Distributed Cognition Theory – Hollan, Hutchins, Kirsh

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I liked reading this paper. I seemed to be the most relevant to my own workplace, from all papers until now.


This papers offers an integrated research framework for human-computer interaction.

Let’s start with the definition of cognition. Cognition isn’t the same as “kennis” in Dutch, as Bram warned us. “Cognition is those process by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used.

Human information processing psychology was the dominant theory for over 20 years. Hollan et al propose the distributed cognition theory  as a theoretical foundation for human-computer interaction research and a fertile framework for designing and evaluating digital artifacts. It is tailored to understand interactions among people and technology.

An integrated framework for research combines ethnographic observation and controlled experimentation as a basis for theoretically informed design of digital work materials and collaborative workplaces.

My own experiences linked to specific quotes

It was interesting to experience how research results in better graphical user interfaces, specifically to software and the web. While I was reading the paper I continually reflected and connected to connect to my role as a teacher, the operation of TELEs, web design and zelfstudie.be, the website I founded in 2000. A few points triggered me:

A distributed cognition approach :

  • Socially Distributed Cognition: “social organization is itself a form of cognitive architecture” and “cognitive processes are socially distributed across the members of a group.It is a broader conception that includes phenomena that emerge in social interactions as well as interactions between people and structure in their environments”.
  • Embodied Cognition: “so well-designed work materials becomeintegrated into the way people think, see, and control activities”  (Eg: blind person’s cane).
    Indeed, distance learning proposes other pedagogy than f2f. By using web conferencing software in my lesson, ask questions using the chat, the alert button, the microphone. They might ask questions they wouldn’t ask in other circumstances and vice versa. 
  • Culture and Cognition: “the environment people are embedded in is, among other things, a reservoir of resources for learning, problem solving, and reasoning”
  • Ethnography of Distributed Cognitive Systems: this one was extremely interesting. 

The integrated framework with some interesting quotes:

  • “In order to make real-world observations, it is necessary to establish rapport with the members of a community.” This reminded me to Jobs quote in 1997: “You got to start with the customers experience and work backwards for the technology”, which helped me to redesign my website. Only implement a search engine, social media and other items on your website without doing research whether they are needed. There might grow a gap, discrepancy between a designer and the end user (eg the coordinator who has to add functionalities to Moodle).
  • “Experiments can refine the theory of distributed cognition which in turn can be applied to improve design. Finally, since the design process creates new tools for workplaces, there are new structures and interactions to study. Finally, since the design process creates new tools for workplaces, there are new structures and interactions to study. This loop from observation to theory to design and back to new ethnographic observations is an important cycle of activity in our framework. ”
    This reminds me to the process of replacing the menu on zelfstudie.be and making it mobile. 
    In 2000, the menu could be found on the left side, which causes insufficient space for content. So I replaced the menu to the top, which caused a new problem: there were too many buttons (2 rows of buttons). I needed to remove 2 buttons . Some students contacted me because they can’t find these button, so I had to replace these buttons, redesign them and had to add a search engine. Research into making  content searchable was needed (using google search on the page or developing my own search engine). Two years ago many people started using mobile devices to surf, so the menu needed to be responsive (mobile version) -> Research to interesting mobile navigations: TinyNav, Responsive Nav, etc

  • Awesome-Examples-of-Skeuomorphism-thumb-650x366“In direct-manipulation interfaces the objects on-screen are meant to be so closely coupled to the actual computational objects we are dealing with that we are supposed to feel as if we are manipulating the real
    objects themselves and not just their stand-ins.”
    Wow, here comes the skeuomorphic design which causes a problem. What with time related icons. A whole generation isn’t familiar with common icons: the floppy, bookmark, clipboard, etc. At this moment designers choose to quit skeuomorphic design.
  • “In interaction with objects in the world, history of use is sometimes available to us in ways that inform our interactions with them.” Very interesting to experience how this point can result in better user interfaces. And indeed, there are serious privacy issues. At this time websites who are tracking cookies, need to inform the user. Google and Facebook are two large companies who uses this information for personal advertising. However, tracking students in Moodle can be very useful to a teacher to interpret whether a student took a look at courseware. In web design, Jakob Nielsen introduced the concept of Usability. By using eye tracking and creating heat maps, it’s possible to research which parts of the screen (website/software) is most often being looked at. An interesting example of History-Enriched Digital Objects.


The framework in this paper will be very useful to analyse human behavior on software, websites and TELE’s. The way research can happen and conclusion can be made was an eye opener. During the session, Danny provided some interesting examples of HCI (Human – Computer Interaction)


Bram, Keiran, Dave and I brainstormed in a Google Doc, discussed the paper in Collaborate and made this presentation.


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