The Social Construction of a Technical Reality: studies of group engineering design practice

Scott Minneman, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University February 12, 1992


In traditional design studies, researchers stand outside the process to analyze or criticize. In contrast, this research represents a method for changing the practice of group engineering design--a way of intervening in design practice, of watching (and accounting for) the effects of those changes, and of planning the next intervention. The method encompasses the breadth of engineering design activity and addresses how design work emerges from interactions among individuals and groups as they establish, maintain, and develop a shared understanding. Two related projects were undertaken during the course of this research: a longitudinal study of an industrial team working on a photocopier subsystem, and a series of half-day, group design exercises focusing on the communications arising in distributed design activity. Two results emerged from detailed analysis of videotape project records--an activity framework for considering the entire social process of designing, and a set of practices that participants use to get that design work done. The crucial practices observed were negotiating understandings, conserving ambiguity, tailoring engineering communication for recipients, and manipulating mundane representations. With these practices, designers' activity can be seen as attending to and creating a recognizable order in their ongoing social interaction.


Scott Minneman is a researcher in the Work Practice and Technology Area at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Since starting at PARC as an intern in 1987, he has been involved in a series of explorations with the Media Space--an video, audio, and computing environment for supporting distributed design. His recent concentrations in this area include the VideoWhiteboard, VideoDraw, and Commune projects for shared drawing in distributed settings, and the Where Were We project for real-time group access to recorded video services. He is interested in interdisciplinary group engineering design activity, and in the impact of video and computing technologies on that activity. He received his PhD from Stanford in Mechanical Engineering, working at the Center for Design Research.


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