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Research :

Because of the remarkable speed at which research ideas are now finding their way into available technology I see my research agenda becoming increasingly focused on the theoretical issues underpinning the design of future venues. All the basic questions I have been asking resurface as concrete concerns when we ask how to design hybrid spaces in which information, telepresence, and use of distributed resources are the focal needs. Naturally, I will be exploring this collection of problems through specific research initiatives. My own interests remain theoretical rather than applied, although I have found it fun and helpful to build actual implementations. My main questions still concern the nature of cognitive coupling, the learning of interactive strategies, coordination, annotation, information architecture, and so on. But the presence of a convergent focus means that the principles and ideas I am exploring may find tighter integration. At the moment, three major topics stand out as central in the design of future environments:

Context Aware Computing
Information Architecture


As forcing function consider how we might design office in the future. Offices serve a few related functions. They provide an effective venue for us to perform our private intellectual activities – a space where we can accumulate tools, resources and organization to support our diverse tasks when we work alone. And they provide a venue for us to convene and work with others – a space where others can expect to find us and share our project related resources. Office in the future must continue to serve these private and public needs. But as more information is remotely housed, and more collaboration takes place with remote team members, our future offices must become more powerful centers of communication and information organization. Somehow our new offices must allow us to communicate and work better with more people and information, yet meet our private needs.

At bottom the challenge is to improve the way we coordinate our activity, both when we work alone with the resources in our office and when we work with others. Three of my current research projects center on this problem of coordination: using annotation to improve coordination, understanding how people use their personal metadata about items to keep clutter manageable, and exploring how distributed groups coordinate their work.

Annotation and the design of digital workplaces
Following on from work started with Ed Hutchins and Jim Hollan I working to understand how annotation can serve to enhance group coordination. Annotation comes in many forms: textual commentary on documents, audio annotation of activity, audio or textual annotation of video (by self or others), symbols on objects in the workplace, wall signage, navigation aids, hypertext variations and many others. In the context of documents, the simplest idea of annotation is that it serves as a form of metadata that helps readers know more about a document without first reading it. But this simple notion ignores the diversity of ways people use and work with documents. A richer idea sees annotation as a tool for coordinating activity associated with a document or object. So, for instance, an annotation on a document may tell a colleague to ignore a passage or to rewrite a sentence, or it may mark the changes to be incorporated in the next draft. Annotations have a special role in attention management: they help others to focus on the same aspect of a document, the same concept or feature in a diagram, the same datum on a chart or table. To effectively serve this attention management function, however, they have to be highly situated in a context of activity (or an anticipated context of activity) and carry a meaning that is likewise highly situated. Thus, the marks on the paper cups used in Starbucks coffee houses, carry a special meaning to the staff. They are a code that has to be learned. Such marks are worth studying because they are an instance of a trick which, at one time, only the most experienced coffee making staff practiced. Yet now they have been institutionalized in workflow so that in rush hour all cashiers specify drinks in an unambiguous code that compensates for interruptions, noise and memory limitations on the production side. To understand how annotations help workflow we need to undertake a variety of careful studies in everyday venues.

Overall, it is clear that there is a great deal of fundamental theory to be developed about the way annotation serves as a mechanism of coordination.

Coordination by means of personal metadata
Most cognitive psychology has been concerned with the way subjects project structure on the world. We gestalt, we categorize, we evaluate and choose. Another thing we do is thing of documents, objects, and artifacts in our activity space in a functional or historical way. We imbue the objects with which we work with all kinds of personal attributes. I might think of the worksheet I have to fill in as the overdue obligation on my desk, or one of the pages Patti gave me last week. These ad hoc, personal categories can serve as metadata for retrieval. In a project I am currently working on we are looking at how individual and small groups of people conceptualize their physical environment. We have taken videos of staff in their offices, we built a computational model of the computer desktop activity which subjects display as they collect references for a powerpoint presentation. And we are currently working on integrating software and hardware to let people on either side of our digital glass wall to work together. We believe this last project will let us explore how different people project different personal metadata on the same objects on a shared hybrid desktop. It will help us to understand how people stay in control of their cluttered world by maintaining personal metadata.

Coordination in hybrid distributed environments
One of the major projects being studied in my lab is how small teams work differently when they are in the same venue and when they are distributed over two or more venues. We created an enhanced environment in which three subjects project their desktops to a large common screen and work together on a time restricted task. In one condition they are in the same venue working from the same table looking at the same large projection. In a second condition one of the three is in a different venue seeing the same large screen with the same three projections. Each person is wearing a headphone and microphone so that we can have separate recordings of each person, they all have access on their computers to a few simple collaborative tools, such as chat and ftp. Our objective is to see how they distribute sub tasks, how and when they interrupt each other, how they recover from errors and breakdowns, and so on. To study the team we have designed a media review tool, and activity review tool that allows us to review multiple video, audio and annotation tracks easily. This has been a major software effort and we will be releasing it into the public domain once we have documented it. We have been using this tool for ethnographic style studies of the teams.


Context Aware Computing
Research in context aware computing takes as its premise the obvious fact that if computational devices (computers, handhelds, embedded processors) know a little bit more about the context and situation of their users then they can be made easier to work with, more helpful, and generally require less explicit commands to do the things users ‘obviously’ want them to do. At first, the context we are talking about here has to do with when and where the user and processor are, and what is in their immediate vicinity. For instance, if I take my laptop or PDA to a sofa and then hit print, a context aware machine would know where it is, which printers I have permission to use, then choose the closest printer to send my print request to, and let me know where that printer is. More interesting versions of context awareness arise as soon as we expand what we mean by ‘context’ to include what we are doing, what we are attending to, what we already did, and what is relevant to our goals in our immediate environment. Ideally, computation should provide us with appropriate resources for our tasks. Some of these resources are purely informational, others are more subtle, such as providing clues, reminders, coordinating mechanisms (lists, to do’s, communication channels to others) all of which have to deployed at the right time or else they become intrusive and in the way. Computation should be used to complement the physical with digital enhancements. But how can we hope to enhance people’s effectiveness, or second guess their needs, if we do not know how to characterize a person’s environment of activity correctly? If our goal is to create a virtual backpack – a backpack that always contains the right resources for the jobs we are doing – we shall have to build into that backpack an adequate knowledge of the principles which structure how humans use the resources in their environments to get things done. It is clear that some amount of this knowledge must go into well designed future offices. What is less clear is how this knowledge is to be specified. I will be focusing on this problem as a way of consolidating my general theory of coordination and the environment. As part of the CAL(IT)2 institute I will be working on the design of future venues and how contextual understanding figures in them. I see this as an ideal forcing function for many of my long term theoretical concerns.


Information architecture
I hope it is clear by now that in offices which dramatically increase our information reach, the problem of organizing information in a way that lets users know where to find what they want to know, will only grow more urgent. The field of information architecture is still in its infancy and deserves proper attention from cognitive scientists. As a designer, I now have a practical interest in this field, but from a theoretical point of view I see myself exploring such fundamental questions as what is consistency in information design, what sort of mental models (perhaps none) should information architects try to engender? The problem takes on an even larger scale when we ask how information architecture and wayfinding are related. This applies equally to the 2D screen space of today’s computers and the 3D cyber spaces of virtual reality. I began some of this work on wayfinding in virtual reality and intend to continue it more systematically in a more abstract information space. The problems has many parts and I will first attack the theoretical questions of design consistency and mental models. But there are many more specific questions about information architecture that arise in designing systems, and after my theoretical papers I intend to attack these too. There is no question that we need principles, guidelines, experimental and other methodologies to explore the problem of information design.

Elearning environments are a concrete application area I am deeply involved in and will continue to develop over the next few years. The issues and problems that arise in good design are often substantially about information architecture. This holds because visual design, wizard design, and navigation are closely related to information architecture. I expect to continue developing new functionality for my general learning environment. One likely direction will be to offer multiple versions of the system, including a light version, so that a broader variety of teaching needs can be met.

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