The Myth of the Paperless Office
Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper
The MIT Press, 2002 ISBN 0262194643 $30.00
This past weekend I hoped to spend some downtime reading a novel. My preferred book was readily available in an electronic format (on my PDA), but I opted for something further down my "must-read" list that was available as a good old-fashioned book. Why?
Conventional wisdom suggests that I made my choice because the display quality of paper is superior to that of consumer-grade electronic screens. Fortunately, this answer did not satisfy Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper. In their recent book, The Myth of the Paperless Office, they instead take the time to pose thoughtful questions about the curious persistence of paper and present research to answer those questions fully and scientifically.
The title of this book speaks to the fact that although technology pundits since Edison have been predicting the demise of paper, paper is still alive and well. In fact, the worldwide consumption of paper has increased by over 40 percent since the introduction of the personal computer and the Internet. Experience bears this out: Almost every organization has one or more paper-hoarders and every workspace has its store of reference documents, sticky notes, and bits of scrap paper. The paperless office is a myth.
Sellen and Harper use a systems approach to understand why this is so. They focus not just on the qualities of paper itself, but on how paper fits into the broader context of work and activity. For them, paper is not a problem of work life, but a window into it. Electronic media may be able to make improvements on paper, but this will only happen once we understand both the subtleties of paper and the ways that people work with it.
Gibson’s concept of affordances is key to the authors’ effort to understand these subtleties. Their approach was, in their words, to "concentrate on what paper, as a physical artifact, makes possible for the people who use it and for the kind of work they do." Sellen and Harper have a deep (and correct) understanding of affordances that they apply rigorously. The returns are impressive.
After clarifying their research aims and intent, Sellen and Harper present a rigorous program of research directed at all aspects of the system of work around paper. Their firm belief is that much more can be learned about paper and its use in the real world rather than in a laboratory, so their research is mainly ethnographic. They use a varied set of techniques, from high-level case studies to detailed interview, diary, and observation-based research. Their methods and their results are valuable; you’ll miss many gems if you skip too quickly to the later chapters.
The authors present as case studies two organizations that tried to become paperless; one was successful and the other was not. The unsuccessful organization fixated on designing paper out of its workplace, instead of designing better work practices in. By focusing on the "problems" of paper, it failed to understand the true nature of its work. Thus its attempts at work redesign failed. The "successful" organization, on the other hand, focused on revitalizing its work processes and used the idea of going paperless as a symbolic motivator. Its reliance on paper was significantly reduced (but not eliminated) so individuals were freed from their desks, making team arrangements more flexible.
By means of the contrast between these two organizations, the authors conclude that little is gained by viewing paper as a problem. Rather, gains are made when the entire system of work is analyzed and when paper is viewed as an important indicator of workers’ most effective strategies.
Since paper use can indeed be very productive, Sellen and Harper performed an in-depth study of knowledge workers to learn more about their day-to-day paper use. They observed a set of knowledge workers and their paper use in support of activities like thinking, authoring, and collaborating. The results paint a picture of paper as a rich artifact that supports these tasks in very specialized ways. For instance, when all of the participants in a meeting are working from a paper document, it is easy to ensure that everyone is "on the same page." The way that people are handling paper, how they have marked it up, and where they are within the pages of a document all communicate important information that helps groups to stay coordinated.
Electronic alternatives, like laptops or tablets, have different affordances than paper and conceal much of this information. Thus, even though the knowledge workers who Sellen and Harper studied had access to all the latest technology, they continued to rely on paper for many important tasks. This was not because of the superior resolution of paper, but because paper and their use of it supported their work in a way that other technologies don’tyet.
Sellen and Harper’s research into the paper use of knowledge workers painted a broad picture of the ways in which paper supports work. The authors performed further research to examine in detail the subtle ways in which people use paper-specifically, how people read in the real world. They recruited a varied group of workers, from real-estate agents to surgeons, and observed their use of paper (by means of diaries and interviews) over an extended period. This research helped the authors to understand the many ways in which people read and the many ways in which our use of paper has evolved to exploit its affordances in specialized ways. For example, paper affords flexible navigation within a document using our hands, eyes, or by folding corners of the paper itself. It affords the positioning multiple documents for cross referencing, and the addition of annotations.
In further research, Sellen and Harper show that paper also provides rich support for collaborative work. They applied their ethnographic techniques to examine how paper supports work in air traffic control and police investigations. Their findings show that paper use has evolved alongside organizational practices in complex ways. While it may be easy to identify and design computer-based support for some of the ways in which paper supports collaboration, the authors show the system of unique qualities that has emerged between paper and its users is rich and difficult to duplicate. For example, air traffic controllers arrange the paper representing the aircraft in their airspace in such a way that that the status of their airspace can be understood by others at a glance, even from across the room.
In later sections of the book, the authors tie together all of this research to derive implications for the design of new technologies to support work. Since Sellen and Harper don’t view paper use as a problem, their aim is not to replace paper. Rather, they aim to use paper as "a way of learning about how things might be done differently, and, in particular, how technology might be better designed." The affordances of paper uncovered by their research are transformed into recommendations for the design of technologies to provide equivalent affordances. These focused recommendations lead into a consideration of the future of the broader ecology of office work and how paper and technology will co-evolve with this ecology. The authors’ view is that paper will retain its role as a temporary medium for work-in-progress, while computer-based technologies will gain an increasing role in document management and archiving.
The Myth of the Paperless Office is significant on many levels. The idea of performing such a detailed analysis of paper is strangely novel, considering the amount of systems design devoted to simulating and replacing paper. Sellen and Harper pull it off well; they manage to translate a deep respect for paper and the ways we use it into a rich set of findings. These findings are not just academic. The authors labored to translate them into recommendations to drive new technologies in unexplored ways. Their recommendations are thorough and useful, not just an afterthought. Their methodology is notable and this book stands in the line of Lucy Suchman’s Plans and Situated Actions  and Ed Hutchins’ Cognition in the Wild . It can be a model for anyone attempting to do ethnographic research.
Of personal interest, these authors also get the concept of affordances right  and show how affordances, properly understood, are really relevant to HCI. Finally, Sellen and Harper manage to do all of this in a volume that is highly readable. Everyone uses paper, so anyone who reads this book should find it an interesting examination of their own practices. A highly recommended read.
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Gerard Torenvliet (email@example.com) is a human factors engineer at CMC Electronics in Kanata, Canada.
I would like to thank Deborah Torenvliet and Carolyn Woolmer for comments on earlier versions of this review.
To submit a book review, please email Gerard Torenvliet at firstname.lastname@example.org
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