Distributed Cognition : Toward a new foundation for Human-Computer Interaction research (James Hollan, Edwin Hutchins, David Kirsh)

Take home message

The proposition is an integrated framework for research that combines ethnographic observation and controlled experimentation as a basis for theoretically informed design of digital work materials and collaborative workplaces. The research focussing on distributions of cognitive processes across members of social groups, coordination between internal and external structure, and how products of earlier events can transform the nature of later events.


Working on a single computer with local information is been quickly passed by with working in a complex networked world of information and computer-mediated interactions.

Distributed cognition(DC) theory is here proposed as a new foundation for human-computer interaction(HCI). The theory focusses on whole environments : what we really do in them and how we coordinate our activities in them.

Furthermore an intergrated research framework is sketched and selections of earlier work are used to demonstrate new opportunities in the design of digital work materials.

1. Introduction

DC studies the organization of cognitive systems, which goes beyond the individual and includes interactions between people and resources and materials in the environment.

Principle of boundaries :
traditionally individuals, DC looks for cognitive processes wherever they occur on the basis of functional relationships of elements that participate together in the process.
A system that can dynamically configure itself to bring subsystems into coordination to accomplish various functions. A cognitive process is delimited by the functional relationships among the elements that participate in it, rather than by the spatial bringing together of the elements.

Principle of range of mechanics :
traditional views look for cognitive events in the manipulation of symbols inside individual actors.
DC looks for a broader class of cognitive events and does not expect all such events to be encompassed by the skin or skull of an individual.

Applying principles to observation of human activity “in the wild”, 3 kinds of distribution of cognitive process become apparent :

– may be distributed across the members of a social group
– may involve coordination between internal and external (material or environmental) structure
– may be distributed through time in such a way that the products of earlier events can transform the nature of later events

2. A DC approach

2.1 Socially DC

Emerging idea : social organization is itself a form of cognitive architecture. (Images of a social/cognitive ant society come to mind)
ant contact networks
Cognitive processes involve trajectories of information (transmission and transformations), so the patterns of these information trajectories reflect some underlying architecture.
Since social organization—plus the structure added by the context of activity—largely determines the way information flows through a group, social organization may itself be viewed as a form of cognitive architecture.
DC includes phenomena that emerge in social interactions as well as interactions between people and structure in their environments.

2.2 embodied cognition

cognition is the result of interactions between the internal (mind) and external (body, environment). The work environment can become part of the cognitive system.

2.3 culture and cognition

Distributed cognition is influenced by and influences itself the historical cultural environment, a reservoir of resources for learning, problem solving and reasoning. As such we are standing on the shoulders of giants, but are also blinded to other ways of thinking.
Rethink model of individual mind.

2.4 Ethnography of distributed cognitive systems

“The term ethnography has come to be equated with virtually any qualitative research project where the intent is to provide a detailed, in-depth description of everyday life and practice.” (http://www.brianhoey.com/General%20Site/general_defn-ethnography.htm)

Study application of knowledge : how knowledge is used to perform action in/for certain events and how information is arranged in material and social world.
Participant observation is used to examine technical expertise.

Identifying critical features :
The airspeed tape on the left shows us a very narrow operating range at the top end of our altitude capability. That is, your range of acceptable airspeed is from about 212 to about 245. The “chain” above that shows the area of high speed buffet, meaning parts of the aircraft, above that speed, will begin to go supersonic.
On the bottom of the tape is the yellow line we call “the hook,” which is the slow speed stall. If you go below that speed, your airfoil will stall, and you will fall.

3 An integrated framework for research

DC theory identifies a set of core principles that widely apply. For example,

  • people establish and coordinate different types of structure in their environment
  • it takes effort to maintain coordination
  • people off-load cognitive effort to the environment whenever practical
  • there are improved dynamics of cognitive load-balancing available in social organization.

Cognitive ethnography seeks to determine what things mean to participants in an activity and to document the means by which the meanings are created, often with revealing and surprising result. E.g. the use of structure that was not anticipated by the designers.
This can only be discovered by observation : real world observations, for which a rapport is needed, and experiments.
Creating a loop : from observation to theory to design to new tools.
Design proces can also reveal new aspects of behaviour to be included in the loop.

3.1 ship navigation

The true bearing to a point is the angle measured in degrees in a clockwise direction from the north line.

DV came into existence by the study of navigation aboard US Navy ships where outcomes that mattered to the ship were the product of the interactions of several navigators with each other and with a complex suite of tools. 

3.2 Airline Cockpit Automation

Pilots using electromechanical airspeed indicators develop perceptual strategies that rely on the perceptual salience of the spatial location of the airspeed indicator needle in a space of meaning- ful speeds. Our new instrument not only preserves this property; it makes it perceptually even more salient.

3.3 Beyond Direct Manipulation

In direct-manipulation interfaces the objects on-screen are meant to be so closely coupled to the actual computational objects we are dealing with that we are supposed to feel as if we are manipulating the real objects themselves and not just their stand-ins.

3.4 History-Enriched Digital Objects

Good examples of these are google search, where the websites that are visited by other users who searched the same topic are included in the search algorithm. And also google Analytics, whose job is to record the usage of a website.

4. Conclusions and future directions

HCI research focus is no longer confined to the desktop but reaches into a complex networked world of information and computer-mediated interactions

More info

Website distributed cognition and human-computer interaction laboratory


Related areas

interaction design, user interface, ergonomy, AI

Related papers

A Moving Target—The Evolution of Human-Computer Interaction, Jonathan Grudin Microsoft Corporation, USA (http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/people/jgrudin/publications/history/HCIhandbook3rd.pdf)

Project Streamer (http://hci.ucsd.edu/hutchins/Steamer.html)

Brain-Computer Interfaces in Medicine (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3497935/)


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