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Graham Button

Graham Button
Lab Director
Xerox Research Centre


Learning from Commonsense: Ethnomethodology and Systems Design

Ethnomethodological studies of work have become an increasingly used resource in the design of computer systems for well over a decade. The analysis of the constitutive practices of work by ethnomethodologists has had both a general methodological influence on design, and a practical consequence for the design of particular systems. On the one hand the idea that human action and interaction is situated has led to a methodological argument that in order to better design systems for the work place it is necessary to analyse the work a system will support from within the context of its production and within the swarm of contingencies it will encounter. On the other hand, actual studies of work have provided requirements for actual systems that have reduced the gap between the technology and the work of those who use it.

However, with the emphasis upon work practice, and within the inevitable turbulences of communicating across disciplines, many of the underpinnings of ethnomethodological investigation have been glossed in the dialogue between ethnomethodologists and computer system designers. One of those underpinnings is the interest that ethnomethodologists have in practical reasoning and understanding, that is, with the way in which people use their stock of commonsense knowledge to reason about and understand social action and interaction. Yet, the ways in which people make sense of the things they see and hear, employing their socially organised commonsense ways of reasoning in their interactions with one another, may be a valuable resource for the design of systems to support learning situations.

In the manner of ethnomethodology, this is not an abstract argument, it is one that can be articulated in study and design practice. To make it I will take a case study which was done by the Work Practice Technology group at Xerox Research Centre Europe (XRCE) consisting of Stefania Castellani, Antonietta Grasso, Peter Tolmie, Jacki O’Neill and myself. We have been interested in the way in which designers of on-line systems to support users of technology in solving problems they are having can learn from the ways in which troubleshooters at call centres, dealing with the same sorts of problems, make sense of the problem descriptions provided by customers in order to work out a solution.

Users of on-line systems often find it difficult to use the system to resolve their problem. This is because the design of the system makes it difficult for them to reason through from their problem to the solution due to the fact that the system embodies a technical world view. The studies done by the Work Practice Technology group at XRCE of troubleshooters on help desks made it clear that there are commonsense practices employed by both troubleshooters and customers in their interaction in order to arrive at descriptions of problems and ways to go about solving them that are coherent to both parties.  That is, troubleshooters work on the telephone as a bridge between commonsense reasoning about problems and more technical modes of reasoning about the same things. 

The need for a bridge here is informative for a range of more directly pedagogic interests.  Many products are provided with a range of resources through which it is intended that users should acquire an understanding of how best to use those products and handle difficulties when they arise.  There is also increasing diversity in these resources.  No longer is it just a matter of working with the product manual.  Instead users are often now bombarded with learning materials from CD-ROMs to product websites.  However, it is still the case that these resources are most often scripted and designed from the perspective of a technical understanding of the products.  Our studies indicate that to rely on just technical instruction with a glossary is very wide of the mark with regard to its actual efficacy in use.  If a bridge is needed to allow for commonsense reasoning in troubleshooting a similar adaptability to commonsense reasoning is needed in these resources as well. 

The message here for designers of learning resources for products is a clear one: there is a need to attend to how people will reason about those products if one is going to provide effective resources for learning about their operation.  When learning how to use a product the acquisition of a technical vocabulary and perspective is an overhead few users will sign up for.  Instead there is a need to provide product support resources that are immediately accessible from a commonsense point of view.  In that there are already people whose job it is to make technical information about products accessible to lay users (for example, help desk trouble shooters) there already exists for learning material designers a ready resource to be tapped for understanding just how one might construct bridges from the technical to commonsense points of view. Ethnomethodology’s interest in how people reason through and make sense of their world can be used to tap that resource.