Recently a good friend of mine became a dad. It made me feel really old, but it also lead to an encounter with an improvised information display, which I’d like to tell you about, because it illustrates some of the things I have learnt from reading Paul Dourish’s Where the Action Is.
My friend’s son was born a bit too early, so we went to see him (the son) at the neonatology ward of the local hospital. It was there that I saw this whiteboard with stickers, writing and the familiar magnets on it:
(I decided to trace the photo I took of it and replace the names with fictional ones.)
Now, at first I only noticed parts of what was there. I saw the patient names on the left-hand side, and recognised the name of my friend’s son. I also noticed that on the right-hand side, the names of all the nurses on duty were there. I did not think much more of it.
Before leaving, my friend walked up to the whiteboard and said something along the lines of “yes, this is correct,” and touched one of the green magnets that was in the middle of the board as if to confirm this. It was then that my curiosity was piqued, and I asked my friend to explain what the board meant.
It turns out it was a wonderful thing, something I’ll call an improvised information display, for lack of a better word. What I had not seen the first time around, but were pointed out by my friend:
- There is a time axis along the top of the board. By placing a green magnet at the height of a child’s name somewhere along this axis, parents can let the staff know when they intend to visit. This is important for many reasons. One being that it helps the nurses time the moment a child will be fed so that the parents can be present. So in the example, the parents of ‘Faramond’ will be visiting around 21:00 hours.
- There are different colour magnets behind the children’s names, and behind the nurses’ names. This shows which nurse is responsible for which child. For instance, ‘Charlotte’ is in charge of ‘Once’s’ care.
Dourish’s book has influenced the way I look at things like this. It has made me more aware of their unique value. Whereas before I would think that something like this could be done better by a proper designer, with digital means, I now think the grasp-able aspect of such a display is vital. I also now believe that the prominent role of users in shaping the display is vital. Dourish writes:1
“What embodied interaction adds to existing representational practice is the understanding that representations are also themselves artefacts. Not only do they allow users to “reach through” and act upon the entity being represented, but they can also themselves be acted upon—picked up, examined, manipulated and rearranged.”
Parents and nurses reach through the display I saw in the neonatology ward to act upon the information about visiting times and responsibility of care. But they also act on the components of the display itself to manipulate the meaning they have.
In fact, this is how the display was constructed in the first place! The role of the designer in this display was limited to the components themselves. Designers were responsible for the affordances of the whiteboard, the magnets, the erasable markers and stickers, which enabled users to produce the information display they needed. In the words of Dourish:2
“Principle: Users, not designers, create and communicate meaning.”
“Principle: Users, not designers, manage coupling.”
It is the nurses and the parents and the social practice they together constitute that gives rise to the meaning of the display. What the board means is obvious to them, because they have ‘work’ that needs to be done together. It was not obvious to me, because I am not part of that group. It was not a designer that decided what the meaning of the different colours of the magnets were. It was a group of users who coupled meaning to the components they had available to them.
It might be a radical example, but I think this does demonstrate what people can do if the right components are made available to them, and they are allowed to make their own meaning with them. I think it is important for designers to realise this, and allow for this kind of manipulation of the products and services they shape. Clearly, Dourish’s notion of embodied interaction is a key to designing for adaptation and hacking. When it comes to this, today’s whiteboards, magnets and markers seem to do a better job than many of our current digital technologies.