Designing the Sakai Open Academic Environment: A distributed cognition account of the design of a large scale software system

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Benda, Klara
Nersessian, Nancy J.
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Social accounts of technological change make the flexibility and openness of interpretations the starting point of an argument against technological determinism. They suggest that technological change unfolds in the semantic domain, but they focus on the social processes around the interpretations of new technologies, and do not address the conceptual processes of change in interpretations. The dissertation presents an empirically grounded case study of the design process of an open-source online software platform based on the framework of distributed cognition to argue that the cognitive perspective is needed for understanding innovation in software, because it allows us to describe the reflexive and expansive contribution of conceptual processes to new software and the significance of professional epistemic practices in framing the direction of innovation. The framework of distributed cognition brings the social and cognitive perspectives together on account of its understanding of conceptual processes as distributed over time, among people, and between humans and artifacts. The dissertation argues that an evolving open-source software landscape became translated into the open-ended local design space of a new software project in a process of infrastructural implosion, and the design space prompted participants to outline and pursue epistemic strategies of sense-making and learning about the contexts of use. The result was a process of conceptual modeling, which resulted in a conceptually novel user interface. Prototyping professional practices of user-centered design lent directionality to this conceptual process in terms of a focus on individual activities with the user interface. Social approaches to software design under the broad umbrella of human-centered computing have been seeking to inform the design on the basis of empirical contributions about a social context. The analysis has shown that empirical engagement with the contexts of use followed from conceptual modeling, and concern about real world contexts was aligned with the user-centered direction that design was taking. I also point out a social-technical gap in the design process in connection with the repeated performance challenges that the platform was facing, and describe the possibility of a social-technical imagination.
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