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American Society for Cybernetics
ASC 2002 Conference
June 13-16, Santa Cruz 


  Designing for and through Conversation
(Pre-Conference Abstract)

Randall Whitaker

Adjunct Researcher
Institutionen för Informatik
Umeå Universitet



The themes of this conference - design, ecology, and conversation - correspond to three dominant themes emergent from my three decades' experience in designing a range of things including webspaces, knowledge bases, cognitive models, group decision support systems, user interfaces, organizational structures, and work processes. The dominant theme in my professional life and the focus of my recent research and design work has been the design of artifacts supporting collaborative activity and interactivity. In this sense, I design for conversations. Owing to my background in Scandinavian psrticipatory design (PD) , I treat the end users as the ultimate experts on the activities targeted by design and pursue the design process through engaging them for mutual learning. In this sense, I design through conversations.

In both senses, attention must be paid to conversational context. In designing through conversation, it has proven critical to establish and adhere to referential contexts in identifying key distinctions to be reflected in the outcomes. In designing for conversation, it is similarly critical to acknowledge the operative contexts to be supported and ensure the eventual design provides affordances for them. Context circumscribes design in another way as well. The point of design is to enable someone to not just employ the product, but to employ that product in a broader context of interactions / conversations in which she participates. In other words, the goal is not simply to accommodate the domain of interactions between user and artifact, but also the domain(s) of interaction involving that user's role(s) with respect to (e.g.) her collaborators, her organization, and so forth.

The identification of role(s) and associated interactivity can be construed as modeling the 'niche(s)' occupied by a particular person or set of people in a work environment. Analyzing information requirements and necessary affordances for action can be construed as modeling the cycles and processes within a local ecology circumscribed by praxis rather than biology. As a result, designing systems for team and organizational collaboration can be usefully approached in terms of 'information ecologies' and praxial 'niches'.

Keywords: design, interaction, conversation, participatory design (PD), collaboration, interface


Carmel, E., Whitaker, R., and George, J. (1993). PD and Joint Application Design: A transatlantic comparison. Communications of the ACM, 36 (4), pp. 40-48.

Ehn, P. (1988). Work-Oriented Design of Computer Artifacts, Stockholm: Arbetslivcentrum (Swedish Center for Working Life).

Whitaker, R. (1993). Interactional models for collective support systems: An application of autopoietic theory, in Glanville, R., and de Zeeuw, G. (eds.), Interactive Interfaces and Human Networks, Amsterdam: Thesis Publishers, 119-135.

Whitaker, R., Selvaraj, J., Brown, C., and McNeese, M. (1995, April). Collaborative Design Technology: Tools and Techniques for Improving Collaborative Design, Dayton OH: USAF Armstrong Laboratory Technical Report AL/CF-TR-1995-0086.

Whitaker, R. (1996, April). Nichepicking: A tool for (re-)designing self-organizing enterprises. ACM SIGOIS Bulletin, 17 (1), pp. 21-22.

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HTML transcription: Randy Whitaker, October 2002