ends up with influencing (and
even forcing) the users to behave in certain ways and by this constraining their actions.
The computer is analysed as a text, and Woolgar is critical to reducing the user to a set of
textual characteristics that fit with the textual characteristics of the technical artefact.
Suchman (1987) similarly discusses the instructions for human behaviour presented at a
copy machine display as instantiations of plans for human behaviour. Taken together
with observations of how users really behave, she documents the difficulties of
prescribing users’ thinking and acting2.
In line with this, Silverstone & Haddon (1996) point to the limits of the configuring
process in actually determining user behaviour. They criticise Woolgar for not
contextualizing users and designers, and (being concerned with consumer products)
suggest seeing design as catching the consumer as a way to move beyond these
analytical limitations.
The aim of the discussions of Latour and Woolgar is to question the division between
the technical and non-technical or social, arguing for a constructivist view of technology
(as opposed to essentialist positions of technology determinism). I sympathise with the
aim to avoid unnecessarily reducing the autonomy of the users. However, I find their
criticism growing out of detached observations of technologists’ work and not offering
precise concepts for technologists at work – for me as a designer and technologist. The
notions of “inscription” and “configuring” or “constructing” the user all emphasise the
control of the artefact on human behaviour, pointing to the designer(s) as the origin of
the control. This is an important aspect of the design-use relation. I find, however, that
this perspective loses its power if (when) taken to the extreme. The one-sided focus on
and Grint & Woolgar 1997
and goes on to criticising the Artificial Intelligence field and its view on human cognition and behaviour
Chapter 10. Design → use
Part 4. Systems development as design-use relations
(lack of) control leads the attention away from aspects that can better explain the
unwanted stiffness of the artefact as experienced by the user.
First, the artefact is made for a purpose, commissioned by somebody. This fits with
the concern of Latour (and his hotel owner, for example). Secondly, the point of Woolgar
and Suchman is that the artefact is a machine in which its formal representation and
automated operations have incorporated planned sequences of user-machine interactions.
In order for the machine to work properly, the conditions for executing operations need
to be strictly specified and may thus require the user to set the initial conditions
correctly. The machine characteristics of a computer-based artefact may require certain
operations from the users in order for them to use the machinery correctly, i.e. so that the
machine operates correctly and produces the right result. The act of operating the
machine may make the operator do things in certain ways just to get the machine right.
However, the material of the computer-based artefact; the software, necessitates
certain forms of “machine operations” which should not be confused with reducing the
users’ autonomy. In more simple use situations this point becomes clearer; we do have to
operate the light switch if we want light in a dark room, but in this case seeing the light
switch as controlling our behaviour seems just as odd as being controlled by the pencil
when writing. I would feel less in control if the light was automatically switched on
when I entered the room than if I could choose to do the operation or not. In using a
calculator we push the buttons: 2, +, 2 and = in order to instruct the calculator to add
2+2. In a post-fix calculator the sequence is 2, [enter], 2, [enter], +. The machine needs
to be operated correctly, and this is designed into its presentational form. The difference
between a prefix and a postfix calculator also illustrates that the sequence is subject to
decisions and preferences. However, the calculator also demonstrates that in order to
delegate operations to a machine, we will have to operate it correctly. Design includes
deciding on this based on knowledge about the machinery as well as the user.
Sometimes the material itself influences the design in ways that force us to behave in
certain ways; like walls in a house that force us to walk in certain patterns – they are
designed to keep the roof up. We should certainly discuss the way in which the particular
positioning of the walls influences and constrains our movements, but we also need to
take into account that the walls must be positioned somewhere – and within some range
of possibilities – to keep the roof up in a safe way in order for us to move in a building at
all. The physical character of architectural design and its realization in buildings – or
engineering constructions realized in bridges – makes it easy to accept that the material
constraints and enables certain forms. We also accept that the material quality of the
realization of the artefact (be it a building or a bridge) takes precedence and is a
prerequisite for deciding on alternative ways of use and thus how the material can be
“stretched” to enable or constrain use behaviour.
As a design material, software also has certain characteristics that influence design
and which are more difficult to grasp. One reason is that computer-based artefacts are
presented as formalisms rather than machines. The computer-based artefact is a machine
to which characteristics of correctness, predictability and controllability are essential –
and which therefore sets requirements to be operated in ways that preserves these
characteristics. On an old bridge in Oslo; the Åmot bridge, is a poster that says: ”I can
carry 100 men unless they march in time” – an example of a clear specification of how to
use the bridge if its function to safely carry people from one side of the river to the other
is to be trusted. Of course we can discuss the limit of “100 men marching in time” as an
economical, practical and aesthetic decision – which is important to do. Emphasising the
interaction of ideas and materials is a way to bring this discussion up.
Figure 30: Åmot bridge in Oslo
The notion of “inscription” is very general, based on the basic view that all artefacts are
socially constructed. “Inscription” does not catch how the material characteristics
influence the form and function of the artefact. My focus is that all artefacts also are
technically constructed. It is useful to discuss which guidelines and limitations the
material imposes on the design and which are added by the designer. The experience of
the 127 character limit in the application generator in the Florence project illustrates that
you need to know the material quite well to be able to sort the material from the nontechnical constraints. It is the number 127 which is the question – not that there is a limit.
Technical artefacts are technical solutions that materialise from economical, practical
and aesthetic decisions. The concrete solution may be constrained to the extent that it
hampers user activity because of the necessity to achieve correctness, predictability and
controllability within the given economical, organisational and practical limits.
A second point to be made here is that computer-based artefacts are often not
designed just for one use situation: a system may support many use situations, across use
contexts, and serve several purposes – even conflicting ones. The studies of Lotus Notes
include several examples1; like the international industrial organisation (IND), where
Lotus Notes was used by sales people until they became aware that also management
could see their documents. A second example was the IT organisation in which Lotus
Notes was mandatory, and where all individual work papers were accessible to
management and used for control. Being made for use in a set of activities may lead to
several operations and representational characteristics appearing unnecessary or even
unwanted, and as constraining and even controlling to the individual user, from her/his
point of view. To other users or to management, however, these characteristics are
exactly what make the system useful. The extra work operations and the articulation
work introduced by computer-based artefacts may be the result of the choice to design a
collection of tools into the system, but presenting them as one to each user (group). The
electronic patient record (EPR) is a very visible collection of forms, tools and
communication media referred to as one. The EPR serves several purposes, even several
purposes for one user group. It basically represents a legal documentation of the
treatment history of each patient. It is most often used as a tool for communication
between professional groups (e.g. nurse and doctor, nurse and lab. technician),
reported in chapter 3.3.1
Chapter 10. Design → use
Part 4. Systems development as design-use relations
organisational groups (lab and ward), and production units (shifts of nurses and doctors).
The EPR alone does not inscribe behaviour, but it materialises inscriptions from
legislation, organisation of work, and professional quality standards ― just as
legislation, work organisation, and professional work are influenced by the possibilities
of operations suggested and encouraged by the existence of EPR technology. The EPR
supports the organisational goals and their realizations into activities, actions and
operations within the larger societal context.
Suggesting user behaviour involves materialising ideas into form. We need to discuss
who has the ideas and why. In order to discuss this question, we also need to discuss
which material choices of form, function and structure are taken, and how the material
limitations were decided. The design experiences from the Florence project demonstrate
that there are material constraints that can be questioned (like the 127 character limit),
but there are also material limits to what can be made (on a line-oriented, green/black
terminal, for example, it is impossible to create interlinked columns of text-processing
for a Kardex report sheet1). Some material limitations are easy to trace back to political
choices or visions supporting particular interests. Latour’s (1996) example of the gauge
of the Paris metro being made different from the gauge of the Paris railway, and
Winner’s (1986) example of the height in the New York tunnels being made too low for
the public buses, demonstrates that it is possible to make power an issue when analysing
seemingly “innocent” materials. However, knowledge of the material makes it possible
to point to material characteristics that limit design. Petroski’s (1992; 1994; 1996) many
examples of failing artefacts illustrate material constraints that appear in use because the
artefact was designed in a way that enabled the material weakness to develop.
I suggest that the effort to do away with the distinction between technical and nontechnical is better framed as a relation between ideas and materials, where also the
material “has a say” in the vision (and the final artefact). The material is very concretely
present in operations and in infrastructures enabling operations (and actions, activities).
As a user I want the artefact to make it difficult for me to destroy it or use it in ways that
give unwanted results (especially if I cannot check their correctness): I want the cash
terminal to give me back the card before the money, I want the car to not lock before I
take the keys outside, I want the bank computer to calculate correctly – even if this
means I need to do particular operations in particular ways. I also want to be able to
work around bad systems (like Gasser’s (1986) reports about clever “misuse”, or the
nursing assistants in the Cardiology ward refusing to enter data into the system, thus
manually simulating the printed paper reports from the WorkSheet System).
Discussed at different levels of activity, the topics change: at the operation level we
are concerned with autonomy of the individual; at the action level we are concerned with
the relations between operations and operators; and at the activity level we are concerned
with the overall goals expressing the logic of use. It seems that the discussion is about
the relation between the user’s autonomy and the material constraints – at all levels. The
core of the discussion is the ideas given form through a particular material. Some
artefacts are vulnerable to unanticipated or unwanted use (like bank systems) and some
artefacts are vulnerable because others depend on the quality of the data entries and the
correctness of other people’s use (like in hospital systems). As designers, the challenge
then is to design robustness into the artefact. I understand this challenge as a relation
between the work knowledge of the user and the design ideas that have influenced the
material work conditions.
see chapter 6.3. This technical limitation is removed with graphical user interfaces (GUIs)
10.2 Artefacts put to use
[C]lose inspection of technological development reveals that technology leads a double life, one
which conforms to the intentions of designers and interests of power and another which
contradicts them—proceeding behind the backs of their architects to yield unintended
consequences and unanticipated possibilities. (Keen 1987: 9)1
The finished artefact is handed over to the use context, for the users to take control.
When users are in control of the artefact, anything can happen! I want to emphasise the
change work that has to be carried out in order to make a new artefact become integrated
in the use context, and I want to discuss ways of talking about the amount of change
Domestication – making domestic – is a process in which the unknown artefact is
taken into known surroundings and practices and made to be a part of them – a process in
which both the artefact and the practices/surroundings may be changed2. The process is
not just design results influencing use context, but includes the use context being
changed in order to include the artefact and still appear the same.
To start using a new artefact is
a process of domestication because what is involved is quite literally a taming of the wild and a
cultivation of the tame. In this process new technologies and services, by definition to a
significant degree unfamiliar, and therefore both exciting but possibly also threatening and
perplexing, are brought (or not) under control by and on behalf of domestic users. In their
ownership and in their appropriation into the culture of family or household and into the
routines of everyday life, they are at the same time, cultivated. They become familiar, but they
also develop and change. New technologies and services are found a place alongside or as a
replacement for existing ones. As such, domestication is fundamentally a conservative process,
as consumers look to incorporate new technologies into the patterns of their everyday life in
such a way as to maintain both the structure of their lives and their control of that structure.
(Silverstone & Haddon 1996: 60).
Domestication cannot be understood outside the work (or domestic) conditions, the very
concrete conditions for the work activity. Even the physical location of the new artefact
may bring change to the activities concerned with it. CSCW literature, for example, is
full of studies showing that proximity makes a difference3. A study of the introduction of
Lotus Notes in an organisation (PUBO) that only used it as a fax machine, reported that
the users were very happy with the easily available fax utility – which in turn may have
contributed to strengthening just this way of using Notes4.
Domestication is grounded in the tradition of the present. The change that the new
artefact brings about needs to fit the tradition; the newness – be it practices or
environment – must be recognized as similar to the established order. However, it should
also be recognised as different in ways that signify similarities with the image of other
important contexts, like being modern, technologically developed, well off or the like.
Domestication is thus a balancing act of changing the local in directions of the external
(not really global) in ways that preserves the familiarity and thus the feeling of security
and mastering.
Domestication is tradition, in the sense that tradition is change. Stuedahl
(forthcoming 2003) discusses tradition as a process of developing an interpretation of the
world through assumptions, attitudes, values – materialised in concepts, artefacts,
Keen quotes Noble 1984 (referred to in Silverstone & Haddon 1996: 73 (note 8))
Monteiro 1999; Lie & Sørensen 1998; Silverstone & Hirsch 1992
3 see e.g. Hinds & Kiesler 2002; Kiesler & Cummings 2002
4 Bratteteig 1998, see chapter 3.3.1
Chapter 10. Design → use
Part 4. Systems development as design-use relations
arrangements, rituals. Tradition is characterized by1 i) hermeneutic aspects: how the
tradition constitutes a scheme for interpreting the world2, assumptions about the world
that are taken for granted, ii) normative aspects: how old assumptions lead to
unreflective action with reference to the tradition, iii) legitimising aspects: how the
tradition supports exercising power and authority, authority based on tradition or through
traditional actions, and iv) identity-shaping aspects: how self-identity and collective
identity are formed by values and attitudes from the past. Stuedahl uses tradition as a
conceptual tool for understanding positioning in complex situations, in particular for
understanding when the past is used to legitimise and normalise behaviour and exercise
of power, and when the tradition is used as a hermeneutic and identity-shaping tool
creating continuity in the change.
Ciborra (1996) introduces the concepts of “hospitality” and “care” to characterize the
ways in which new – unfamiliar – artefacts are invited into the organisation. Hospitality
presupposes that you do not know how the stranger will behave, but still you invite
him/her in to share your home and your time. Ciborra claims that what distinguishes
organisations that succeed in utilizing CSCW from those who do not, is simply their
hospitality and caring attitude toward the new technology.
If the new artefact is so new that it is difficult to see the similarities with current
practice, the users may give up trying to make the artefact their own: they may use it as if
it is something they know – knowing it is not (like Lotus Notes users probably do when
they use it as a fax machine) or they may not use it at all (like the nursing assistants in
the Florence project3). The effort to make the artefact a part of well-known, current
practice is normally made easier by the fact that new technology is presented as similar
to old technology (the dv-i and dvd being similar to video4) – and similar to expected
current technological knowledge (like the use of the sign ► meaning “play” appearing
almost on all technical devices5). This also explains why some people use technology in
ways that differ significantly from the visions and planned use (the inscriptions); it is not
as an “anti-program”6 or (only) because of lack of understanding7: it may be a deliberate
act to include the new artefact into established practices that interplay with numerous
other practices and understandings.
SMS8 is a good example of the utilization of a particular characteristic of mobile
phone technology, originally designed as an additional feature. SMS is made possible by
a combination of buttons “inherited” from old phones with both letters and numbers on
them with a display that equally well presents letters and numbers (and the service, of
course). In Norway the SMS was established as a free service for some months, and
young people utilized this opportunity to keep in touch for free. Today’s mobile phones
Stuedahl refers to Thompson 1996
stable, based on the past. Giddens (1994) sees tradition as a “medium of the reality of the past” tied up in
repetitions and routines, capable of “surviving” only if able to interact with other traditions. Tradition is form –
content is less important (Planke 2001 also makes this point). Lash (1996) similarly talks about “the given”
3 Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1987c
4 Silverstone & Haddon 1996: 54ff
5 discussed in Bratteteig 2002; 2001b
6 Latour 1990
7 Orlikowski 1992a
8 SMS (Short Message Service) is a service for sending messages of up to 160 characters (224 characters if using a
5-bit mode) to mobile phones that use Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM). Developed in Europe
and (at the moment of writing) more common in Europe
are better suited for text messages: more SMS functionality has been added, and various
spellers and word-suggestion programs enable very fast texting1.
In order to see how the artefact in the long run can introduce change in the practices
and understandings, it is useful to analytically distinguish between operations, actions,
and activities. All new artefacts bring about changes to the operational level of activities
simply by offering new ways of doing things (small things like the different locations of
buttons or larger things like a new sequence or even new operations to do the same
action). At the action level, a new artefact may introduce new tasks (or automate and
thus totally change or eliminate tasks). At the activity level, the change can be more
profound as it may change the understanding of the work task — and thus have greater
impact than any concrete change may have. However, changing concrete operations may
in turn encourage or even necessitate a reorientation of the objectives of the activity (at
the corresponding level). Even small operational changes may result in large conceptual
changes that in turn may bring about large operational changes. An example of this
would be technological leaps like the introduction of groupware in a single-user
environment (or mobile technology to a stationary environment): Lotus Notes may have
rather small impacts if integrated into existing practices as replacements for current
technologies (like email, fax, document archive). However, its grounding in
collaborative openness and information sharing may be taken into use by more and more
people and make a basis for changing practices in the long run. This requires, however,
changes in other, interdependent practices like management and reward systems to align
with practices that embody the groupware ideas of sharing information as a support of
cooperative work2. Grudin & Palen (1995) explain the success of electronic calendars as
a combination of maturing users and maturing technology – and contextual arrangements
that fit with the assumptions in the artefact3. New practices – from new artefacts or from
new arrangements – make a new basis for interpreting and evaluating artefactual support
for activities. They discuss mandatory use (force) as one way of achieving maturity.
Artefacts put to use can be seen as materialisations of ideas that are introduced to the
use context. The use context has its own ideas embedded in it – its own identity and
interpretive schemes – but may be open to the “stranger” artefact. The ideas incorporated
into the new artefact may be accepted in the use context, and thus may be the origin of
the development of ideas that include the ideas of the artefact (as interpreted by the use
10.3 Discontinuity
Change is introducing something new that makes a difference and may make us change
the activity and the way we understand the activity. Unless a new tool is an exact copy of
the old one, the mere fact that the tool is new will make us notice it, attend to it, at least
at the operational level: we will have to do things in a different way.
A new tool makes us feel like beginners again – even in well-known activities –,
until we learn how to translate what we can do to how to do it with this tool. A new tool
in a familiar activity requires a change: partly a translation of our old use skills and
a body of literature about SMS cultures exists: Ling 2000; 2001; Grjotheim Hareide 2002; Sti 2002; Mörtberg
2003; Due 2003; Langseter 2003; Prøitz 2003; Torgersen 2003; Grinter & Eldridge 2001; Taylor & Harper 2002
2 see e.g. discussions by Orlikowski 1992a
2 see e.g. Star & Ruhleder 1996; Perin 1991; Dreiem 1998
3 electronic calendars were reported to be a failure in Markus 1995 (referred to in Grudin & Palen 1995) and
Markus & Connolly 1990. See also Grudin 1989b; 1994
Chapter 10. Design → use
Part 4. Systems development as design-use relations
knowledge to a set of operations involving the new tool, and partly a need to understand
the capacity of the tool so that we let it be a basis for investigating new ways of carrying
out the activity.
The change of work conditions constituted by a new artefact depends on how
different the new artefact is from the old one. If the artefact is fairly similar to the
existing artefact, like a new exemplar of a class of similar artefacts, the change is very
small. An example would be replacing a typewriter with a new one – cumulation1 by just
adding another typewriter to our experience of typewriters we do not change our activity
at all (or just in small ways, e.g. a new position for the “.” and “,”). Experiencing a new
exemplar of a class of phenomena contributes, however, to our learning: as the new
example is similar and different to the rest of the class, it contributes to our identification
of characteristics of the class of phenomena as well as understanding the variety of ways
in which the single example can differ from the others and still be a member of the class.
If the artefact is more different from the existing artefact, like replacing a mechanical
typewriter with an electric one, the work will change. An electric typewriter is different
from a mechanical one in several ways (e.g. possibilities for correction and speed) even
if it looks (is made to look) almost the same. Mathiassen (1981) calls this kind of change
assimilation: we need to change the way we think and act, and as the artefact behaves
differently than the one we are used to, we need to pay attention to it, it becomes visible
as part of our operations. However, a new artefact does not necessarily bring about a
need to change the basic understanding of its part in work. In routine operations we do
not pay attention to the artefacts which are included in the standard operating procedure:
if they are replaced, the routine has to be re-established. At the operational level we need
to change what we do if the artefact has a different set of affordances than the routine:
we need to learn – and routinize – a different set of operations. However, the change may
also introduce changes to the action in which the operations are performed, thus it may
contribute to changing the way we think about the actions as well as the operations
involved in them.
If the artefact is radically different from the existing artefact, like changing from a
typewriter to a text processor, the new artefact enables us to radically rethink the work in
which it is to be used. Mathiassen (1981) calls this accommodation: the new artefact
does not fit the existing (understanding of) work, and we need to change in order to make
sense of and utilize the new artefact. The change simultaneously affects the operational
and the activity levels (and may involve changing actions). The work knowledge is
changed through the process of understanding the new artefact. This is also what
happens when we encounter an unknown artefact in a learning situation: the artefact is
designed in a context, and makes more sense if we take its contextual history into
Bødker (1991)2 introduces the concept of “breakdown” to talk about changes
stemming from introduction of a new artefact. The notion of breakdown is inspired by
Winograd & Flores (1986)’s presentation of Heidegger’s concepts ready-at-hand and
present-at-hand. When a tool is ready-at-hand we do not think about it, we act with it, it
is “transparent” to the qualified user3. As soon as the tool does not work, or when we
apply a new tool, the tool is present-at-hand or unready-at-hand. Breakdown
Mathiassen 1981; Bratteteig 1983 referring to Piaget and therefore basically a different view on learning than is
presented in this thesis. The taxonomy suggested here is, however, useful for illustrating that the degree of
difference – newness – have effects on the work into which the artefact is introduced, on different levels.
2 see also Bertelsen & Bødker 2002; Bardram 1997; 1998; Madsen 1989; Winograd & Flores 1986: 32ff. See
chapter 5.6.
3 Polanyi 1966
necessitates a shift of attention. Any new tool will need attention until its similarities and
differences to current tools are experienced. A new tool thus introduces discontinuity of
attention; in addition to attending to the task you are to do, you need to attend to how
you are doing it, i.e. to the tool itself.
Bødker (1991) uses this as a basis to suggest that user interfaces – representing the
tool – should be made to be transparent, i.e. unnoticeable, to the user so that the user
should not need to pay attention to them, but should be able to concentrate on the task
(action and activity). This view is shared in the HCI community, through principles like
“easy to learn” and “do not take the users’ attention”. Hillestad (2003) argues against this
view, claiming that the user’s understanding of the tool s/he is using may suffer from
being non-visible, and may even lead to unwanted use. Hillestad discusses the case of a
student system at a university that, as default, made all documents on student homepages
accessible by all. The user interface was a Microsoft interface similar to the personal PC,
in which the save operation closes the document and “files it in an archive drawer”.
However, in the university system “save” instead could be seen as the metaphor “post on
the public board”. This was not understood by most students. Students knowing UNIX
could easily both check and change the access mode. Hiding design choices from the
interface thus disabled the students from knowing the consequences of their operations
on the computer. Equally serious is the fact that the students only to a limited extent
acquired more knowledge and skill in mastering the tool by using it.
This suggests more detailed discussion about use of tools, at all levels. In routinized
operations we often do not pay attention to the tool we use in order to carry out the
operation: we master the tool. However, in some activities, the virtuoso user again
attends to the tool in a different way: as a companion or a partner that act as an extension
of the human skills, but still has its own different characteristics. The fiddle player
Annbjørg Lien1 tells that she (the fiddle) has personality and temper and is influenced by
the context (temperature, humidity) for some time, but that sometimes she can
experience the fiddle as a part of herself when she/they make music. The tool has certain
characteristics: certain limits and certain possibilities that are necessary to learn in order
to be able to feel the interdependency that wipes away the discontinuity of the human
and the tool. The virtuoso attends to the tool as an instrument to reach beyond the limits
of the tool. The tool is very present, and the attention is on stretching the limits of the
tool through the mastery of routinized operations. With this perspective the tool should
be visible so as that real mastery is made possible to achieve – only routinized mastery is
possible if the limits of the tool are not available for questioning. A virtuoso reintroduces
the mastery-attention needed to improve her skills beyond her limits.
The ability to combine the feeling of continuity with that of discontinuity seems
important for mastery of a tool. Furthermore, this seems to suggest that the tool need not
necessarily be easy to learn or use. Good tools often demand effort and time to learn and
master – especially if the skilled user is to control her/his tools2. A good tool should also
be developed by skilled people – mending your tool is traditionally a part of mastery. A
good tool may be difficult to learn to use; the important point is that it should be
designed so that mastery of the tool improves and enables using it better, maybe
differently, but definitively in a more knowledgeable way with respect to both task and
tool. Many computerised tools do not have such intentions.
Ideas about change incorporated in an artefact may include ideas about discontinuous
breakdowns of routines. The Broadcasting Company introduced a small tool to be used
referred in chapter 6.2
a basic value in the (critical) Scandinavian Participatory Design, see e.g. Ehn 1988 – very different from a
traditional HCI perspective
Chapter 10. Design → use
Part 4. Systems development as design-use relations
at the operation level as a jigsaw piece of a large change of activities and traditions.
Mastery of the small tool was a vehicle for the big change. However, the Lotus Notes
studies demonstrated that small differences in tools may not lead to any change at all.
Breakdown sounds dramatic – and is dramatic to the user as a stressed situation in
which the feelings of mastery, of skill, of security are replaced with feelings of
uncertainty, lack of mastery, dramatically changed socio-cultural status etc.1 For some
people such feelings appear at operational breakdowns – other people can experience all
breakdowns as opportunities for learning.
10.4 Learning
Change is an opportunity for learning; to change means learning to deal with new
conditions. Säljö (2000) argues that continuous learning characterizes human beings:
[T]hroughout history people have sought to develop technologies to help them solve intellectual
as well as practical problems. To some extent this is almost a defining feature of the human
species: the ability to create a broad range of powerful technologies transforming life conditions
in almost any setting. (Säljö 2000: 145)2
From a learning point of view, a more important shift than computing is the shift to
technologies for writing; these changed the ways we think, remember, and
communicate3. Writing and reading changed our way of dealing with intellectual (and
practical) problems, for instance calculations that are trivial with pen and paper, but not
so without them. The read/write technologies have changed what we need to know.
Knowledge is what we can do with what we have at hand. Learning is thus how we
by can do new things or do things differently with the help of tools for thinking and
acting. Seemingly physical work like car repair4 or blacksmith’s work5 requires a
combination of both physical and intellectual knowledge, intertwined in action.
Even in practical activities, such as the mending of a car engine or in producing handicraft,
psychological tools are essential. The mechanic has to analyse the nature of the malfunction of
the engine (which is done largely by means of concepts) and form hypotheses about what the
problem might be (which is also largely a conceptual activity) …
The forging of iron by the smith while ‘thinking hot’ relies on sophisticated perceptual and
intellectual skill. (Säljö 2000: 150-151)
But even more importantly in this context, the mastery of concepts implies being able to do
something. Human actions to a significant extent are communicative and discursive in nature;
activities such as being able to calculate percentages when making purchases or measuring the
surface of a wall when ordering wallpaper, or a teacher explaining to a student the sexual
system of plants, or the salesperson convincing a potential buyer about the advantages of a
particular kind of computer or photocopier, all are discursive in nature and simultaneously they
constitute concrete actions of people in everyday life. Human beings to a large extent act by
means of communicating. (Säljö 2000: 151)
Design influences use by creating an occasion for learning, but the learning is work done
by the user as member of a use context (a community, an organization etc.). The
interpretation of the artefact – which is the basis for the learning – is done with reference
to the use situation. If the learning is to improve the work (the production) in some way,
e.g. Grødal1990; Johnsrud Langslet 1999; Cameron 2000; Bramming & Mølgaard Frandsen 2003 – and Keen
2 Säljö 2000 refers to Cole 1996
3 Säljö 2000: 146 refers to Ong 1982 and Hutchins 1995
4 Harper 1987
5 Keller & Keller 1993; 1996
then the artefact has to support just that sort of learning. Designing an artefact suited for
learning at work requires a profound fit with the objectives of the work – not to be
confused with surface similarity with existing artefacts that may in fact be mistaken for
easy learning in work. “The mastery of mediational means is … an essential aspect of the
process of learning. By means of variations in the psychological and practical tools,
different features of a problem become visible to the learner.” (Säljö 2000: 152).
In this perspective, learning presupposes an interplay between the human and the tool
as the tool is used in an activity. Learning is mastery of the tool that makes delegation of
work operations possible. Machines that take over operations, may lead to an increased
amount of articulation work – in which knowledge about the operations is required.
[A] sociocultural interpretation … would be that learning is in the co-ordination between
language and experiences. What the technology does is that it increases the range and nature of
experiences that can be provided for by the learning of subject matters that are complex and
abstract. … The creation of knowledge is essentially a matter of learning to argue, and no
technology will ever replace the need for learners to participate in ongoing conversations with
partners sharing interests and commitments. (Säljö 2000: 159)
In a long term, historic view on technological development, new artefacts change our
practices, but they may also change our way of thinking about phenomena that goes
beyond the artefact. Looking into the history of radio development can illustrate this.
Forty (1986) tells the story of how the radio came to be a part of everyday family life. He
identifies three stages in the design history of the radio: 1) the radio was a technical
object that displayed diodes, capacitors, and resistors, presented as a functional object – a
piece of technology, 2) the radio was a mass consumption piece of broadcasting
technology, and came with a special purpose cabinet that fitted current furnishing style,
and 3) with bakelite the radio was a futuristic technical object in which the futuristic
style was implemented in the radio form. Forty’s story includes several points worthy of
notice; Silverstone & Haddon (1996) emphasise the close interplay between technical,
aesthetic and sociocultural innovation. They particularly emphasise the fact that when
the radio became an object of mass consumption, it was designed as a domestic object
with that particular way of “mediating in their aesthetic, the tension between the familiar
and the strange, desire and unease, which all new technologies respectively embody and
stimulate.” (Silverstone & Haddon 1996: 48).
The radio was originally not designed for broadcasting; in its early days it was used
for two-way communication. However, the broadcasting industry succeeded in creating a
media system with the aim of informing, educating and entertaining the nation —
“suburban, white, middle class” aims and values that evolved into a national
broadcasting culture; the public service idea, that has had a profound influence on how
we think about broadcasting in general and the radio in particular. The radio as an object
and a medium contributes to “the fact that producers are never totally in control of the
ways in which their products will be used.” (Silverstone & Haddon 1996: 50).
Silverstone & Haddon’s analysis of the development of the radio discusses how
society learns through the change of societal conditions through the radio, in which the
ideas about broadcasting as a public educational programme (originated in white, middle
class values) have become integrated to the level of invisible in Western (or at least
European) societies. Both the calculator and the radio have changed the way we think as
the technology has become deeply embedded in our domestic and working life.
A similar story is told by Cockburn & Ormrod (1993;1994) about how the
microwave oven developed from a technology for interested “nerds”, as brown goods
that were very difficult to use, and gradually became white goods and easy to use –
similar to the dish washer – and aimed for the average housewife.
In the long run, changes in operations tend to influence actions and activities in
which they are part, which tend to influence the operations – both with respect to
Chapter 10. Design → use
Part 4. Systems development as design-use relations
interpretation and action. The stories above show technological development intertwined
with development of use, in a complex relationship where the two sides simultaneously
shape and are being shaped by each other.
The WorkSheet system was intended to only change the nurses’ work at the
operational level, while the idea and logic of the system was based on nursing. If the
system had been used over time, its taken-for-grantedness in everyday activities would
have changed the basis for improving practice. The system would have been the basis for
new change. An example of an operational change that after some time resulted in larger
change is the introduction of electronic publication of the Lecture Catalogue at the
University of Oslo in 19961. The introduction of SGML coding of the catalogue pages
was actually a large effort – but at the operational level. However, after a year, the users
themselves suggested new ways of utilizing the electronic catalogue – based on their
work knowledge – changing their work and work knowledge.
Säljö (2000) uses the example of learning how to read the clock, which is much more
than learning the skill of recognising the numbers and interpreting the hands as which
displays hours and minutes. Learning to read the clock is also an introduction to the child
of a way of conceiving the world in general, and activities and happenings in particular.
Most Western people may never think about alternative ways of understanding time, they
are used to measuring and experiencing time in seconds, minutes and hours, and equal
time with money or power. Time is measured and the measurement defines time. From
this view, time is always the same – even if we all know that a good time with some
friends is much faster than a boring job. The clock realizes a particular system for
mediating time that is social in origin, and tied up with a number of other social systems
(waged work, status of who waits for whom etc.). Learning to read the clock implies
mastering simultaneously the skill of reading an instrument and the conceptual distinctions upon
which it relies. The conceptual distinctions that we use for measuring time in a literal sense have
been built into the artefact, which is material and conceptual at the same time. (Säljö 2000: 152)
The clock is a symbolic, abstract representation of time that is made manifest and part of
social life to a large extent through the interplay of clocks and time schedules in society.
The scheduled society needs a synchronised time measurement – which enables the
scheduled society; the industrial society. The measurement of time is also manifest in
many other forms, not as strikingly visible as the clock. Many symbolic representations
made manifest in computer-based systems are similar concrete-abstractions influencing
how we thing and act in profound ways, aligning efforts from a number of manifestations
and forms of the abstraction (e.g. access levels and passwords aligning with systems of
power, status, trust etc. across and within an organisation).
Learning is improvement; increase of knowledge and skills. In school we accept that
learning is “manipulation” of the way we think and act – outside of school we think
differently about the learners’ autonomy and control. Learning is about transferring ideas
as they are embedded in concepts, artefacts and sociocultural arrangements. From this
perspective, the introduction of a new tool in the Broadcasting Company can be seen as a
major learning project. And unsuccessful introductions of groupware can be seen as
unsuccessful only in the learning sense: normally people get to do the work even if they
use the artefact “wrong”. The way we normally talk about systems development seems to
include a learning process, basically at the operational level: learning to use a tool and
acting differently in work operations. However, the assumptions underlying the many
report of groupware “failures” is that also the action and activity levels are assumed
changed through learning, but here the focus is on new ways of organising work as well
as new standards and values, new goals and qualities – a shift in traditional identity and
hermeneutics, with new legitimations and norms of behaviour. But the form of the
Jenssen & Sandahl 1997, see chapter 8.5
artefact needs to be understood in the current tradition, which tends to dominate the
interpretation by pure outnumbering of concepts and artefacts.
10.5 Support
An artefact is normally made to support an activity, to make the activity possible, easier,
faster, improve the quality etc. The artefact presupposes a meaningful activity – not
necessarily fully determined. A new artefact may be intended to support a new activity,
or support an established activity in a new way.
Säljö (2000) discusses the calculator as a simple device (in Western societies). The
calculator has implemented sophisticated knowledge about mathematical operations (like
division and multiplication), about the notational system and about procedures for certain
operations (like percentages, square roots).
Thus, when pupils, even in the lower grades in school, press the buttons of the calculator, they
are literally operating with conceptual tools that have developed over thousands of years (and
that are unknown in many cultures), and that have been incorporated into the calculator. In this
sense, the material reality and the intellectual distinctions are integrated into the technology.
(Säljö 2000: 152)
The calculator is an example of a tool that supports human activity – with the aim to
support human calculation through automation of the operations involved. The support
of a calculator enables us to calculate differently; hence we need different knowledge in
order to do calculations. Calculation with pen and paper requires knowledge about
mathematics (operations, notational system, and procedures) and how to match the
mathematical thinking to a real world problem. When we use a calculator we need to
know mathematics and we need to know how to use the calculator to execute the
mathematics – we thus need to match the real world problem with two sets of
abstractions: mathematics and the calculator’s mathematics. The calculator’s answers
should be interpreted within the world of mathematics and then translated into the real
world. Support for cognitive activities requires that we know about how the artefact
represents the phenomenon that it supports.
The calculator is an example of an artefact that is delegated work operations, an
automaton. The calculator can be seen as a prosthesis1 to our cognition – as distributed
cognition2. Many formalized representational artefacts are in fact supporting our
cognition. Standardised, representational systems like the metric system, the GMT time
system etc. aid us as concrete references for other, local representations present in local
activities – like rulers, weight scales, measuring glasses. Some of these artefacts are
deeply embedded in other representational activities. Berg (1997a) relates how
measurement glasses are used to observe and control the fluid balance in a hospital (as a
story of the work performed by the glass). The work of using tools is a work of
translating between one or more representational systems and a real world object, where
translation skills include a broad evaluation of the measurement and whether or not it is
reasonable. During the Florence project a lab nurse told me that when a test result
indicated dangerously high values, she usually called the ward to find out if the nurse on
duty understood how serious the patient’s condition was. She listened to the response –
and if the nurse did not respond appropriately, she carefully explained the meaning of the
result values (the representation).
Many computer-based systems are based on representations in a way that makes
knowledge about the representations necessary in order for users to make sense of the
Weizenbaum 1976
see Salomon 1993; Hutchins 1993; 1995. The view that cognition is distributed is also found in STS literature
Chapter 10. Design → use
Part 4. Systems development as design-use relations
system. In many cases the representations are not very sophisticated (like a small
customer or client register), but some representations require expert knowledge to be
operated. To a Scandinavian Participatory Design researcher, this is not bad: skilled
users need good tools; skilled users also mend and redesign the tool themselves. Some
systems require knowledge about local representational systems (e.g. customer number),
and thus are more difficult to learn than they need to be. Most computer-based
information systems are a collection of tools that support a number of different activities,
and that have several other objectives than supporting a particular activity. Kling &
Iacono (1984) point to the fact that the same system may be conceived as a tool – for
those in control – and a bureaucratic structure – for those not in control of the system.
Support denotes the useful tool, leaving the autonomy and control to the user.
Support is what we want to design. The idea of support indicates a wish to utilize
technological properties for making the activity easier or better. Metaphors like
prosthesis and tool seem to incorporate the properties we want to achieve, but also the
automaton, being delegated work, seem to fit. Support may also be taken to include
infrastructures; arrangements and artefacts that are adjusted to sets of user activities in an
unobtrusive, even invisible and taken-for-granted kind of way. In all these types of
support, the idea is to surrender the logic of the artefact to fit the logic of work – and the
autonomous control of users. This idea is difficult to make into a vision as many of the
artefactual forms may not fit the use logic or encourage user autonomy.
10.6 Changed work conditions
In one way or another … the product of the work consumers do in taking possession of new
technologies and services, hardware and software, feed back into the innovation process:
reinforcing it, diverting it, sometimes rejecting it more or less completely. This is why the
results of the innovation process are so difficult to predict. It is also worth noting that in the
dynamics of domestication, and in the mostly unequal politics over the meaning and influence
of new technologies, it is not only the significance of the technologies which shifts, for
domestication also affects the domesticator and his or her culture. (Silverstone & Haddon 1996:
Design in systems development normally happens because somebody wants change. The
change is normally motivated by expected savings (of time and resources) or increased
economic results (increased quality, production, sales, market shares). The idea is to
change both the way people think and act, but in ways that contribute to the objectives of
the change. One would expect that this vision made learning and support the main focus
of the change, and that users’ knowledge and skills were drawn upon when improving
the work practices1. This is, however, not always the case – for a number of reasons.
A very common factor is the obvious and often “silenced” fact that change – in the
many senses of learning and development – is hard work. Learning to use a new tool is
additional work that takes time and energy from the “real” work. Learning to follow new
routines is additional work – again taking time from the “real” work. Learning to master
your work when it has been changed is hard work, and often stressful, frustrating,
difficult for quite a period. Learning as part of systems development is often not wanted
change by those who are forced to change.
This poses extra challenges to design.
New artefacts change the conditions for carrying out work, i.e. the concrete, material
situation in which the operations in the work process are to be carried out. The work
situation is characterized by many factors that do not have anything to do with the
Bramming & Frandsen 2003 advocate this approach
artefact, and normally the artefact is designed to fit other characteristics; other structural
aspects of work and/or organisation of work, other representational systems and the like.
Furthermore, the new artefact changes the conditions for carrying out politics.
[The arrival of a new TV] involved, above all, the politics of the household. Access to media
and information technologies is, in different ways, empowering. To be able to take control of
the television remote control, or to be the one member of the family who can effectively
programme the video-cassette recorder; to be able to limit access to a new computer by insisting
that it be sited in one part of the house rather than another, all of these dimensions of the
relationship to technology are expressive of the dominant age and gender-based politics of the
family as well as reinforcive of them. Access and control, as well as denial of access and lack of
control, are fundamental to an understanding of the use of communication and information
technologies in the domestic, as in other, spheres and they are also fundamental to their
Equally, access to information and communication technologies also has consequences for a
household’s participation in the wider activities of everyday life. Household boundaries are
extended through gendered social and familial networking on the telephone, on the one hand;
and by television’s electronic reach, its capacity to bring global information and images into the
front room, on the other. It is also extended within the neighbourhood or community as
ownership of new machines, faxes, or photocopiers, as well as the expertise associated with
computing, come to be seen as a shareable and accessible resource. It is extended even further
by the increasing mobilization and personalization of communication and information
technologies, as walkmen and mobile phones offer new kind of nomadic access and media
participation, constant availability and increasing dispersal of information consumption.
(Silverstone & Haddon 1996: 69-70)
The concept of tradition suggested in 10.2 can be used to make sense of cases in which
new artefacts are not used. Existing norms and power practices are incorporated into a
variety of arrangements and artefacts, which by number and importance may rule out the
new system. Moreover, the ideas and assumptions underlying the system may be very
different from the heuristics and identity appreciated in the existing tradition – which
means that the user may not even recognise the idea and logic suggested by the system.
This seems to be the case with Lotus Notes. A similar example is a network of computers
was designed to support a global distributed research community in sharing information
more easily – where some members of the community did not want to share their results
before they had got them published elsewhere1. The tradition in the scientific community
was not based on sharing results – only after publishing (particularly so for PhD
The focus on the interrelatedness of the various aspects of tradition makes it possible
to discuss the design ideas underlying the artefact as well as how they appear as material
form, as an artefact. In the use context, design choices and decisions are only available to
the user through the presentation at the interface and through the behaviour of the
artefact – as what the user can infer from that. An emphasis on ease of use and support
thus suggests focusing on the material form of the idea to fit the current work traditions. I
argue that the correspondence between ideas of the material and ideas rooted in the use
context are more important.
The idea of change normally departs from the idea that the current practice is good –
and that there is a potential for improvement. Design can add material possibilities in
relation to the logic of the work practice, aiming at making changes at various levels
(operations, actions, activities) in various time frames (short and long term).
Star & Ruhleder 1996
Chapter 10. Design → use
Part 4. Systems development as design-use relations
Chapter 11
Use Æ design
Designers are skilled in abstracting consumer desire: I may think that I
want a vacuum cleaner, but they know that I really want clean carpets. It
is a cliché, but none the less true, that successful design is one step ahead
of the customer (Rees 1997: 123)
Use influences design in several ways, more or less directly. Ideas about future use are
the start of design – and a design result is successful when it is integrated into
somebody’s everyday activity. Traditionally use is said to influence design through the
existence of needs that designers can fulfil. This is a rather simplified view. Needs rarely
occur when there is not already a solution available; there is a complex interplay between
what can be offered and what can be sought that defines “needs” in terms of expectations
of improvements of some sort. Needs1 do exist, however, as expectations of
improvements, in most life areas. The computer industry benefits from expectations of
automation and expectations basically concerned with speed and independence of
physical limitations2.
Use influences design through experiences of what people do with computers, and
what they do that could be done better with computers – making both the way we live
and the current technology into sources of imagination. Sometimes technology, as an
imaginary source, may result in technical possibilities that nobody needs or even wants –
or in technical opportunities that themselves become the source of needs.
The main source of influence of use on design is the everyday behaviour as users and
consumers that also designers participate in, contributing to the social context in which
also design takes place. Two particular sources for ideas that add to design in often
unpredictable ways are the exceptional and unanticipated use, and ideas for improvement
of the artefact that come from long-term experience of using an artefact.
This chapter discusses how we can talk about the ways that use influences design
through the artefact. The discussions based on empirical and theoretical sources earlier in
the thesis are sources for this exploration. In the first section I focus on in-house
development and redesign as obvious sources for design ideas originating in the use
context. The next two sections discuss two different use contexts: the consumer market
and work. Both influence design, but in different ways. The fourth section discusses
long-term use experience as a particularly interesting source for design ideas originating
from the logic of use. I end with taking the change back to the design context. The
chapter as a whole is concerned with design and its relation to use through the artefact.
in the sense of needs for computer support
like freedom from the limits of our localisation, our memory etc.
Chapter 11. Use → design
Part 4. Systems development as design-use relations
11.1 In-house development and redesign
In in-house systems development there is a possibility for direct influence of use on
design due to the fact that the users are possible to identify and are present before the
system is designed1. This makes it possible for the systems development team to include
use knowledge into the design process. In an organisational context, use is work and the
aim of systems development is normally to improve work through a process of change,
in which the resulting system often incorporates the envisioned changes.
In-house systems development normally includes use knowledge in design through
various types of tools, techniques and methods for analysis, often with a clear focus on
the system (rather than work or organisational objectives). Systems analysis methods
emphasise a predefined set of aspects of work that are taken to be important for the
design; data or information objects, information processing routines and procedures.
Scandinavian legislation opens up for including users as representatives for use practices,
which may introduce different perspectives and concerns to the design process. The
ability to cooperate with future users about problem definition as well as problem
solutions improves the knowledge basis for systems design, and may ease the
introduction of the resulting system in the use organisation2. A good dialogue between
the user representatives and the designers may enable design to negotiate the users’
tradition in non-obvious ways. The Florence project illustrates this kind of design
The requirements specification expresses the ways in which the system is envisioned
to support work. The requirements specification specifies the evaluation standard that the
artefact should comply with, thus it is used as a contract for the development. In cases
where the systems development is carried out by consultants, the requirements
specification specifies the product they are expected to produce. In these cases the
requirements specification is made by others, normally in-house developers. In order for
the requirements specification to be unambiguous, it is written in formal languages.
Systems development within an organisational context (in-house or consultants) is
normally redesign or additional design, and necessarily addresses the existing systems,
their technical solutions as well as their embeddedness in organisational information
processing. The requirements specification is, of course, about the system-to-be, not
about the context in which it will be used – a fact that may make it difficult to question
the specified solution with reference to work or other organisational perspectives.
In systems development, use influences design through formal descriptions that
represent a computer-oriented abstraction from the organisation of work and objects of
work represented as data, data structures, objects, procedures. Use is represented through
“use cases” or similar descriptions of sequences of interactions with the computer. Only
the parts of work that directly concern the computerised representations are possible to
represent through formal systems descriptions. User involvement in the design process
may link the representations to contextual work activities – and link the computerised
materialisation of the representations to concrete work operations.
The most common direct influence of use on design is in the work of “system
maintenance”, i.e. the work carried out by systems designers and programmers working
in a use organisation in order to maintain the usability of the system in a continuously
changing organisational and societal context. Many systems designers spend most of
their time on maintenance and support – on all the things that need to be done to a
system after it has been taken into use.
cf. Grudin 1991
Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1995
In a large insurance company the management decided to offer a new service to
customers with many types of insurances; the “total customer”1. It turned out to be
difficult for the IT department to provide the necessary technical support for the
suggested service due to the fact that the current technical architecture was based on
different insurance types (organisational units) rather than on customers across insurance
types. However, the wish to tie the customer to the company, together with the
technological possibilities for grouping elements from different registers or databases,
made this shift in perspective possible.
The FIRE project2 concluded that systems development should be seen as a
continuous redesign process, in which changes to the system should be expected and
planned for in order to maintain technical and use quality of the system3. Prior to the
FIRE project we suggested replacing the notion of maintenance with the two concepts
error correction (for corrective maintenance) and system enhancement (for adaptive and
perfective maintenance)4. The notion of maintenance suggests a finished artefact, while
the reality is that computer systems are adapted and changed as their environment
changes. Enhancement balances the technical and functional quality of the system as a
part of an organisational setting.
Use influences design through organisational goals that change the basis for the
computational representation. The organisational needs for change stem from managerial
strategies and positioning within the business area, more than from needs for changing
work. The need to change the current system often comes from other technological
systems; from computer-supported services or products offered by competitors (like the
“total insurance customer” cutting across the organisation of different insurance types, or
the need to have a web site) – not yet offered by competitors. As the organisation decides
to change (as an answer to real or expected changes in its environment) the technical
systems normally need to be redesigned to fit and support the new organisation. It seems
that the ideas of the use-organisation have a big impact on the design ideas and thus the
artefact. However, as the ideas from the use-organisation are often based on
interpretations of technological possibilities by management or marketing, it may be that
it is managerial emotions and beliefs – gossip, fashion, speculations of competitors’ next
moves and the fear of a bad result – that motivate change. However, the symbolic value
of artefacts should not be underestimated5, nor should the problems of being the
latecomer6. The empirical data offers good examples of a range of different reasons for
change, from use to computing. The Broadcasting Company made the big transition to a
multimedia news & entertainment provider as a competitive move. The RussianNorwegian collaboration in the Global Software Outsourcing project concerned a
systems redesign based on a technical update of the system, not a use-based change: the
functionality was to be preserved.
11.2 Catching the consumer
In design of products for the consumer market, the goal is to sell as many products as
possible in the short or long term. Catching the consumers is thus important. Consumers
Espeseth 1992; Bjerknes, Bratteteig & Espeseth 1991
see chapter 3.2.3
3 Bjerknes et al 1991; Bratteteig et al 1993; Braa, Bratteteig & Øgrim 1992; 1996
4 Bjerknes, Bratteteig & Espeseth 1991
5 Feldman & March 1981
6 see discussion about network externalities in chapter 11.3. Cf. also Julier 2000 and Forty 1986
Chapter 11. Use → design
Part 4. Systems development as design-use relations
buy material and symbolic artefacts that fit with the life they live – or want to live – or
believe they want to live. The purchase of a product marks the boundary between fantasy
and reality; between the wishes and expectations and the concrete transformation of
current practice.
Silverstone & Haddon (1996: 45) claim that design of consumer products has three
interrelated dimensions, and that all three must be taken into account: i) creating the
artefact, functionally and aesthetically (“They have to appeal and they are made to
work.” (p. 45)); ii) constructing the user by incorporating assumptions about use and
users into the fabric of the artefact, and iii) catching the consumer, which places design
in the wider processes of commodification:
Commodification necessarily depends on a dimension of imaginative work that potential or
actual consumers undertake as they participate, willy-nilly, in the consumption process. The
work of imagination is, however, contradictory. Commodities are constructed as objects of
desire within an advertising and market system that depends for its effectiveness on the
elaboration of a rhetoric of metaphor and myth: a seduction of and through the image. Yet such
imaginative work (and work of the imaginary), but that of the advertiser and the consumer, is a
frustrating experience. It is frustrating because of the limits imposed by consumption itself. For
every act of successful consumption … there are many failures, failures defined by economic
constraints, inadequate resources, and limited objects and products. However, even ‘successful’
consumption involves failure, for such failure is both endemic and necessary if consumption is
to continue. Jean Baudrillard1 describes consumption as a kind of general hysteria, based upon a
fundamentally insatiable desire for objects, a desire that can never be satisfied. Needs, therefore,
can be neither defined or fulfilled since consumption is based, not on a desire for objects to
fulfil specific functions, but on a desire for difference, a desire for social meaning (Silverstone
& Haddon 1996: 63)
Designers of consumer products have to use stand-ins for potential consumers as
representatives for the use context. Silverstone & Haddon (1996) relate Philips’
development of CD-i as a story of positioning the product between the imaginative and
domestic consumer-users when designing the identity of CD-i. Philips had some less
successful product developments (like Laservision), but expected that multimedia would
attract most big electronic producers so they wanted to get an early foothold in that
market. Their strategy was manifold: they wanted to develop a technology that could
give them the advantage of being early; they would use this as a way to work on industry
standards. Furthermore, they needed to develop hardware that allowed full motion video,
and create a software industry that supported this through bringing together video and
computer technology expertise. Finally, it required positioning the new product in the
market-place. It is the last point, which is of interest here, including problems of
predicting take-up of the new product, of defining the identity of the product, and of
finding – and catching – the consumer.
Together these different concerns involved questions of establishing what kind of technology
CD-i was to be: whether it would for example follow the innovation/diffusion curve of CS
audio, the VCR, the home computer, or the games console. It could, of course, claim links to all
four. (Silverstone & Haddon 1996: 55)
Both hardware and software would contribute to the identity of the product. The design
thus included both functionality and symbolic meaning (identity). The CD-i had to be
different and similar to earlier technologies as well as to competing technologies. The
operation device was a remote control instead of a joystick or keyboard. The machine
was made to look like a video instead of a computer. Its identity – and its target group –
should be made clear in its form, which also included the ways in which advertisers and
retailers, trade magazines and newspapers presented it on its way to the consumer2.
Silverstone & Haddon refer to Baudrillard 1988: 45
the CD-i was presented as an enhanced television set by advertisers while retailers associated it with CD-audio.
Journalists emphasised it as a new dimension in home computing
There were, of course, still no consumer-users, and there was a general agreement that
there was no demand for (or understanding of) multimedia at the time. Thus the
consumer-user would have to be invented. Feedback from early users came to magazine
editors and retailers, and Philips carried out its own market research. The early adopters
were not typical users, but as the machines were brought into their households, other
members of the family started using them as well.
Relating to prospective and non-existing consumer-users implies carefully balancing
the familiar and the unfamiliar in designing the identity of the product, relying on a
number of sources. Innovators will draw on existing product characteristics and product
trends in forecasting future demands. Often the analysis of future trends departs from –
and stays within – technical possibilities (the speed or size) – without any reference at all
to the consumer. In the absence of knowledge about the (possible) consumers, early users
who can test and promote the product are identified and mobilised. The way of
addressing the computer consumer is similar to that of addressing other consumers.
At the same time, the design also to some extent designs the consumer. As with other
types of technology design, the designers tend to use themselves and their own taste and
preferences as a basis for design1. For some specialised products established user forums
exist, meeting regularly to discuss and prioritise improvements of the products (the
developers in the FIRE project arranged such meetings for their users). In this way the
design organisation can organise communication and decision-making that involves the
consumer-users so that priorities between organisational goals, work goals or other
aspects can be discussed and decided on.
Design of consumer products is also invention of consumer-users. The target group
needs to understand that it is a target group, thus the form and function is designed to
communicate this (cf. the CD-i above). This communication makes use of contemporary
symbols, addressing the identity-shaping traditional forms of the target group. The result
is e.g. the pink Barbie web site and pink razors for women2. It makes Apple computers
come in different colours (including “business grey”), and Volvo market their new car
models with pictures of knobs for ladies’ handbags and for shopping bags in the car boot.
The form is first of all a signal to the target group that it is a target group. In some cases
choosing one target group means disregarding other groups, which suggests selecting
forms that are clichés that everybody can recognise (the pink Barbie site effectively
signals to boys that they are not the target group) or forms that are difficult to interpret or
even exclusive to people outside the target group (e.g. referring to popular culture in the
target group). Clichés that reach large consumer groups demonstrate that the design
needs to address calculative as well as evaluative knowledge, emotions as well as facts.
With the exception of the studies of Lotus Notes, the research projects reported in
this thesis have not been concerned with consumer products. The fact that Lotus Notes
can be purchased as a product resulted in defining the purchase and introduction of this
rather different type of technology as similar to purchasing any technical box – as nondevelopment. The study also identified the average purchaser as a middle manager who
had been introduced to the product at a seminar or trade fair. In most cases the vendor
tailored the Lotus Notes application together with the middle manager.
Catching the consumer includes the delicate balance of addressing the consumerusers identity through a suggestion of a purchase that will change the conditions for
some activities. The market responds and thus feeds the design process with ideas about
users and use.
Grudin 1994
see discussion in Bratteteig 2002; Bratteteig & Verne 1987
Chapter 11. Use → design
Part 4. Systems development as design-use relations
11.3 Use as everyday practice
We live in a designed world, in which many of the artefacts cross the communities we
participate in. The computer as a work tool is influenced by entertainment artefacts – and
vice versa. This development is enhanced by the fact that mobile and collaborative
technologies reduce the division between work and leisure physically as well as
mentally. Both design and use happen in this context.
Use as everyday practice influences design in different ways. Focusing on use as a
part of work, makes us see use as integrated in organisational practice. Moreover, most
organisations use computer-based systems as part of their everyday practice. As the use
context change, so do the requirements to the system. The (re)design deals with the
change differently, depending on whether the system is a local system or a standardised
product. The user organisation has more influential power when the system is locally
developed, by local developers.
A consumer-user can stop buying the product. If consumers stop buying a product it
may be because they have started buying something else, that other products have taken
its position. Or maybe there is no market any more; many design products are ephemeral.
The opposite can happen, that the artefact drives earlier technologies away from the
market and creates a sluice that fuels a qualitative change. An example is the density of
(mobile) telephones in Norway that has been used as an argument for the telecom
companies to do away with telephone booths. The result is that everybody now needs to
have their own phone
The third input from use to design is through trends in the contemporary society and
culture, in which design also takes place. The sign ► mentioned earlier is an example of
a contemporary symbol. However, the majority culture may overlook minority cultures
that, through their inability to take part in the majority discourse, are defined as
outsiders1. The fact that information and communication technologies (and media) refer
to each other in their designed presentation and communication, strengthens the selfreferring trend in contemporary technology development – and makes life easier for the
user-consumer insider.
Contemporary products spread cultural trends effectively and in profound ways –
more profound than spreading the knowledge about interpreting the sign ► (and the
signs ,, from the same frame of reference). With the graphical user interface a lot
of icons have appeared that to a greater extent make the symbolic and cultural impact of
computers visible. Everybody using Microsoft or Apple computers knows the icons
symbolising email: a letter , or an American mailbox , ; the hourglass signalling to the user that a program execution is running (different from other timesigns: ˆ and i); the printer . The word “file” is chosen to indicate that the computer
operations are equivalent to the original meaning of file , ; a place to keep (or save
) your documents . The presentation is carefully designed to ease incorporation into
existing practices by building on pre-existing interpretations of signs.
Use of products may also imply adaptation of a language and a set of values and
ideas that come with the product2.
a good example is the old lady who cannot any longer call a taxi because the taxi system has an automatic menu
system for directing telephone calls. When calling, a voice tells you your options, and you push your way to the
right menu option. The old lady does not understand what is meant by “push one” because her phone is an old one
with a dial to be pulled in a circle; there are no buttons to push. However, she really needs to call a taxi.
2 my favourite example is the pink razor, made particularly for women and based on societal and cultural
expectations of women’s needs for a razor (see Bratteteig 2002a)
PC software diffusing around the globe can be seen as a form of cultural imperialism, imposing
new modes of working on millions of users who have no input into the design process, might be
regarded as overreaction. However, the idea that software is culture, or, more specifically, that
packaged software embodies US culture, has been proposed as an explanatory factor for the
competitive success of US software products world-wide (Carmel 1994: 11-12): ‘The US
packaged software industry is composed of a number of behavioural factors which, together,
create a uniquely American flavour to the industry and its products. This cultural flavour
restrains foreign competition.’ (Quintas 1996: 101 (original emphasis)).
Ideas and materials in design are part of contemporary culture which can be seen to
delimit design. Artefacts are interpreted as parts of the culture, and new artefacts need to
communicate within the culture of which they are a part. Design suggestions or artefacts
that break with assumptions in the culture, are often not appreciated. A well-known
example is Englebart’s inventions in the 1960s of the mouse and the possibility to share
files over a distance, presented as multiple windows on the screen – taken into use many
years later.
Contemporary society also incorporate technological solutions that tend to act as
references for expectations for new technology to be better, faster, smaller. We expect to
control our time, to do things when and where it suits us. We expect any serious business
to have a web presentation of itself. We expect to be able to use the internet for paying
our bills – we expect to be able to pay with a credit card instead of having to go to the
bank to get coins and notes. These expectations are developed through experiences and
people who do not have these experiences therefore tend to develop different
Economists define network externalities as a change in the benefit that a user gets
from a product when the number of other users consuming the same kind of product
increases – the artefact becomes increasingly valuable as all users will have greater use
for it1. The phenomenon is interesting as it explains inertia and tradition, also referring to
individual experiences of use and benefit. The “bandwagon effect”, coined by
Leibenstein (1950) referred to “the extent to which the demand for a commodity is
increased due to the fact that others are also consuming the same commodity. It
represents the desire of people to purchase a commodity in order to get into “the current
of things”; in order to conform with the people they wish to be associated with; in order
to be fashionable or stylish; or, in order to appear to be “one of the boys”. There are two
ways in which network externalities can occur; direct (increasing number of users
directly increases the benefit), and indirect (increasing the size of the network expands
the range of relevant products available to the network members).
An interesting effect of network externalities is that they can be evaluated as more
important than particular properties of the product: even if users may prefer the
properties of a different product, the network size still often dominates their choice. This
may lead to the effect that “the winner takes it all” even if the winner is not the best
product2. The early adopter of a technology therefore has to select between products that
have small networks (and network externalities) – and may choose the wrong one. The
economist view here is easily combined with Actor-network theory and its emphasis on
alliances of actants in a network as the way to power. It also fits with Frønes (2001)’s
suggestion of a floodgate metaphor for understanding the rhythm of socio-cultural
It seems that needs are developed as images of artefacts or technologies based on
expectations of what is possible to support. Needs can be seen as a relation of supplyand-demand: you need what you can get, or what you see that other people can get.
see e.g. Brynjolfsson & Kemerer 1996; Liebowitz 2002; Besen & Farrell 1994; Besen 1999; Leibenstein 1950
see e.g. Abbate 1994
Chapter 11. Use → design
Part 4. Systems development as design-use relations
11.4 Unexpected use
Introduction of a new artefact is sometimes taken up in the use context in unexpected
ways. This contributes to giving the design a changed direction: the unexpected use
creates a possibility for seeing the artefact as a different tool than it was originally
designed to be. The explanation is, of course, found in the fact that incorporation into use
is grounded in existing (use and work) practices, thus taking a new artefact into use
means giving the artefact meaning from what practices it becomes involved in rather
than from the artefact as an isolated object. This may lead to emphasising features of the
artefact that were not emphasised in the design. A good illustration is the development of
SMS to be the main use of their mobile phone for many users1. As SMS has developed,
so have new services like subscription of news headlines (from the Broadcasting
Company – really news in all media!2) or communication with mass media (wish for
music on the radio, answering a TV quiz etc.).
The main source of unexpected use – in the sense not envisioned by the designers –
comes through long-term experience with the artefact. Long-term experience with an
artefact takes a long time (!) as the artefact has to be fully incorporated and taken-forgranted3. A normal process of taking an artefact into use proceeds through learning and
routinization of operations in which the artefact is used, so that the attention given to
mastery of the tool decreases and can be directed toward the goal-oriented action (or the
activity as a whole). This does not mean that the tool disappears: it just needs less
“mastery-attention”. The user has experienced a number of work processes in which the
tool has been used, and s/he knows how it operates, how it responds, what results it
makes from what input etc. S/he can then attend to the tool again, with a slightly
different purpose: to better utilize it in work. Gasser (1986) reports that users fit,
augment, and work around computer systems that do not fit their work. Gasser’s
examples are excellent illustrations of profound, use-based, experience-based knowledge
about work tools that get mended in order to better support work. Entering wrong data in
order to get the right answer requires profound knowledge about the relations between
input and output of the system, from patterns of long-term experiences or from
knowledge about the representational procedures.
Knowledge-based attention to the tool aims to utilize some of the characteristics or
features of the tool differently to better fit the meaning of work (like Gasser’s story on
wrong data for right answers), or to utilize borderline, secondary characteristics in ways
that suggest a new meaning of the tool and thus give rise to new meanings of work. The
virtuoso’s use of musical instruments is an example (cf. the fiddle player Annbjørg Lien,
see chapter 6.2). Mastery gives the possibility for the user to refine her/his tool, turning it
into a special-purpose tool, by utilizing the possibilities in the tool in a better way.
Sandahl & Jenssen (1997)’s story about the introduction of an SGML-based production
of the Lecture Catalogue at the University of Oslo, is also an example here4. After some
months the Lecture Catalogue took on a different meaning as a changing and “living”
information source rather than the static reference of a published book – and the users
suggested new ways of working utilising this.
Ideas for design that stem from long-term use are closer to refinements, and have a
foundation in use that cannot exist in design of new tools where extrapolations of current
even if SMS is not a work technology, see discussion in chapter 10.2
Hilstad 2001; see also chapter 3.3.2
3 a topic discussed in literature about diffusion of IT, see e.g. IFIP W.G. 8.6 Transfer and Diffusion of IT, see e.g.
Kautz & Pries-Heje 1996
4 cf. chapter 8.5
use practices and non-use practices in work are used as imaginary resources for
envisioning future use. Refinement makes the tool better fit the objectives of work. New
ideas based on use-experience stretch the material of design to support ideas from a
different context than design, and may therefore seriously challenge the material of
design. A good example of this is the experience from the Florence project that the maporiented design of the WorkSheet system suggested by the nurses challenged the current
line-oriented technology. The mutual learning period enabled a forced development of
experience which was sufficient for this kind of imagination.
In organisations with long-term experience with tools, there will be some workers
that are interested in the tools, and in how the tools can be understood and improved.
They often act as local educators, and as mediators between the average user and the
technical staff (support staff, maintenance staff, designers). Good “super-users” have the
ability to understand their work at more than one analytic level. The specific knowledge
that is developed through years of super-user experience is a real hybrid kind of
knowledge about relations between tools and tasks, practices and conditions, and of
human change as tools are introduced and used. “Bad” super-users forget their original
work knowledge and become caught in the middle neither representing use knowledge
nor technical knowledge. Super-users nevertheless play important roles in the many
change processes of systems development1. Caring and learning are “time investments”
that may strengthen the commitment to the object cared for2.
New ideas for design
We are surrounded by artefacts, at work and in society. Ideas for design come from
designers’ use of artefacts as well as from use practices that are grounded in users’ work
and logic. In in-house development and redesign, the designers benefit from the longterm knowledge and mastery by users in the organisation. Long-term experiences may
also result in unexpected use – which may give rise to breaking new design ideas.
Design ideas are developed in a context of use as normal practice (for both designers
and users), where contemporary culture and practices frame how we understand both
present and future artefacts. As many artefacts are developed with the aim to catch the
consumer, some aspects of the culture are strengthened through consumer products (the
clichés and stereotypes, the signs and languages of mainstream contemporary culture) –
and the periphery stays peripheral.
Kaasbøll & Øgrim 1994a claim that they in many cases have taken over the role of the user representative of the
unionised 1970s
2 Christiansen 1996
Chapter 11. Use → design
Part 4. Systems development as design-use relations
Chapter 12
Design ÅÆ use
In [the following] transcript …, JB envisages a specific scenario of use
and makes some quite exact suggestions as to how this could be
implemented. After he’s prompted by JB asking do you see the idea? TR
takes control of the mouse and keyboard and shows alternative ways of
making arbitrary yexy into entities.
Transcript …
JB now another way I mean I could envisage using something like DNP
would be to just bang in loads of text … then draw boxes around ( )
and have entities emerge
JB do you see the idea?
TR ( ) that would be quite interesting to do <TR writes on pad> … <TR
tries out some possibilities on screen>
TR thank god SM’s not here cause he’s got to do ( ) code it
JB ( ) ha ha ha
TR no I think that’s doable I don’t think that’s I don’t think that’s that
problematic … ok so a means of (forming) entities from large-ish
pieces of text would be good
JB yeah
(Bowers & Pycock 1994: 302-303 Original emphasis)
Design and use mutually influence each other, and it may be difficult to separate the
“streams of influence” – even analytically. The relation between design and use is a twoway relation where the sides influence each other in parallel and in more or less subtle
ways. Design influences use through the handing over of the design result – the artefact.
But design departs from images of use. Use influences design as design is aimed at
improving processes in the use context. To include technology and artefacts in practices,
actions and meanings contributes to developing a basis for design. The mutuality
between design and use is a relation in transition.
Both the ideas and materials in design influence use: the ideas that are given form are
(attempted) communicated through the artefact, in order to suggest and encourage
particular practices and thus particular meanings that fit the design ideas. The material
aspects of the artefact influence use by constituting concrete work conditions. Changes
in the work conditions change how work is done, and thus the knowledge needed for
carrying out work. Changes at the operational level of work influence also the levels of
actions and activities, and can create different interpretations of the activity.
Both work knowledge and work conditions influence design. Work knowledge is the
basis for suggesting and choosing tools in work as it constitutes the purpose and criteria
for using and evaluating the tool. Work conditions are very concrete, and give material
Chapter 12. Design ÅÆ use
Part 4. Systems development as design-use relations
limitations and possibilities to the tool (like the tool’s integration and interaction with
other tools) as well as to the content of the (computerised) representation
(representations of the object of work or the work processes concerned with the object).
The mutual interplay between design and use is a mutual influence of two relations:
it is the relation between design ideas and design materials that influences and is
influenced by the relation between work knowledge and work conditions. It may be that
all the relations change in time, so that the design-use relation at some point in time is
better understood through the relations between design ideas and work conditions, and at
other points in time design materials and work knowledge may be more important.
Instead of making a table over the possible combinations in this complex relationship, I
identify four important relations discussed in each of the first four sections. The last
section summarises a relational view on systems development emphasising relations
between design and use.
12.1 Learning
The most obvious change process in systems development – besides the creation of an
artefact – is the many learning processes that take place1. Learning is a basic activity in
human development, aimed at improving our abilities for acting and interpreting the
As a general characteristic of human activity, learning can be seen as relations
between utilization and improvements. Human activity makes use of tools, as a constant
interest in improving the world by making it better, easier, faster etc. Utilization of tools
is a basic characteristic of use, as improvement is a characteristic of design (and
engineering). Improvements often include making new artefacts; utilization includes
appropriation of artefacts in current activities. Learning is the interplay between the
utilization of artefacts and the improvement of the activity: the interplay between
experience and interpretation, of doing and reflecting, of combining different levels of
the activity, different logics, to see and do differently.
With respect to the relation between design and use, I want to more specifically focus
on learning as relations between the material possibilities and the logic of the work
practice. Both designers and users need to address these relations, in different ways.
Design by definition addresses the application area, and knowledge and interpretations of
the context of use are included as part of the ideas that feed the visions fuelling the
design. I have argued that ideas and knowledge from both designers and their
collaborators in the design process – in particular the users – are needed in order to share
and create knowledge about the logic of the use-work and use context that can be a basis
for a robust artefactual logic. In order to design tools that support all levels of use, the
technology-independent logic of the larger work activity has to be the basis for the logic
of the artefact. The material possibilities come into the picture as we need to utilize the
technology to construct and present a computerised materialisation of this logic.
Software as a material is very plastic as it can be made to model almost any sort of
symbolic automaton – but it is limited to symbolic automatons. Looking for material
possibilities means just looking for where in the use context that sort of logic would fit.
This in turn may limit our learning about the use context to just include symbolic routine
operations –I have argued that we need to know more about the use-work logic on its
own terms in order to suggest where the computing logic may be useful.
discussed in e.g. Bjerknes et al 1985; Bjerknes, Bratteteig & Sinding-Larsen 1987; Bisgaard et al 1989
Numerous illustrations of learning aspects of systems development can be found in
the Florence project – learning from errors as well as successes. The mutual learning that
led to the WorkSheet system is a success story, where both informaticians and nurses
together developed new knowledge – shared as well as professionally based. The Global
Software Outsourcing project provides examples where there has been too little learning,
and illustrates that even programming from given specifications may result in less than
optimal solutions if the programmer has not learnt enough about the use-work logic.
Systems development is aimed at change – and may be seen as “enforced” learning.
The fact that all systems development projects are unique, not done before, increases the
importance of acknowledging the learning processes. The designers obviously need to
learn about the use context – and I argue that they need to learn its logic on its own
terms. The users need to learn to use the new artefact, and will often do so through
training and courses, but mainly through incorporating it into their practice as part of
work. As work is a social arena, they will learn from colleagues as well as when
problems arise – and hopefully master their tools in ways that enable them to use the
potential of the tool in unforeseen intelligent ways as a means of doing a better job.
I have presented a view of learning as manifold and complex, as happening in action
and in reflecting on actions – and when reflection in action occurs. Learning – and
knowing – is not mainly detached and decontextualized reflection. Knowing and learning
is embodied and tacit, in the sense of being personally experienced. Knowing is enacted
in situations, drawing on experienced knowledge and skills that are calculative and
evaluative, perceptual and emotional. The many facets of knowledge and skills play
together in creating an inner picture of the artefact-to-be as it is learnt.
Learning happens in the individual body and brain – but not in isolation. Individual
skills and knowledge get their value from their application in a context in which other
people’s knowledge and skills contribute to define each other. Learning is basically
social and happens in social relations that are part of communities of practice.
Learning is based on trust and openness, important when learning a craft, but also
very much present in all learning situations as the potential for power games in social
change is always present. Learning in systems development requires a design of the
process that fosters trust and openness, sharing of knowledge and openness to become a
novice (together) in order to learn and create new knowledge. Learning is intrinsically
intertwined with design, and mutual learning should be at the heart of systems
12.2 Tradition
Systems development aims at change – envisioning a new future – but the change must
take place within limits given by contemporary culture and society. History tells us that
there are limits to how different a change can be, and what can be changed.
Tradition is the continuously changing societal and cultural life, constituting the
general frame for understanding and interpreting existing artefacts and for developing
expectations for new artefacts. Tradition is change – but slow change. I have used
Stuedahl’s (forthcoming 2003) discussion about tradition to define tradition as change, as
a process of developing interpretations of the world through impressions, attitudes,
values materialised in concepts, artefacts, arrangements, rituals. Systems development is
materialisation of interpretations. Tradition is characterized by i) the interpretations and
assumptions about the world that are taken for granted, ii) norms that guide habitual
action, iii) existing power and authority, and iv) identity of self and the collective formed
Chapter 12. Design ÅÆ use
Part 4. Systems development as design-use relations
by existing values and attitudes1. This view of tradition is helpful for understanding
when the current (and past) is used to legitimise and normalise behaviour and exercise
power, and when current interpretations and identities constitute continuity in change.
Departing from the relations between design and use, tradition can be seen as an
intrinsically intertwined relation between needs and support. The concepts of “support”
and “needs” are based in the relation between humans and machines, often taken as static
states. Support is taken as a relation between a human being and an artefact in which the
artefact enables or eases operations in an activity, by automating parts of the operations
and acting as tools in other operations. Support thus means to delegate parts of the
operations involved in an activity to a computer system. Supporting the task may mean
that you need to do the task in a particular way. In order to support work, the artefact
should communicate and report its operations and operational status so that it is possible
to know what part of the work is and can be delegated to it. The accounting or
presentation of states and state changes is important in support. “Needs” are expectations
of an artefact (or of an activity) that come from our knowledge about them – sometimes
before they have been materialised. “Needs” are therefore closely connected to the
technological possibilities of support, and we may say that needs are created by the offer
of support.
I focus on the relation between needs and support as a changing and interacting
relation, dominated by expectations about the world. Needs are developed as offers of
support exist – and vice versa. Needs are developed through social and cultural practices
acting as a basis for activities and interpretations of the context of activity. Knowledge
about technology and its role in society acts as a basis for expectations of changes in
current operations, actions and activities: expectations about improvements. The notion
of support expresses expectations of various kinds: the expectations that human capacity
can be extended through tools, and that work can be delegated to tools (automation to
liberate human beings from work). The first two expectations fit with observations of
human beings: we do make efforts to extend our capacities through tools (e.g. memory)
and we do delegate work to them (e.g. calculations). The expectations to improve human
activities through utilizing tools are a constant interplay between opportunities for
support and identification of needs, both based on expectations that come from the
interplay rather than any of the sides of the relation.
The Florence project offers an interesting illustration of the interplay between needs
and support through a change within the tradition of the use context. Through
presentations of computer systems, the nurses were exposed to various uses of
computing technology as well as various forms of computing as material. Important here
is their hands-on experience with the small Macintoshes, that made them see and
understand graphical and object-oriented interfaces. This enabled them to suggest a
system – a “need” – that utilized the object-oriented interface characteristics of
computers as a means to change the traditional way of sharing information in work. The
tradition of report meetings and paper notes were kept, but the sharing and updating of
information were improved by computerising the WorkSheets. The logic of the
WorkSheet System is a nursing logic materialised in a computer.
Tradition is the slow changes of practice coming about as forms and materials
influence the concrete conditions for an activity. The activity as a whole changes through
iterative cycles of experienced action and interpretation.
see chapter 10.2
12.3 Categorisation
Computer systems are materialised symbolic representations and the making of such
representations is a basic characteristic of systems design. Categorisation: to create
categories and classifications and to give them material form is a core competence in
informatics. The process relates the use context with the computing machinery in
profound ways, and at several levels of abstraction. The representation itself includes
layers of category systems, and the system as a whole is categorised so as to be
recognised as a tool in the work context.
The notion of categorisation expresses relations between the work to create a
recognisable artefact (and artefactual identity) and the contemporary culture in which the
artefact is to make sense. Design is part of and addresses contemporary society. The
categories invented in design are often already given – by someone and for a purpose –
and design translates their presentational form. Computer representations are
materialisations of particular categorisations into real, digital, manifest parts of our
The corresponding concept in product design is commodification. The design process
here relates to the market, to the consumer, aiming to design an artefact that can be
recognised by the consumers. In order to do that, the contemporary culture, its trends and
fashions, is used to suggest form, function, and structure to an artefact not yet a part of
the culture. The newness as well as the familiarity has to be carefully designed so that
the artefact is new enough to represent an improvement, but familiar enough to be
recognised and to fit with the existing activities and conditions of the use context. The
balancing act of commodification – and habituation – needs careful consideration and
interplay between design and use contexts.
The Florence project again offers an illustration of this relation. The map as a
metaphor for information structure is a concretisation of a categorisation of nurses’
information needs that relates to their culture and professional knowledge: it fits with the
organisation of work and it fits with the physical structure of the ward – and it fits with
Western interpretations of maps for navigating in space and place. The many failures of
utilizing Lotus Notes demonstrate that the categorisation in Notes – that aimed to be
different from single-user system – were not conveyed: it simply looked and behaved too
much like the current tools to be questioned and re-interpreted as different. However, the
project-oriented culture in the police department (POL) made it possible for them to
recognise and interpret the collaborative support potential in the system.
12.4 Habituation
In line with the Application perspective (from the Florence project) I claim that computer
systems get their real value in use. The way that systems get taken into use is outside the
control of the designers, and thus a source of worry in design. I would argue for a shift
towards a positive attitude to the innovative ways that users relate to technology, and
characterize the process of “taking into use” in terms of invitation and hospitality. In
addition, I want to emphasise the work of making an artefact a part of the everyday
practice, taken for granted but still not disappeared. For this I have chosen the concept of
habituation1. A similar, but slightly less inviting concept is domestication.
inspired by Hayden 1997
Chapter 12. Design ÅÆ use
Part 4. Systems development as design-use relations
I see habituation as the relation between the incorporation of an artefact into a
practice and its designed ability to fit this practice1. Users invite the new artefact into
their activities, to be embedded into operations, actions and activities by necessity or
interest. Incorporating an artefact into an activity means learning new operations or new
ways of performing operations, maybe even new or changed actions and activities.
Through learning and experience, the newness of the artefact disappears into habits and
doings and becomes unnoticed and taken-for-granted – even “gets disappeared”.
Incorporation can thus be seen as a negotiation between the current and the new; where
the time and effort to make change given by the users is used to negotiate with the
artefactual forms, deciding the identity of the artefact as a part of their work.
The tool is taken into use within a practice, but in order to do that the tool has to be
designed for fitting in. The tool thus has to be designed to fit the practice both
conceptually and concretely. It has to fit the standards already present in the context, but
still be different. Furthermore, it has to be flexible for new use, but still recognisable as
an artefact to the contemporary user. Habituation relates to the relation between
standardisation and flexibility, but emphasises the context in which the artefact is to be
used as the basis for evaluating what is standard and flexible. Flexibility should be an
opportunity for use rather than a property of the artefact.
The choice of paper as a technology for WorkSheets as work instruments in the
Florence project is an example of habituation. The computer was used for updating the
information, paper was used in work. The system quite nicely fitted with existing habits.
Not so with Lotus Notes as a groupware system – only recognisable pieces, like fax,
email, text processing, were invited into the practice.
The concept of habituation emphasises the basic openness of users to improve their
actions and interpretations, while maintaining and building on qualities already present.
12.5 A relational view on systems development
I see the relation between design and use as a dialectic relation; a contradiction, where
use and design are themselves relations. Design and use are different, but mutually
dependent through their different shaping of the artefact. Design creates the artefact,
which is used. Use constitutes a realization of the artefact and gives meaning to it
through the ways in which it is incorporated into practice. There is a large potential for
conflicts between design and use concerned with their different interests in the artefact as
well as in the processes of use and design.
Use as work is the continuity that exists before and after design. Work is carried out
and made sense of as normal practice – a new artefact introduced to the work context
changes the work conditions and therefore the work knowledge at some level, but this
happens within and as part of work. Work has its own logic and time, and the analytical
levels of work: operations, actions, and activities may also be conceived as processes
with their own logic and time, interacting and influencing each other.
Design will always be an add-on to the organised, everyday work practice, whether it
is a separate project (as often is the case in systems development) or it is an improvement
effort integrated in normal practice. Design has its own logic and time scale, different
from use, basically because design involves doing something new, something you have
never done before (at least not exactly like this), and something that you at some point
do not know if or how to do. In creative activity time flies and time drags: the
Silverstone & Haddon 1996 use the concepts “appropriation” and the artefact’s “integrative design”
perseverance required when doing bricolage activities contrasts with the sparks of new
insights that change the meanings of roles and well-known artefacts.
The logic of design and use are different, thus the relations between them represent
relations between different contexts: social, cultural, conceptual, work-wise, time-wise
and so on. They are different activities. The relations between them connect in many
different ways; between people involved in both activities, between artefacts, cultural
meanings, social norms, power relations and a lot of other things that interact and make
each relationship different.
The general movement in systems development, between design and use, can be
summarised in the relations learning, tradition, categorisation and habituation. These
relations all emphasise that making change is work, and that the responsibility and
control are shared between designers and users as they create their lives in contemporary
society. Although they all draw on the general relations between design and use, they are
different because different aspects of design and of use play more or less important roles.
o Learning is development, and deals with individuals as well as their interaction in
larger contexts (pairs, groups, organisations, societies). Learning is change, where the
direction is only partly controlled and predictable, and where individual differences
and preferences are not seen as deviations and problems. Learning is work, and the
conditions for doing the work are both physical and mental, both individual and
collective, both new and well-known. Learning as human development is clearly a
most important part of systems development.
o Tradition is also important as it tends to guide us towards the future, it motivates
improvements, experiments, and wishes to learn and develop. Tradition is embodied
in each person as well as in her/his social and cultural relations, as a source for
inspiration and common understandings as well as conflicts and resistance. Tradition
is the basis for design ideas as well as users’ basis for interpreting and appreciating
o Categorisation is fundamental to systems design: computers are symbolic machines
materialising representations of the world – and they are parts of the world.
Categorisation depends on learning and relates to tradition.
o Habituation addresses the way that users incorporate the computer system into their
activities. The concept of habituation emphasises that use can only happen as a part
of the use-context as it is practiced, thus emphasising the strong dependencies of
design toward use.
The processes of learning and tradition are changes in people and in their relations with
other people and artefacts, in a social and cultural context. The processes emphasise
interpretation of the computer as a material representation both conceptually and in
action. The second pair of processes, of categorisation and habituation, is concerned with
changes in the artefact – in its various relations – emphasising the different bases for
interpretation and action.
Design and use are – in a broad context – aspects of the same development, thus the
distinction between what counts as design and what counts as use can be – and should be
– discussed. Design and use are not static concepts, and contemporary technical
developments may blur the distinction between them even more. I do, however, want to
maintain a distinction between design and use, because I want the designer to take the
responsibility for utilizing the potential of the material and not replicate standards
unnecessarily. In order to make use have real influence on the definition of the solution,
technical people must do the design. Users modify and adjust and misuse systems – but
are not (and should not need to be) qualified to see through the many layers of
representation to be able to identify and change the basic assumptions of the artefact.
Surface modifications may, however, make the tool fit better in specific operations – but
Chapter 12. Design ÅÆ use
Part 4. Systems development as design-use relations
should not be mistaken as design impact. Designers should keep the responsibility for
creating a quality artefact as such, but they should share the responsibility for defining
the artefact in the context into which it will become a part.
Chapter 13
Dealing with relations between design and use
History reveals the power of certain technological innovations to
transform the mental life of an era—the feelings, sensibilities,
perceptions, expectations, assumptions, and, above all, possibilities that
define a community. From the social influence of the medieval castle, to
the coming of the printed book, to the social and physical upheaval
associated with the rise of the automobile—each specific example serves
to drive home a similar message. An important technological innovation
is not usefully thought of as a unitary cause eliciting a series of discrete
effects. Instead, it can be seen as an alteration of the material horizon of
our world, with transformative implications for both the contours and the
interior texture of our lives. Technology makes the world a new place
(Zuboff 1984: 388)
This dissertation has discussed the fascinating field of development of information
systems as a complex process in which a range of diverse changes is made; technical,
social, individual, organisational, political. This thesis has discussed these changes
applying a relational perspective, in the framework of relations between design and use.
In this chapter I summarise my conclusions, implications and suggestions for further
13.1 Conclusions
The basic argument of this thesis is that we need to address the relations between design
and use if we are to understand the changes made in systems development. One basis for
supporting this view is empirical data from a number of research projects I have
participated in, including studies of design and use in a range of systems development
contexts, over a period of twenty years. The second source of support for this argument
is a set of theories that address this relation or its shared focus: the artefact – the
computer system – as a changing object. Between these lies a wealth of research studies
addressing systems development in a variety of ways, providing examples of concrete
processes of design and use of computer systems, as well as analytical and theoretical
conceptualizations of such processes. Together these have acted as sources for the
argument: analyses of research projects and theoretical perspectives have fed each other
– supported and opposed each other – contributing to further development of both
questions and answers. Presentation in this thesis has focused on answers, while the
research process has been dominated by questions.
Systems development is the work of informaticians, and is characterized by design
and implementation of computer systems1. The resulting computer system is built with a
I have delimited my discussion to the lifecycle of computer-based systems in a work organisation
Chapter 13. Dealing with relations between design and use
change in mind; a change that includes the future use of the system1. Making the change
involves the work of both users and informaticians – and often even more groups of
people (like managers, clients). In the design parts of systems development, the change is
fuelled by the relation between ideas and materials, where informaticians’ ideas and
knowledge about the material software enable and constrain the possible outcomes of the
design process. The resulting artefact is transferred to the use-context, where users
incorporate the artefact and thus change their work at many levels: operations, actions
and activities. The artefact changes the work conditions as a new work instrument and
sometimes as a new object of work. Users draw on their work knowledge to act, and new
work conditions necessitate a reorientation of work knowledge – that includes these
work conditions.
This thesis suggests a conceptual framework for understanding systems development
as the making of change through design, use and relations between design and use.
changes in artefact use
- objects
- instruments
Figure 31: Overview of relations concerned with design and use
Design creates the artefact from ideas and materials; the artefact comes into existence
through the relation, and the relation explains the artefact. The relation between ideas
and material in design expresses the designers’ knowledge, where the knowledge is seen
as action in which embodied, enacted, evaluative, calculative, perceptual and emotional
knowledge and skills play together in creating a symbolic machine.
The artefact is incorporated into a work context; use is work. The artefact becomes a
part of the work conditions, as an instrument for doing work or as an object possibly
representing physical objects. These aspects of the artefact as part of work activity are
incorporated into the work knowledge, and constitute a basis for utilizing the artefact in
work. The automation potential and the symbolic nature of computers together contribute
to increasing the amount of articulation work in work.
Relations between design and use give the basis for understanding systems
development as a diversity of change processes. The influence of design on use through
the artefact depends on how well the logic of the artefact – as materialised ideas – fits the
logic of the use-work. Use influences design through requirements and needs, e.g. if the
instrument does not support work well. Furthermore, new design ideas may arise when
the logic of the artefact is so incorporated into the use context that the users can suggest
work improvements based on recognition of material properties.
I propose four relational processes characterizing the mutual interplay between
design and use, and which I see as important for the making of change. These include
I have not included discussions about organisational issues
change processes of learning and tradition, as well as processes directed toward changing
the artefact: categorisation and habituation.
o learning is relations between the material possibilities and the logic of the work
practice. I argue that the design process inevitably starts with ideas and knowledge
from both designers and their collaborators in the design process – and should be
designed to do that. In order to design instruments that support all levels of use-work,
the technology-independent logic of the larger work activity needs to be included as a
basis for the logic of the artefact.
o tradition: the continuously changing societal and cultural life, constituting the general
framework for understanding and interpreting existing artefacts and for developing
expectations for new artefacts. Tradition as change can be seen as the intertwined
relation between needs and support; needs are developed as offers of support exist –
and vice versa. Tradition changes slowly. Artefactual forms and materials influence
the concrete conditions for activity that through experience and practice change the
activity as a whole as well as its meaning.
o categorisation: relations between the work to create a recognisable artefact identity
and the contemporary culture in which the artefact is to make sense. Design is part of
and creates contemporary society. The categories invented in design are often already
given – by someone and for a purpose; design translates their presentational form.
Systems design is, even more than other kinds of design, symbolic and
interpretational. Computers as representations are aimed at materialising particular
categorisations so that they become real life influences on our activities and our ways
of – yes, categorising things.
o habituation: the relation between the incorporation of an artefact and its ability to fit.
New artefacts are invited into use activities, and are embedded into operations,
actions and activities by necessity or interest. Incorporating an artefact into an
activity means learning new operations or new ways of performing operations,
maybe even new or changed actions and activities. Through learning and experience,
the newness of the artefact “disappears” into habits and doings – its existence gets
taken for granted. Habituation is a negotiation between the current and the new;
where the time and effort to make change given by the users is used to negotiate with
the artefactual form to decide its identity.
These relations point to processes of change. The processes of learning and tradition are
concerned with changes in people and in their relations with other people and artefacts,
in a social and cultural context. The processes emphasise making sense of the world –
literally the making of sense. The second pair of processes, of categorisation and
habituation, is concerned with changing the artefact – making sense in and of the artefact
in various relations.
The making of change in systems development is the process of dealing with these
relations so that a complex diversity of interacting change processes can take place. The
“good news” is that informaticians do not have to make all the changes by themselves.
The “bad news” is that the changes they make are related to other changes that therefore
need attention and understanding – and even action. Design of artefacts comes with a
responsibility for the changes in which the artefacts will be included.
13.2 Implications for systems development
The conceptual framework suggested in this thesis adds to existing frameworks and
methodologies by emphasising relations in three respects:
Chapter 13. Dealing with relations between design and use
o dialectical relations as a way to understand processes and development, emphasising
maintaining the tension of the relation rather than looking for synthesis and unity.
The focus is on what binds the relation together as well as what may distort it. The
emphasis on tension includes the view that differences and conflicting relations
incorporate a potential for development and change.
o a systematic questioning of dichotomies, replacing them with dialectic relations.
Questioning dichotomies means questioning the assumptions which are embedded in
a tradition and thus taken for granted; the legitimizing and normative aspects of
power and interpretations that contribute to shaping of identity and understanding.
Dialectical relations enable a juxtapositioning of differences (unlike dichotomies that
organise and assign values to the two sides of the relation). Dialectical relations are
well suited to look for the invisible, the obvious, the disappearing, emphasising
positive effects of difference and diversity.
o relations between people, where the individual can be knowing or unknowing by
means of the relations they are part of. Mutual learning, for example, emphasizes
mutual trust and the experience of a shared practice as a basis for listening and for a
constructive dialogue in which the individuals together dare to transcend their
original practices.
A focus on making change implies extending the horizon of systems development to also
include the parts of the process that do not involve informaticians’ manipulation of
computer artefacts. It includes appreciating change-work carried out by users and use
organisations. The informaticians need to share the responsibility for change, but
maintaining the overall responsibility for the artefact necessitates knowledge about how
to facilitate all the necessary changes and their adjustments to each other. A consequence
of this view is to emphasise the role of systems developers as managers of change with a
particular responsibility for relating the diverse change processes.
A focus on making change means to focus on learning – and thus human beings in a
community. Many kinds of learning take place within the systems development process,
the most obvious is the learning informaticians need to carry out concerned with the usecontext in order to make an artefact that is recognised and that fits there. The second
obvious learning effort is carried out by users learning to make use of the artefact. These
learning activities include specific and predictable new knowledge. There is also a need
for learning processes where what is learnt is uncertain and questionable, and where
mutual trust and openness are necessary for a good learning result. Mutual learning is an
example of such learning processes; very situated, very personal, very explorative and
constructive – and very creative. A consequence of this view is to see systems
development as management of human relations and human change – and their relations.
A focus on relations between design and use means that informaticians should be
trained to master several logics. The core of systems design is the logic of computing
machinery; the basic skill that the relational skills are based on. But the computing
machinery is not worth much if it does not fit to the use-context, thus another kind of
logic is needed, that stems from the use-work in which the artefact will be incorporated.
The third type of logic needed is the design logic, where diversity and unusual couplings
between kinds of logic are appreciated. The logic of systems development constitutes a
fourth type of logic, emphasising change and the interplay between other logics. The
relations are understood through understanding their sides. A consequence of this focus
is to acknowledge the individual skills and knowledge present in the development and to
aim to relate them so that their differences contribute to the development.
I have argued that good design requires
o the ability to see the artefact as one solution and thus the ability to see other solutions
that are radically different and utilize material properties differently, and
o the ability to imagine the artefact lifecycle and thus take care to create a good quality
product that can tolerate its use context,
as well as
o the ability to see the artefact as one solution and thus the ability to see other problem
definitions that the solution does not solve, and
o the ability to understand the environment in which the artefact will become a part and
thus to define and balance the newness and the oldness of the artefact as the
environment changes.
which suggests that good design needs more than one set of competencies. In software
design, however, the invisibility – the processuality and intangibility – of the
representation creates a distance and a complexity that hampers users’ ability to acquire
technical knowledge from use experiences and thus makes expertise of the material an
unevenly distributed resource. Knowledge about the material is necessary in order to
utilize its potential, and to work around its limits – and still create a quality product. I
find this ability a necessary element in design
Finally, I maintain that even if technical machinery is the core of systems
development, a one-sided focus on this logic hampers development of good systems. A
relational view challenges traditional informatics by suggesting that
o functionality should be considered a part of use rather than a part of the interface.
Flexibility in use that is based on use-logic contributes to the durability of the
artefact. The Florence project’s WorkSheet system is an example.
o the logic of the use-work should be included in the artefact, not just by surface
similarity of concepts (data labels from the user context) or routines (user operations
and procedures). The unsuccessful Kardex system in the Florence project exemplifies
that users’ logic may differ from informaticians’ logic, e.g. the crucial information
given to nurses from an empty data field “medication allergies”. This is a serious
challenge in Global Software Outsourcing projects.
o the logic of the use-context utilized in the design should be independent of any
technological solutions, and thus deal with explanations of professional action and
evaluation rather than the current organisation of operations in work. A technologyindependent logic is more robust and durable. The WorkSheet system from the
Florence project is an example. The FIRE project demonstrated that long
relationships between use and design contexts may make it difficult to distinguish the
logic from its materialisations in work organisation and work tools.
o the system logic should be presented to the users in a way that educates the user to
master her/his work instruments better. To master an instrument also includes to push
its borders, to stretch its potential.
These challenges imply the dilemma of opening up the closed logic of computers in the
systems development process – but in ways that maintain the closedness of the machine
necessary for control of its reliability.
13.3 Contributions to research
The basis for my rethinking of systems development is a diversity of theoretical and
empirical sources, and their combination. The scope of these sources has supported
juxtapositioning and comparison of diverse theories and concepts, in which the
juxtapositioning is what is new.
In relation to social theories about computer artefacts in use, I have emphasised the
interpretation of the computer system as an integrated part of work, where knowledge
about work includes using the work instruments and addressing the work object in ways
Chapter 13. Dealing with relations between design and use
that secure the professional quality of the work activity. Misfit between the artefact and
the work operations becomes interesting as a demonstration of work knowledge
motivated by the bad instrument, and as an opportunity for learning (at several levels of
In relation to social theories and studies of design I have emphasised the computer as
a symbolic automaton which – because of this – includes possibilities for incorporating
logic from the use context. Moreover, I have argued that knowledge about the user
context is necessary in order to select robust material solutions also within the logic of
the machinery. I appreciate the necessity of a closed machine-logic in the artefact as it is
transferred to the control of non-designers, but I have argued for seeing, discussing and
incorporating other logics in the machine during design.
In relation to systems development research, and participatory design research in
particular, many researchers have focused on aspects beyond traditional software
engineering. Many researchers have applied a dialectical relational perspective on
systems development – and even on design–use relations. I have emphasised studying
the sides of the relation in detail, on their own terms and logics, thus allowing the
characteristics of the two sides to become clearer in the relations between them. This has
enabled me to suggest categorising the relations into many and multifaceted change
processes so that it is possible to see how both design and use enact their characteristics
in the process. I have argued for diversity as a wanted state of affairs, and relational and
processual perspectives as ways of achieving this.
Many other researchers have looked at relations and how artefacts influence design
and use. I have taken a basic relational perspective, applied to the concrete processes in
systems development. My aim has been to widen the scope of both use and design as
they are constituted in their concrete practices and analytical conceptualizations, aiming
to demonstrate the complexity of their interrelations. Above all, I have aimed to
demonstrate the importance of activities and knowledges that are normally silenced and
not recognised, and to offer ways to conceptualizing them. I have wanted to combine my
care for the machinery with my care for the people by defining systems development in a
way that both become visible.
13.4 Further research
This thesis provides plenty of scope for further research.
I would like to use the conceptual framework suggested in the thesis to understand a
particular systems development practice – taken to include the whole system lifecycle.
An obvious opportunity for this is the Global Software Outsourcing project, in which I
am currently involved. This project poses particular challenges to the framework as the
system lifecycle is distributed globally and culturally, both with respect to design and
use. I especially want to study the artefact as a meeting of logics.
A second area for research would be to widen the framework to also address use
contexts outside of work organizations. I have only touched upon this in the thesis
drawing on research on product development – more as a source of understanding work
than as an independent area of concern.
A third area to follow up from this thesis would be to explore the concept of
tradition, and to use it as a means of exploring the area of participatory design. The
notion of tradition I have used in the thesis seems to be useful for discussing slow change
processes in which artefacts are included, emphasizing both interpretational and power
aspects. These topics are not well covered in this thesis.
Two areas of concerns have not been possible to include in the thesis. The first is to
include a general theory on practice – like Bourdieu’s empirical studies of everyday
activities (e.g. Bourdieu 1977; 1990; Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992 and Moi 1991), in
combination with the ethnographic studies of work and their emphasis on practice and on
detailed accounts of our interaction with artefacts. I also believe that Merleau-Ponty’s
work on embodiment (Merleau-Ponty 1962 and Robertson 1997) could be included in
the discussions about knowing in action.
The second area is the further exploration of how social processes in design (e.g.
group processes) can influence the decision-making and creativity as well as the quality
of the work – and thus influence the technical quality of an artefact. Some studies of
design processes suggest that it is possible to trace social decisions to artefactual
characteristics (see e.g. Cross et al 1996; Cross & Clayburn Cross 1996; Dorst &
Dijkhuis 1996; Goldschmidt 1996; Bucciarelli 1994; Lawson 1997; 1984).
The exploration of theories and empirical studies in this work has taken me on a
round-trip, where many of the theories I started out with have changed meaning and
relative position as I turned unexpected corners and followed sidetracks and even some
dead ends. With the benefit of hindsight as I round off this thesis, I would like to
reconsider the theoretical basis – in particular how relationally based understandings in
different theories relate.
As an informatician the questions of how to make change, and how to deal with
relations, are important. A way to follow up the work in this thesis is to explore theories,
methodologies and techniques for realizations of the ideas expressed here. The story
about mutual learning is instructive, but has severe limitations of general applicability. A
set of instructive and practical guidelines would be useful to system development
practitioners as well as for teaching informaticians about the challenges and joys of
systems development, design and use.
Chapter 13. Dealing with relations between design and use
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