A Drifting Service Development: Applying Sociotechnical Design in an Ambient Assisted Living Project

A Drifting Service Development: Applying Sociotechnical Design in an Ambient Assisted Living Project

Kai-Uwe Loser (Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany), Alexander Nolte (Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany), Michael Prilla (Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany), Rainer Skrotzki (Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany) and Thomas Herrmann (Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0303-5.ch017
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Drift is one of the visible phenomena observed in an ambient assisted living project. In this project, services for elderly people were developed that would be ordered using a digital pen technology. In this project, the method of the Sociotechnical Walkthrough (STWT) for an integrated development was applied to clarify technology usage, technical aspects, and the work processes. This approach was combined with several other methods to form a multi-facetted sociotechnical design approach. During the course of the project several shifts in perspectives, breakdowns of understanding, and negotiations could be observed. This chapter describes how using this approach of sociotechnical design facilitated the identification of drift phenomena and its processing in service design. The authors observations also clearly show the limitations of up-front process planning for complex environments such as service processes.
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Todays’ design practice has already been influenced and shaped by the philosophical background and theoretical concepts presented in this book. Methods such as prototyping or end-user development are well known techniques in this context, especially when non-designers are empowered to design, but today’s collaborative infrastructures are more complex than tools merely used to support a personal task. Cooperative work needs to be designed as well and is per se abstract, which makes it hard to apply well-known hands-on design methods. The design process is a dialectical reflection process, in which the artifact under design as well as its understanding is possibly in conflict and drifts alongside. Breakdowns on each side—technology concepts as well as people’s interaction—regularly happen during cooperative design work and in all stages of the development—from first concepts to already tuned practice.

  • Ciborra (1996) mentioned several possible causes of breakdowns when IT is used:

    • deficits of user interfaces and other technical problems,

    • lack of knowledge about the modality of use,

    • a critical mass of needed users is missing,

    • problems in internalizing the new knowledge needed.

Breakdowns add burdens to the usage of technology. Possible consequences are users deciding to substitute new technologies with well-known practice. To overcome this, we need approaches to create an environment for a constructive dialectical confrontation between all kinds of stakeholders such as process participants and developers. Designing and mutual learning need to be acknowledged as inseparable parts of development processes, requiring methods for an active creation of opportunities for drift.

The active creation of dialectical confrontation needs actors to engage in mutual learning processes, as a foundation for co-evolution of understanding and technology (Ciborra, 1996). We were able to observe such processes in a project for ambient assisted living, in which users, staff and technology developers were participating in designing service processes and supporting technology. “Drift” in the sense of an open co-evolution process is the focus of the analysis of this project presented in this paper. In the project, we combined the method of Sociotechnical Walkthrough (STWT) and several other methods for sociotechnical design for the development of services and technology to support elderly people in their homes. We will first give a brief introduction to the applied methods and then present several examples from the case.


Methodology Of Sociotechnical Walkthrough

The Sociotechnical Walkthrough (STWT) is a result of continuous method development, which lasted about thirteen years and was driven by experiences from various projects (for a list of projects see Herrmann, 2009). As an initial reason for this ongoing action research effort, we found available modeling methods to be inappropriate in describing the characteristics of sociotechnical systems and their technical, organizational, and personal viewpoints. At the same time, the documentation of requirements and concepts which accompany the design process do not usually sufficiently support an integrated view on technical and organizational structures. The theoretical background of these developments is a perspective on sociotechnical systems, which were first described in the 1950s (Emery & Trist, 1960), and it also includes newer systems theory. Following Luhmann (1995), social systems are interconnected acts of communication, which reproduce themselves. The foundations include the concept of contingency as part of human behavior and which makes them different to technical parts of sociotechnical systems. The consequence of contingency is that human beings communicating can never be sure of the results of an act. Freedom of decision and interpretation are part of the nature of communication. Resulting phenomena are well known e.g. the differentiation of plans vs. situated action (Suchman, 1987) or non-anticipated changes (Orlikowski, 1996). Based on this theory our perspective on organizational adoption of technology is mainly intended to create appropriate structures for communication about technology usage, communication mediated by technology and technical structures in systems supporting these communications.

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