Distributed cognition models conceptualize cognitive phenomena as happening across multiple individuals, objects, and internal and external representations of knowledge. In contrast to the Information Processing Model, which is only focused on activities that happen inside the head, this model focuses on internal and external activities and encompasses External Cognitive Processes and Coordination Mechanisms described in my previous posts.
In comparison to these three frameworks, distributed cognition models provide more precise descriptions of internal and external cognitive activities. They are less abstract because their domain is limited to cognitive activities associated to specific contexts (e.g. piloting an airplane, doing taxes).
The three frameworks previously mentioned provide general descriptions of how human cognition works across all contexts. Their focus is on defining general laws that describe how our brain processes information and leverages the external world to enhance our cognitive capabilities. The distributed cognition model offers a phenomenological perspective that explores cognition as an embodied activity that takes place in specific physical and social contexts.
For example, a distributed cognition model that describes the activities that take place at an agency during creative development would differ considerably from that of a law office. They would feature many commonalities but the important thing is that the differences matter.
This perspective is important because designers need to understand how their product or service will actually fit into people’s day-to-day life. The insights that can be gleaned from the Information Processing and External Cognitive Activities Frameworks do not provide this type of understanding. Distributed cognition models focuses on mapping these mundane day-to-day activities. They provide insight into how people actually make and share meaning and decisions within specific contexts.
A distributed cognition analysis is usually carried out as the basis for development of a distributed cognition model. Here is an overview of the main areas of examination in these types of analysis. As an example (and to work my brain just a little bit) I’ve carried out a high-level analysis of the distributed cognitive activities that take place at an advertising agency.
- How does distributed problem solving take place? How do people work together to solve problems? In an agency environment, tasks are distributed across several departments with specific areas of expertise (e.g. client services, account & strategic planning, media, production, creative and traffic). People work together by coordinating their actions using documents (such as schedules, briefs, spec sheets and emails), events (such as meetings, phone calls, and presentations), and shared work practices (such as common vocabularies, understandings, and culture).
- What ways does communication take place throughout the collaborative process and how is knowledge shared and accessed? Does it change as the activity progresses? Communications take place via meetings, emails and document artifacts such as presentations, briefs, schedules, conference reports, creative comps and spec sheets. The most important information is documented to facilitate sharing. Many of the document artifacts evolve as the activities progress. For example, a creative brief may be updated to reflect changes in strategy. The creative comps also change via multiple rounds of client reviews.
- What is the role of verbal and non-verbal communication? What types of things are said or implied? Verbal communication is the primary type of communication associated to the management of projects (and communication associated to those projects). Non-verbal communication plays a fundamental important in the activities of the project itself. Layout design, videos, images, graphs, and even experiences are be used to brief creative teams regarding products or brands, and in client and internal presentations. The final creative product delivered by Agencies also employs both verbal and non-verbal communication. To elicit emotional responses from people agencies use non-verbal tools such as images, visuals, videos, sounds, interactions online, and more. In agency communication is often reinforced through by verbal and non-verbal communication.
- What coordinating mechanisms are used? What are the rules and procedures that govern the workflow? There are several important coordination mechanisms that are used in an agency. These mechanism leverage external representations of knowledge such as schedules, job jackets, spec sheets, readers, status reports, conference reports, emails, calendars, scopes of work, etc. They also include meetings such as internal and client reviews, status meetings, and production kick-offs. Many rules and procedures are outlined in the agency’s process manual. These processes govern how work flows through the agency.
[source: Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction, page 129.]
** What the hell is ID FMP? **