About Representational Artifacts and Their Role in Engineering

About Representational Artifacts and Their Role in Engineering

Hilda Tellioglu (Vienna University of Technology, Austria)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0303-5.ch007
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This chapter is about showing how artifacts impact engineering work processes by representing important issues of individual and collaborative design work. After summarizing the state of the art of engineering as a design process, artifacts, and their representational role in design and engineering, a selection of rich descriptions of artifacts’ creation and use in engineering work including team-based coordination and decision activities will be presented. The studies are based on ethnographic research carried out for several years in different design and engineering companies. Artifacts used in these studies will be analyzed from their representational point of view to discuss their important role in design and engineering, by considering users’ motivation to use and sometimes adapt them as well as internal and external constraints given in work settings which call for improvisations, before concluding this chapter.
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Engineering is about bringing together technologies to meet human needs or to solve problems (Khandani, 2005). Considering engineers as problem solvers, engineering design is about problem solving, which defers from other types of problem solving, in the nature of the problem and the solution. Design problems are open; they might have more than one correct solution. The solution to a design problem is normally a system that possesses specified properties, and the process of solving a design problem is usually iterative and cooperative, depending on its complexity.

A basic process of an engineering design can be described in five steps (Khandani, 2005, p. 5): defining the problem, gathering pertinent information, generating multiple solutions, analyzing and selecting a solution, testing and implementing the solution. In all these steps, several tasks are evolved; several actors are involved; several sub-problems occur. Interactions for actions, possibilities, clarification, and orientation (Tellioğlu, 2003), needed for communication, coordination, decision-making, and improvisation, make use of representations of problems and solutions on the one hand, and of tasks, responsibilities, restrictions, and dependencies on the other.

Artifacts in general have qualities to help representing problems, possible solutions, and the state of a process. Within the CSCW research, the role of artifacts in the everyday work of professionals was studied from several perspectives (Haas, 1996; Henderson, 1999; Nardi, 1993; Sellen & Harper, 2001; Schmidt & Wagner, 2004). Frameworks like organizational memory (Conklin & Begeman, 1988; Conklin, 1989; Ackerman & Malone, 1990; Ackerman, 1997; Conklin, 1993), common information spaces (Bannon, 1997; Schmidt & Bannon, 1992), workflow systems (Grinter, 1996; Bardram, 1997), coordination mechanisms (Carstensen, 1996; Divitini, et al., 1996; Schmidt & Simone, 1996; Simone & Divitini, 1997) or boundary objects (Star, 1989; Star & Griesemer, 1989; Bowker & Star, 1999; Lutters & Ackerman, 2002) have been developed to address specific aspects of coordinative practices. For instance, Bardram and Bossen studied non-electronic coordination artifacts at a hospital ward (Bardram & Bossen, 2005). They focused on “1) the material characteristics of these artifacts, 2) on how they order the world by providing templates, 3) on how they provide overview and signal ad hoc status, 4) on the importance of acknowledging the importance of meaning in collaboration, and finally 5) on the importance of supporting second order articulation work” (p. 168). The network of these highly interwoven artifacts operates as a resource for action. It supports information flow, status overviews, synchronous and fine-grained coordination, and articulation of status.

Artifacts used in collaborative engineering processes can be identified and their use can be supported by well-designed computer systems. Our ethnographic studies, we have carried out for almost last 10 years, show that these tools are not really addressing the issues, which are important for designers. Designers do not want to give up their conventions and standards they have established so far when new tools are introduced into their work environments. What they usually do is to adapt their work habits to make them keepable with the systems they have to use, or to find a work around in order to meet their goals quantitatively and qualitatively. In fact, they want to continue working with their old known artifacts they invented, modified, or composed. How artifacts are shaped is a result of experiences, cooperative work, and conventions established in work groups. It takes time to create and adapt especially common artifacts to meet differing needs and procedures in work groups and to avoid misunderstandings and frustration of users.

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