Thursday, October 15, 2009

Value Sensitive Design to Escape the Cubicle (my VSD conceptual investigation)

Sociotechnical Problem Space

I’ve recently been doing some research on the importance of eliminating “sensory distraction” in virtual learning environments, allowing learners to become immersed in the learning experience/activity, thereby securing their focus and making the learning experience as effective as possible. Research has shown that the more a person is isolated from their physical environment during a virtual learning task, the more effective that learning task becomes.

As I pondered problems that might be investigated through the VSD lens, it occurred to me that the absence of sensory distraction is probably a good means of enhancing focus in any computer-mediated task. The majority of the work I do at my place of employment is done sitting in my cubicle, working on my computer, and it’s important that I focus on what I am doing, in order to meet deadlines and produce high-quality work. However, I often find that I have trouble focusing, due to the extremely high levels of sensory distraction that are inherent in a cubicle environment. Above me, fluorescent lights shine down with such intensity that I often find myself squinting to see my computer monitor. Behind me, I hear a multi-function printer printing and stapling a large document, one of hundreds that it will produce today (the printer is shared by the whole floor). All around me I hear the conversations, typing, coughing, opening and closing of drawers, ringing phones, opening and closing of doors, and miscellaneous other sounds produced by my cubicle neighbors. Every few minutes, someone walks within three feet of me, looking for someone, or just wandering the sea of cubicles. It’s difficult to ignore them, as the walls of my cubicle only reach to their shoulders…so I see them all. When considered in light of the recent research on the effects of sensory distraction on computer-mediated learning, it’s no surprise that I sometimes struggle to focus. In fact, it’s a miracle that I ever get anything done, let alone anything creative (considering my less than inspirational surroundings). I believe that the situation could be improved through some form of virtual work environment, designed to isolate the user from his/her physical surroundings and enhance immersion in the task(s) at hand. In the most general terms, I am focusing on computer use (as a primary job function) in a cubicle environment as my sociotechnical problem space.

Value(s) Implicated

I believe there are several human values that are potentially implicated in this investigation, including privacy, autonomy, trust, human welfare, and accountability. However, the value I would like to focus on is “calmness,” as described by Friedman in The Computer Interaction Handbook. Friedman says that “the most potentially interesting…and profound change implied by the ubiquitous computing era is a focus on calm (Friedman 1256). If computers are everywhere, they had better stay out of the way…” Friedman goes on to talk about the importance of designing so that people can remain serene and in control. I would expand this by saying that not only do computers need to stay out of the way, but technology in general. According to Friedman, “it is not surprising that we see an emerging body of work addressing the challenges of information overload and interruptability” (Friedman 1257). In a paper called The Coming Age of Calm Technology, Mark Weiser and John Brown talk about technology being the “enemy of calm” (Weiser 3). They question whether we can look to technology itself for a solution to the chaos, and ultimately tell us that “some technology does lead to true calm and comfort” (Wesier 3). They clarify this by saying, “There is no less technology involved in a comfortable pair of shoes, in a fine writing pen, or in delivering the New York Times on a Sunday morning, than in a home PC. Why is one often enraging, the others frequently encalming? We believe the difference is in how they engage our attention. Calm technology engages both the center and the periphery of our attention...” (Wesier 3).

Merriam-Webster defines calmness as “free from agitation, excitement, or disturbance.” I think that last piece is key to what I am investigating here. Merriam-Webster tells us that to disturb is to “interfere with,” “destroy the tranquility or composure of,” or “to put to inconvenience.” It is important for a variety of reasons that a workplace computer user be free from disturbance, as defined here, particularly in the problem space in question…when focused computer use is a primary job function and the user is working in an inherently non-calm environment. Clearly the sensory distractions described above would be classified as disturbances and therefore contrary to the notion of calmness. It therefore seems logical that a tool designed to remove those distractions would promote calmness. However, any new technology introduced into this environment has the potential to add to that lack of calmness by itself becoming a disturbance. Therefore, I think that “calmness” would be a critical value to consider in the design of any system intended to overcome the challenges of sensory distraction in a cubicle environment.


Direct Stakeholders:
  1. The computer user/employee who is working in a cubicle environment.
    • The computer user/employee that uses the new tool/environment would be most directly affected. They would ideally be benefited in the sense that their calmness or the calmness of their work environment would increase (since that is essentially the goal of the tool/environment). However they could potentially suffer a decrease in calmness if the tool/environment is poorly designed.
  2. The employer or managers over this employee.
    • The key intended consequence of this tool/environment would be an increase (either in speed or quality) in production of work from the employee, which in turn benefits the employer or manager. Therefore the employer or manager will be directly affected by the results.
Indirect Stakeholders:
  1. Physically proximal computer users/employees.
    • Just as existing cubicle environments include many distractions originating from other cubicle dwellers in the neighboring area, any new technology introduced has the potential to affect neighboring users/employees (either in the form of increased distractions, or ideally, in the form of decreased distractions).
  2. Distant computer users/employees who must interact with the employee/user of the new system.
    • Many cubicle dwellers value the ability to quickly walk over to a co-worker and interact with them in person. A virtual work environment would be likely to change this interaction significantly.
  3. System designer.
    • As discussed in class, the system designer is a stakeholder in the sense that he/she is designing the system and attempting to consider human values that might be affected by his/her design choices.

Bricken, Meredith. “Virtual worlds: No interface to design.” Ed. M. Benedikt. Cyberspace: First steps. Cambridge: MIT Press, (1992).

Bronack, Stephen C., et al. “Designing Virtual Worlds to Facilitate Meaningful Communication: Issues, Considerations, and Lessons Learned” Technical Communication 55.3 (2008): 261-267.

Bronack, Stephen C., et al. “Presence Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning in a 3D Virtual Immersive World” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 20.1 (2008): 59-69.

“calmness.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 15 Oct 2009.

Dickey, Michele D. “Three-dimensional virtual worlds and distance learning: two case studies of Active Worlds as a medium for distance eductation” British Journal of Educational Technology 36.3 (2005): 439-451.

“disturb.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 15 Oct 2009.

Franceschi, Katherine G., and Ronald M. Lee. “Virtual Social Presence for Effective Collaborative E-Learning” Proceedings of the 11th Annual International Workshop on Presence. 2008.

Friedman, B., et al. “Human values, ethics, and design” The Human Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications, 2nd Edition. Ed. Andrew Sears and Julie Jacko. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2008. 1241-1266. Print.

Gabbard, Joseph L. A Taxonomy of Usability Characteristics in Virtual Environments. MS thesis Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1997.

Martinez, Nicola. “Second Life: The Future of Communications?” Proceedings of the 55th Annual Conference of the Society for Technical Communication. 2008.

Padmanabhan, Poornima. “Exploring Human Factors in Virtual Worlds.” Technical Communication 55.3 (2008): 270-275.

Slater, Mel. “Measuring Presence: A Response to the Witmer and Singer Presence Questionnaire” Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 8.5 (1999): 560-565.

Weiser, M., and John Brown. “The Coming Age of Calm Technology.” Beyond Calculation: The Next Fifty Years of Computing. Xerox PARC, 1996.

Witmer, Bob G., and Michael J. Singer. “Measuring Presence in Virtual Environments: A Presence Questionnaire” Presence 7.3 (1998): 225-240

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