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Questioning Representations

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Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands


The role of models in the design of computer systems to support interpersonal and cooperative work is examined. It is argued that the current generation of models over-emphasise determinism at the expense of interpretation in the work process. It is further argued that there are many cases in which designs pass between many different professional groups (office workers, managers, analysts, designers, programmers). Each of these groups has its own worldview and specialised language, and hence they are termed "semantic communities". When designs pass between semantic communities, something is lost and something is gained -- but the objects on which each community works are not commensurable. The distinct objects of work (office problems, analyses, designs, programs) do not map onto each other, and cannot be mutually tested using simple truelfalse criteria. This is termed a problem of "ontological drift", and arises whenever several distinct semantic communities work on the "same" system. It is suggested that the disparity so often observed between design expectations and the ways systems are actually used is therefore quite normal. Current efforts are directed at eliminating the disparity. We suggest that a more fruitful approach might be to accept that the final determination of a system rests with the users. In the long run this might give rise to different types of design principles than those used at the moment. In the short run, even the consciousness of this perspective could make significant differences to design dialogues and attitudes to "users".


Robinson, Mike; Bannon, Liam (1991): Questioning Representations. ECSCW 1991: Proceedings of the Second European Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands. ISBN: 978-94-011-3506-1. Full Papers. Amsterdam, The Netherlands. 24-27 September 1991