Thursday, October 11, 2007


Norman discusses artifacts as tools or artificial devices that enhance our lives, with particular emphasis on human cognitive performance. The part that stands out for me in the chapter referenced below is the discussion of how, in spite of the power and importance of artifacts in our lives, much current research focuses more on the unaided mind. Rarely if ever do we do anything with just the unaided mind.

In many classes where tests and quizzes make up a significant portion of the grade, students are required to perform without the use of any artifacts. Occasionally tests are open-book or allow a note card to be used. I can personally think of times where I remember reading something and I can picture exactly where it is on the page and the picture next to it, but I can’t quite remember the concept well enough to answer the question. Given 20 seconds with my book, I could answer it correctly. There seems to be a disconnect between both research and teaching and with the way we actually work in real life. David Wiley points out that disconnect to the Secretary of Education’s panel on the future of higher ed. In university courses, students are paying a lot of money to be stuck in a classroom, reading out of date printed materials, listening to the teacher give generic instruction to the whole class, without being allowed to collaborate with others. As soon as students leave class, however, they are used to quickly jumping online with a cell phone or laptop, finding current/open/free information on exactly what they need at that moment, and sharing the new-found information with friends via instant messaging or blog postings.

As part of my teaching, I cover some basic information literacy skills. The goal in information literacy is the ability to use tools to find and evaluate information. You don’t have to memorize a long list of journals; you simply have to be able to use the journal databases effectively. That was evident in Norman’s explanation of the scope of artifacts, that from a personal point of view, using artifacts changes the task to be completed; but from a system point of view, the task to be completed is the same, just that the task is done better, faster, etc. That’s one of those things that makes perfect sense when reading it, but it takes someone to actually state the obvious to think about it and draw the connections.

I was also interested in the discussion on interface between people and artifacts. In designing software or websites, it is important for the system to be intuitive. I wonder sometimes why it is that I can sit down with a new piece of software and just know what to do, where another person might struggle to figure it out. Is it my experience and training that gives me an advantage or is it some innate difference in how our brains work? That difference in users is one important reason, I believe, that many effective computer-based tools have multiple ways of performing the same task (keyboard shortcuts, buttons, right click menus, etc.). The many Web 2.0 tools that have exploded in popularity are likely used by so many people because they are so intuitive, although the social pressure and support in using them cannot be discounted.

Norman, D. (1991). Chapter 2: Cognitive artifacts. In J. M. Carroll (Ed.), Designing Interaction: Psychology at the Human-Computer Interface. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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