Proceedings: GI + CHI 1987

Social science and system design: interdisciplinary collaborations

Lucy Suchman, William Beeman, Michael Pear, Barbara Fox, Paul Smolensky

Proceedings of the SIGCHI/GI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems and Graphics Interface: Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 5 - 9 April 1987, 121-123

DOI 10.1145/29933.30870

  • BibTex

    author = {Suchman, Lucy and Beeman, William and Pear, Michael and Fox, Barbara and Smolensky, Paul},
    title = {Social science and system design: interdisciplinary collaborations},
    booktitle = {Proceedings of the SIGCHI/GI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems and Graphics Interface},
    series = {GI + CHI 1987},
    year = {1987},
    issn = {0713-5425},
    isbn = {0-89791-213-6},
    location = {Toronto, Ontario, Canada},
    pages = {121--123},
    numpages = {3},
    doi = {10.1145/29933.30870},
    acmdoi = {10.1145/29933.30870},
    publisher = {Association for Computing Machinery},
    address = {New York, NY, USA},


Contributions from the behavioral sciences to the design of computer systems have come primarily from psychology, and have focused on individual cognition. In this symposium, we consider the applicability to system design of approaches that focus on social interaction. The participants comprise pairs of researchers engaged in projects that aim to bring together systematic studies of naturally occurring human activities with the design of computer-based technology. Each of the projects emphasizes the importance of the social organization of communities, everyday communication and practice.The symposium participants — anthropologists, linguists and computer scientists — bring interdisciplinary perspectives to bear on the problem of how to design tools that incorporate the right mix of support for current work practices, solutions to recognized problems, and innovations in the way that work gets done. The aim of the symposium is to explore the possibilities for a productive relationship between research on socially organized human activities and system design.In this forum we will examine the problems that such interdisciplinary efforts face and the payoffs that they produce. Drawing on experience with their respective research projects, the participants will address the following questions concerning the development of a design process grounded in empirical studies:what is the relevance of activity studies to the design of new technology? What people do in everyday work settings is an obvious subject matter for social science, but just what is the relationship between that subject matter and system design? What part should an understanding of what people do now, with existing technological resources, play in the design of new technologies? How has new technology changed the nature of everyday work activities? The technological resources available in the domain of intellectual work, for example, are continually changing. Given this moving technological base, new forms of interaction between people emerge. What are the implications of those new forms, made possible by system design, for social science research?What social theory and methods do you draw on in your studies of work practice? What are the difficult theoretical or methodological problems, and what are the consequences of looking at everyday activities with the aim of designing new technology?What is the motivation behind your system design effort? That is, what problem in the domain of interest is your design intended to address?How has your design approach been affected by your empirical research?How has working with your collaborator changed your view of the problem domain? What has been most difficult about your collaboration and what has been most valuable? How have you negotiated differences in technical background, methods, conceptualization of the problem domain? To ground the discussion, participants will offer examples from their ongoing research projects. Brief descriptions of those projects are included here, but the symposium is intended as a lively debate of the questions posed, not as a presentation of findings. We hope through our discussion and through the participation of the symposium audience to shed light on the issues, while encouraging the development of new collaborations between social and computer scientists.