JosÃ© Abdelnour Nocera
I am from Venezuela originally. I did my degree there, in cultural and media studies. Then I worked as an intern for several media companies, as a journalist, then as a TV producer.
Then I got fed up with working in the mass media, and I became interested in the social sciences. That took me to do a Masters in psychology. Once I started that, I became even more interested in social psychology.
|I became interested in new paradigms in the social sciences - social constructionism, and more critical perspectives.|
And in doing my MSc dissertation, I became interested in the phenomenon of virtual communities. In the mid-1990s it became a fashionable topic; for one thing, people were just beginning to make sense of the Internet.
I became interested in new paradigms in the social sciences - social constructionism, and more critical perspectives; from my degree work I was familiar with postmodernism and things like discourse analysis.
Publishing some papers on that topic brought me to a conference called CATTAC - Cultural Attitudes Toward Technology and Communication. The first one was in London in 1998. It was there I met my first network of researchers interested in the relation between culture and technology, which led to me doing a PhD in the UK, at the Open University.
The PhD was within the computing department. For me that was a shock - not only was I in a different country but with very different people. Technically it was not a problem, since I had been using PCs since I was six years old; my first computer was a Sinclair ZX81, which I programmed in BASIC.
|I have dropped the term 'HCI' and started to think about 'interaction design' - not only because it's more fashionable now, but I think it tries to go beyond HCI, recognising the role of IT systems as a social proxy.|
But unlike with my MSc work, which resulted in journal papers and theoretical work, at the OU the focus was on making that knowledge useful in some way. So I stopped thinking about computer-mediated communication, and moved more toward HCI. But of course I never really dropped that social science background, and I discovered the sociology of technology. I explored things like actor-network theory, Bruno Latour's work, activity theory.
I wasn't too excited about activity theory, for a number of reasons. I think it was too structured, or at least the way people used it, and suddenly you had people chasing Engestrom triangles everywhere and just trying to fill the gaps.
There are other theories from the sociology of technology that haven't been imported into interaction design. Note that I have dropped the term 'HCI' and started to think about 'interaction design' - not only because it's more fashionable now, but I think it tries to go beyond HCI, recognising the role of IT systems as a social proxy. But more than that, not only looking at cognitive dimensions of the relation between people and technology, but also at the social and cultural implications.
|It's like if you're going fishing, and you only have three different types of bait - you will only catch fish that eat those three types; you won't get fish that eat anything else.|
So in my PhD, I started looking at formal cognitive models, and the classic stuff. And in HCI, the classic stuff back then - and still now - is Hofstadter's study of national cultures. So I wanted to do something with that model.
But the paradigm in which many of the related studies were done was very passive, very controlled, highly quantitative. It made you put things into boxes. It's like if you're going fishing, and you only have three different types of bait - you will only catch fish that eat those three types; you won't get fish that eat anything else. So a lot of people just grabbed those three baits, those boxes, instead of understanding how the boxes worked, or whether there were other boxes.
But my interest was more qualitative, more about diversity and how it could inform the design of interactive systems. Still in my mind were breakdowns, what Winograd called 'critical incidents,' as a way to understand tacit assumptions and cultural aspects. And Lucy Suchman's ideas that people behave in strange ways when they interact with computers; they don't work in the formal cognitive models that we pretend people fit into. We need to understand context and contingencies, as well as people's traditions and expectations - how they make sense of an 'error,' and whether their definition of it fits with the system designers'.
I found this company in the Netherlands that produces a semi-standard ERP software - Enterprise Resource Planning, for small- and medium-sized companies. They sell this in 42 countries around the world. I thought that would be a nice setting, because there is one producer nearby in the Netherlands, and users everywhere.
|My PhD went from looking at culture and HCI to usefulness as a social construct, and how we can, from an interaction design perspective, assess the usefulness of systems as a social construct.|
One of the directors liked by idea and let me in, and I became part of the company, as a usability consultant. This allowed me to do a proper ethnography because in theory I was one of them, and I informed the design of the user interface.
I lived in the Netherlands for a couple of months, in Delft. Then I commuted on EasyJet planes for about 18 months, 10 days per month!
I spent a long time looking for naturally-emerging issues related to culture and HCI - exploring the bug reports or complaint letters of customers. But that was too shallow a focus, and slowly I came back to my social scientist mode, and I found many more interesting things - not just whether users understood icons, but more about how the usefulness of the piece of software made in one culture clashes with people's perceptions of the usefulness - or generally the correct way of doing business - in another culture.
Then I found many complaints and issues and discussions about this. For example, the software allowed any user to look at the price of the stock in a warehouse. As soon as the software was installed in Indonesia, they started to write complaint letters to the company, because for them that was a bug - they weren't supposed to show the cost of the products to their own employees. For them it was a serious security leak, and they would actually log it as a bug report. Whereas to the company in the Netherlands it was perfectly natural; why would you distrust your own employees in the warehouse?
So my PhD went from looking at culture and HCI to usefulness as a social construct, and how we can, from an interaction design perspective, assess the usefulness of systems as a social construct, as opposed to looking at usefulness as a direct upshot of functionality plus usability. It's a subtler understanding of usefulness as a social consequence.
|We have proposed as a methodology for VeSeL a kind of user-centred design as a sociotechnical enterprise.|
I did a very thorough ethnography of the company, and then I presented four case studies of different sites - Wales, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Barcelona. In the case studies I gave the users' experience, and I used the technological frame model to give an account of the process of usefulness construction, and how usefulness was socially constructed.
What I'm doing now is looking at social technology within the context of interaction design. I have a paper in the International Journal of HCI which is about to come out in which I give a brief attempt at translating my understanding of 'technological frames' to something that could be used by interaction designers.
I was involved in a recent research project with Helen Sharp at the OU. We share an interest in agile methods, and British Telecom has been adopting agile methods, so we went in there and did some interviews and document analysis. It's a sociotechnical process of technology adoption, considering agile as a technology. I was able to apply my framework to something different.