Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Context as practice, and technology for people

What We Talk About When We Talk About Context
Paul Dourish, 2004

By turning our attention from "context" (as a set of descriptive features of settings) to "practice" (forms of engagement with those settings), we assigned a central role to the meanings that people find in the world and the meanings of their actions there in terms of the consequences and interpretations of those actions for themselves and for others. The important point, however, is that we now see those meanings as essentially open-ended; we recognize that part of what people are doing when they adopt and adapt technologies, incorporating them into their own work, is creating and communicating new meanings though those technologies as their working practices evolve. The broad principle that these examples illustrate is that users, not designers, determine the meaning of the technologies that they use, through the ways in which they incorporate them into practice. Accordingly, the focus of the design is not simply "how can people get their work done," but "how can people create their own meanings and uses for the system in use"; and in turn, this suggests an open approach in which users are active participants in the emergence of ways of working ...

The approach outlined here also takes the mundane details of lived experience as the basis for understanding context, not as a stable description of the world, but as the outcome of embodied practice. The examination of the unquestioned, background assumptions and practices that support everyday activity is the essence of most phenomenological analyses of the role of technology in social settings. Ethnographic accounts of technology use are becoming more familiar to researchers in HCI and ubiquitous computing, who increasingly value the "rich descriptions" and detailed accounts of encounters between people and technology. However, in this paper, I have been concerned not simply with the empirical contributions of that style of research, but with its analytic contributions its central concern with the fact that the orderly nature of everyday conduct is an achievement of social actors, rather than something imposed upon them.

I've tried to make similar points many times in the last few years. I trust Paul Dourish will be more successful at making them stick.


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