Reading Commentary (4/4) : Contextual Design

Looking at the chapter on Contextual design, I noted several things.  For example, I realized that, while the “customer-centered” positioning of the principles is naturally appealing to me, as someone interested in “human-centered” design, it also, in advertent, Freudian way, revealed a prejudice I apparently had from my “old school think”.  This occurred when I read the title for the “Master/Apprentice” section of the chapter.  I was ready to read this metaphor as the CI practitioner as the master and the customer at their job as the apprentice.  After I finished reading a few paragraphs I quickly understood how fundamentally mistaken my preconception was, but it was an interesting reveal on my beliefs and inner personality.  Apparently Stanley Milgram is still haunting my soul!

I also think there might be a minor (in terms of the “big picture”) but potentially limiting flaw in this technique.  Contextual inquiry seems to proceed under the assumption that the customer’s job is not primarily a speaking job.  Someone, who wanted to do a study, for example, of a teacher, or a salesperson, would not be able to use this methodology for the obvious reason that one cannot “speak“ and “speak about the speak” at the same time.   Even if they traded off (i.e. spoke a “real” sentence followed by and “explanatory” sentence) it would still be flawed as it would disrupt the rhythm of the speaking being done and therefore not be “natural” or a normal representation of the proposed observable behavior.  It is similar to attempting to simulate composition using automated speech recognition.  Even if the error rate = 0, it is still cognitively unnatural to compose with one’s mouth.  Even if the behavior is not primarily verbal, if the customer is a “performer” of any kind, if their job is to something while others are watching as part of their job description, the simulation of a natural environment could not be obtained using these methodologies.  (Imagine trying to observe a wide receiver in the NFL or a baseball player at the plate or in the outfield waiting for the ball to be hit.)

Another potential limitation I see in this methodology is the need to “withdraw and return”.  This presupposes that the customer’s tasks occur in discrete steps.  Someone whose job has a more flowing or continuous set of tasks, or might cause harm or danger if stopped in the middle of a sequenced, could not be interviewed in this manner.

In talking about abstract v concrete data, the author make an interesting observation in regard to where people look when thinking about abstract or concrete things.  It makes so much sense!  If you are trying to visualize something conceptually, you need a “tabula rasa” on which to inscribe your ideas. 

Overall this was an interesting chapter.  In applying these principals to my immediate world, I can see this coming in handy when I am helping a Presentation Theory student go through the process of turning raw data points into a meaningful presentation with a message.   The process is more of a mindset than a process and if I hold be a partner with the student and “hear” what their thought processes are, I think that would prove a valuable tool in helping them discover the not so hidden meaning in the mountains of minutia.


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