Philip Inglesant - theoretical background
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Background to the research

This is a necessarily extremely brief overview of a small selection from the large literature on technology and society, drawing on (Hosein 2002) among others. The simple equation of technology with "effects" and the charge of "technological determinism" seems to be something of a "straw man", yet conversely the technology itself often pushed into the background by "socio-technical" research (Orlikowski and Iacono 2001). On the other hand this is not to say that there are "essential" features of technology with certain inherent capacities - a point which is central to the "anti-essentialist" viewpoint (Grint and Woolgar 1997). The Social Construction of Technology studies the ways in which technologies are shaped by social issues, since both technology and society are human constructs. What is interesting for someone who is used to seeing technology from a computer science point of view is that this theory has been elaborated by a number of careful case-studies of relatively simple technological artefacts, such as light bulbs and Bakelite (Bijker 1995).

Some of the earliest research in these traditions recognised that the socio-technical has potential political implications, whether "authoritarian" versus "democratic", for example (Winner, 1986; Laudon 1977) or in more mundane considerations such as satisfaction and particpation in the workplace such as the early research of the Tavistock Institute (Emery 1959/1972; Trist and Bamforth 1951). Generally, this work provided insights into the ways in which technology could impact on social issues, without really problematising this relationship; this was left to the later research outline above.

Finally, the metaphor of the machine as text, explored by Woolgar (1991), provided some of the inspiration for the Discourse Analysis methodology which I am using to build on and illuminate aspects of this theoretical tradition as it pertains to some specific services in e-government.

Policy bites usability

This research builds on a growing awarness in Human Computer Interaction research that decisions taken at all design stages of a system have usability implications; usability, like HCI more broadly, is not a "factor" to be added in later, but must be considered from the very beginning.

In the case of an e-government system, design starts with design of the policy; consequently, makers of public policy have to consider the usability of the system as a fundamental part of the policy design.

The question for this research, then, is to carefully examine e-government systems to analyse in what ways policy decisions impact on usability. From this, it should be possible to make suggestions which are of interest to policy-makers as well as to those responsible to implementation of e-government systems.

Usability in the lived experience

The socio-technical research tradition, discussed above, considers how technology impacts the political and social context and so the "lived experience" (as later usability researchers would come to call it) of technology. It is my contention that this lived experience, and what Nielsen (1994) refers to as the heuristic of "Match between system and real world", are closely related and cannot be separated from more basic aspects of usability. Therefore, the socio-tech and usability research need to learn from one another, each being informing from the insights of the other. In the same way, both the e-government in public policy and Information Systems research traditions have largely failed to grasp the implications of the other tradition.

Drawing then on traditional HCI methods such as heuristic evaluation and observation, but also expanding these concepts to take into account this meaning of the "lived experience", I develop an understanding of usability and use this to analyse the usability implications of public policy design in a set of related electronically-enabled public services. Among other inspirations, the ways in which users appropriate (make use of) systems, or cope with the shortcomings of systems, are seen as examples of Bakhtin's (1981) dialogicality. This idea of dialogicality in user experience, and indeed the need to consider carefully what we mean by "user" and "experience", are discussed beautifully in McCarthy and Wright's recent book (McCarthy and Wright 2004).


Bakhtin, M.M., 1981: The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Holquist, M. (Ed.), Translated by: Emerson, C. and Holquist, M., University of Texas Press, Austin, TX, USA

Bijker, W.E., 1995: Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA

Emery, F., 1959/1972: Characteristics of Socio-Technical Systems: Introduction to the Concept of Socio-Technical Systems: in Design of Jobs, Davis, L.E. and Taylor, J.C. (Eds.), Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, UK

Grint, K. and Woolgar, S., 1997: The Machine at Work: Technology, Work, and Organization, Polity Press, Oxford, UK

Hosein, I., 2002: A Research Note on Capturing Technology: Towards Moments of Interest: in Global and Organizational Discourse about Information Technology, Wynn, E.H., Whitley, E.A., Myers, M.D., and DeGross, J.I. (Eds.), Kluwer Press, pp133-154

Laudon, K., 1977: Communications Technology and Democratic Participation, Praeger Publishers, New York, NY, USA

McCarthy, J. and Wright, P., 2004: Technology as Experience, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA

Nielsen, J., 1994: Enhancing the Explanatory Power of Usability Heuristics: in Proceedings of CHI '94: "Celebrating Interdependence", Boston, MA, USA

Orlikowski, W. and Iacono, C., 2001: Research commentary: Desparately Seeking the 'IT' in IT Research - A Call to Theorizing the IT Artifact: in Information Systems Research (12:2) pp 121-134

Trist, E. and Bamforth, K., 1951: The Stress of Isolated Dependence: The Filling Shift in the Semi-Mechanized Longwall Three-Shift Mining Cycle: in shortened version of article in Human Relations (4:3) pp.3-38

Winner, L., 1986: Do Artifacts have Politics?: in The whale and the reactor: a search for limits in an age of high technology, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, USA

Woolgar, S., 1991: Configuring The User: the case of usability trials: in A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology, and Domination, Law, J. (Ed.), Routledge, London, UK