Research alert

XI.3 May + June 2004
Page: 9
Digital Citation

Patterns of cooperative interaction

David Martin, Ian Sommerville

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Increasingly, researchers and practitioners acknowledge the importance of understanding the social systems of work or activity into which any technical design solution will be implemented. Field studies (often known as ethnographies) are a way of understanding work as it is practiced. They help us understand "real-world, real-time work" in given settings. The attention to detail in describing and explaining how work is organized provides a useful resource for system designers. The studies help them to understand the activities that should be supported in a new design and to identify processes that do not work well and need to be re-designed.

However, the results of these ethnographies are tied to a specific situation so there have always been problems of generalizing findings and re-using them to assist designers faced with a new situation. We, as researchers with a strong background in carrying out workplace ethnographies for design purposes, wanted to specifically deal with this problem. For this purpose we developed a collection of patterns of "cooperative interaction." With our patterns we took examples of similar forms of interaction between people and systems described in various settings and described how they compare and contrast as a means for generating considerations.

To illustrate, we can consider the pattern "Public Artefact" an example of which is shown in Figure 1. In the pattern we consider various types of public displays from various settings (not only of the hospital, but also, air traffic and ambulance control rooms) and present these as vignettes that illustrate how the pattern can be realized. "Public Artefact" highlights several important features of such displays in facilitating cooperative work and can provide ideas for technologies to support similar activities—as well as bringing to the foreground which activities one should try to support. For example, the cards on the bed board provide a persistent history of activity and may be arranged in a specific position to highlight particular situations, such as a patient who is due for discharge.

In our paper, we discuss the concerns of ethnographers in the field of systems design before providing detailed sections on the patterns collection and several uses and evaluations of it. All of this is intended to introduce the collection to researchers and system designers. The patterns collection is presented as Web pages. Clicking on a pattern name brings up a Web page that summarizes the pattern, and provides design and dependability pointers, and access to the individual vignettes from the different studies.

Various researchers and practitioners in computing have used the concept of patterns, as inspired by Christopher Alexander's original work on patterns in urban planning. Our collection of patterns can be found at: while other background material and interesting related work on patterns of interaction may be accessed through: or

back to top  Authors

David Martin
Computing Department
Lancaster University, UK

Ian Sommerville
Computing Department
Lancaster University, UK

back to top  Footnotes

This abstract is from a recent issue or forthcoming issue of ACM's Transactions of Computer Human Interaction (ToCHI). It is included here to alert interactions readers to what research is being done in the field of Computer Human Interaction. The complete papers, when published, can be found in ACM's Digital Library at

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. The picture shows a "bed board" (various details of patients and treatments on cards arranged according to bed) from a hospital ward. This provides one example of the pattern "Public Artefact"—a persistent, publicly available artifact that supports a common view among a group of workers, allowing highlighting, checking, and other cooperative work.

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