Context and Information

Lucy Suchman in her classic Plans and Situated Action talks about the difficulty of human-computer action when humans inhabit an embodied world where they don’t necessarily follows plans and computers are programmed to interact with people by “understanding” people’s situation and what they need and want — i.e., contextual help.

Several recent interactions have me thinking about the amount of understanding that goes into human-to-human interaction and is often missing in computer-human interaction — and human-human, as well. And how much understanding is highly local. Traveling is always an eye-opener in this regard, since as an outsider one often doesn’t know what others do.

  • In Salt Lake City, I called mobile information to find out where the closest Barnes & Noble was. The computerized answer: “Gateway Mall.” But where is Gateway Mall?
  • I had lost my itinerary and had only a vague idea what time my return flight left. The automated system wanted to know the number of the flight I was inquiring about. I didn’t know. The person I finally got wanted to know what time the flight was. I didn’t know — that’s why I was calling!
  • The road signs were often confusing. At one point, on surface streets, I was offered a choice between I-215 and I-80. I wanted neither, but to simply continue on the street I was on — could I? Well, yes, I followed the I-215 signs and was able to veer off at the last minute.
  • I called American Express about a gift card that was never received. I had a transaction number from the email acknowledgment, but the system only wanted the card number — but that was the problem.
  • Another time I was trying to call a friend from an airport pay phone. I tried her number with no area code; nope. 1+area code+number. Nope. Finally dialed the operator who, somewhat exasperated, explained that they have 10-digit dialing there: ALL numbers are dialed with area code but no preceding 1. I said: “I’m at the airport; how am I supposed to know this?” (I didn’t even know what area code I was in, since pay phones no longer show their numbers.)
  • When I’m in the Sierra or, last summer, in Durango, Colorado, motels often get cable TV from many different cities. In Durango, I eventually figured out that I was getting both Denver and Albuquerque. Often what I most want is a weather forecast. But the news reporters and forecasters don’t tell you where they are or where their forecast is for. With cable, TV stations can no longer assume that their audience is geographically limited.
  • Going into DC from Dulles International Airport there are numerous signs for “HOV-3” lanes — and dire warnings about using them illegally. Even Californians, until recently, had never heard of HOV lanes; certainly some part of DC’s many international visitors will have picked up a rental car and be mystified. And HOV-3? (High occupancy vehicles, 3 people per car)
  • Several times lately I’ve had to deal with the dreaded corporate automated information systems, each time with a request that didn’t fit their menu. I’ve learned to just say over and over again, “I want to talk with a person.” Sometimes the system understands (none recently). Most eventually give up and transfer me to a person.
  • A UPS shipment was shown as delivered but my friend said she hadn’t received it. The agent at their 800 number said that I had to get the sender, the company I bought the item from, to initiate a trace. The tracking system showed the package as delivered from San Pablo, but the agent insisted that she couldn’t give me the phone number there. Yes, she admitted, they HAD a phone for internal business, but she couldn’t give it to me.

My point is that as our world is increasingly mobile and virtual — cable TV from anywhere, people hopping on and off planes — we can less and less assume a pool of common knowledge. And more computerized interactions. And yet the physical as well as the virtual world is getting more and more complex, with more knowledge needed to navigate it, more possible failures, breakdowns, and exceptions, and systems designed to handle only expected events.

And, as I said in an earlier post, human agents are increasingly geographically removed and so also lack a shared and/or local knowledge base.

I don’t have a profound observation to make here — just, Hmmmm.

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