28. Cognitive Artifacts


Cognitive artifacts may be defined as "those artificial devices that maintain, display, or operate upon information in order to serve a representational function and that affect human cognitive performance." (Norman 1991, p.17) Cognitive artifacts are in other words man-made things that seem to aid or enhance our cognitive abilities, and some examples are calendars, to-do lists, computers, or simply tying a string around your finger as a reminder. As will be explained below, it can however be problematic to ascribe an enhancing purpose to the artifacts.

Putting the adjective 'cognitive' in front of the word artifact indicates an association with the fields of Cognitive Psychology and Cognitive Science which, by and large, assume that cognition belongs inside the head (Cartesian dualism) and can be studied relatively independently of the material world or the true context of the individual. This neglecting of the material aspects of cognition have resulted in the fact that much of our scientific understanding is of the unaided mind. Thus, we know much about cognitive processes such as attention, perception, and memory, but proportionately little about "the information processing roles played by artifacts and how they interact with the information processing activities of their users." (Norman 1991: p. 17)

Unlike Cognitive Science, the field of HCI has a long tradition of studying the cognitive relationship between the activities of individuals, artifacts (usually computers and computer programs) and tasks. Despite the fact that HCI’s research interest in activities, tasks, and artifacts in relation to cognition represents an improvement from studying individual cognition unaided by external devices, Norman (1991) argue that there is a lack of research taking the artifacts as point of departure and focusing on how their design affects both the user and the task. More generally put, by investigating cognitive artifacts one may integrate artifacts into the existing theory of human cognition.

The argument against "cognitive amplification"

In his conception of cognitive artifacts, Norman dissociates himself from the notion that artifacts "amplify" an individual's cognitive capabilities. Instead, he argues, they change the nature of the task performed by the person. He suggests that the notion of cognitive amplification has arisen because artifacts appear to play different roles depending upon the point from which they are viewed. He recapitulates two views: The system view and the personal view:

The system view

To illustrate the difference between the two views, Norman (1991) uses the situation of an individual using a to-do list to perform a task. Now we can choose to look at this situation from two perspectives: We can look collectively at the individual, his/her to-do list and the task to be performed, and this constitutes the system view. Here, we see the individual combined with the to-do list as a functional system with the goal of "remembering" in order to perform a task. In this person-plus-to-do-list system, the to-do list can be said to be a memory enhancer and thus an amplifier of cognitive capabilities as it self-evidently provides a significant improvement of the system's collective memory. However, the situation looks different from "the personal view."

The personal view

From the viewpoint of the person performing a given task, the to-do list does not extend or amplify his/her cognitive abilities. Rather, the to-do list presents the individual with a different task altogether. Without the to-do list the individual must remember all of the items on the list. With the list, on the other hand, the individual only has to do very little remembering as the list is used as a memory aid. However, the use of the list introduces three new tasks of which the first one is performed before the actual task performance (e.g. buying groceries), the other two at the time of the task performance. The three tasks are now:
1. The construction of the list;
2. Remembering to consult the list;
3. Reading and interpreting the items on the list;
(cited from Norman 1991: p. 21)

Thus, artifacts/tools such as the to-do list transform the task by re-representing on paper what was previously in the mind of the task performer. The transformation of the task from "retrieval of the list from memory" to "remembering to look at the list and reading the items on it" also means that the task is represented in a way that make the solution apparent: Almost all people can perform the latter task, whereas the former task of retrieving a list of items from memory usually leads to a considerable error rate.

This is similar to how problem solving is conceived in the field of Cognitive Science, as Herbert Simon explains it in his classical book The Sciences of the Artificial: "solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent." (1981: p. 153)

The impact of task transformation on performance

The fact that the transformation results in some of the task being done ahead of the actual task execution has an important impact on performance as the cognitive demands of the task can be distributed across time and even people. For example, your wife could write the to-do list for today's grocery shopping and you would then only be required to buy the groceries unreflectingly. This is what Edwin Hutchins (1995) calls precomputation and it is a ubiquitous element in everyday task performance. For example, we profit from the hundreds of years of work and experience of the automotive industry to get us safely and quickly to work, and we take out our wallet at the check-out counter before the shop assistant is finished scanning the groceries and asks us for payment.

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