Wednesday, December 03, 2003

(Reading roundup)

Originally posted: Wed, 03 Dec 2003 21:11:31

Things are going slowly here: many projects in which I'm involved have come due, so I'm finding myself writing more and reading less. But I have found time to crack Deleuze & Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus -- a book which promises to be rewarding and interesting, based on the first few pages, but also long and frustrating. Will post a review soon.

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Sunday, November 30, 2003

Reading:: Interaction Design for Complex Problem Solving

Originally posted: Sun, 30 Nov 2003 11:33:15

Interaction Design for Complex Problem Solving: Getting the Work Right

by Barbara Mirel

Interaction Design for Complex Problem Solving is surprisingly heavy. Since there are so many color illustrations -- mostly screen captures of various modeling software for visualizing problem-solving processes -- the pages are heavly slick paper rather than the lighter uncoated paper used in most Morgan Kaufmann offerings are composed. The first thing I picked the thing up, I thought, what did they put in this thing? Lead?

The content, similarly, is surprisingly heavy. I'm used to Morgan Kaufmann's offerings being fairly lightweight or at least textbook-ish -- books by authors such as Beyer & Holtzblatt, Rosson & Carroll, Kuniavsky, and Snyder have been trade/textbooks and have been written as introductory texts. Mirel's isn't. As she explains in the preface, "more than anything, this book is an argument intended to help HCI specialists convince their managers and software teammates to pursue the design and development required for useful applications for complex problem solving" (p. xviii). So it's not a how-to guide or a theoretical/academic text, she says. Neither fish nor fowl, the book is hard to categorize or characterize.

On one level, that's disappointing. My copy is a review copy I requested for consideration in my undergraduate user-centered design seminar, and after reading it, I can't imagine using the book in that class; it's not structured like a textbook, it doesn't offer a how-to, it stresses the complexity of work with several extended examples that are themselves complex and hard to follow, and it doesn't offer the natural breaks that one would expect in a textbook. But as a researcher of computers and writing in the workplace, I can see how Mirel's argument is useful for my own research -- and a sharp critique of fieldwork-to-formalization research approaches such as contextual design. (Actually, I'm a little surprised that Morgan Kaufmann would allow one of its authors to offer such a penetrating critique of one of its best sellers. Mirel inoculates herself by saying that contextual design is good for normal, stepwise work but not for complex problem solving -- a little trick, I think, because most work above the level of routine prescribed tasks, i.e., most work done by knowledge workers, could be considered complex problem solving.) I can also see my own work being implicated by this well-thought-through perspective on complex problem solving. And finally Mirel's critique of a variety of visualization tools -- most of which I have never encountered -- is probably very useful to those who are active in that area.

Mirel offers a set of categories, heuristics, and models for examining complex problem solving. These are all smart. But I hope I can be forgiven for saying that they don't quite gel. Despite the detailed cases, the categories seemed too abstract for me to grasp. The models are understandable and look terrifically useful -- like topological maps of mountainscapes, with major tasks serving as base camps for the metaphorical mountain climbers who complete them -- but I don't see any discussion of how to build them and I'm not clear what the spatial arrangements represent.

As I mentioned, I don't know exactly how to categorize this book and I haven't yet figured out how to use it. But the book provides a broad-based critique of oversimplifying approaches that is hard to beat and a level of sophistication about visual problem solving that would be hard to match. I'm positive that I'll return to it and cite it frequently as I continue to work through similar issues in my own work.

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