Technology Demonstrations: What are they for?

Wally Smith, Edith Cowan University, Western Australia

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University March 14, 2003

On the surface, a demonstration of information technology is a straightforward case of 'look before you buy'. However, the demonstration is markedly different from most other parts of systems development and procurement. Much of what is transacted between demonstrator and demonstratee is left implicit, and little is ever recorded. Demonstrations are generally regarded as important for a project's success, but reasons given for this vary. At one extreme, a demonstration is a dry evaluation of requirements, while at another extreme, it is a drama in which a performer charms, or fails to charm, his or her audience through a brief glimpse into a technological potential.

The talk reports an investigation of demonstrations based on interviews with experienced practitioners in various IT areas. The aim is to better understand the function of demonstrations and to examine what makes them a success or failure. Issues raised are the complexity of organizational communications surrounding demonstrations, the ever-present potential for trickery and deception, and the consequent importance placed on trust and understanding between possible future partners. The analysis draws on a range of informational and dramaturgical concepts including Erving Goffman's (1974) frame analysis.

Wally Smith has interests in human-computer interaction, organizational decision-making and training, and knowledge management. Recent research has involved the development of a software tool to assist the design and re-design of disaster scenarios for training in emergency management. An ongoing project is investigating the role of technology demonstrations in systems design and associated decision-making. Related to this project, Wally is an amateur magician and member of the Magic Circle. He holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of London and is currently a Senior Lecturer in Information Systems at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. Previously he has held positions at University College London, City University London and the University of Western Australia.

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