Early Work in Ecological Settings and Cognitive Design Practice

My first encounter with designed environments,[1] people’s behavior, and how they think or do things came through work on a senior honors synthesis at The University of Dayton, Ohio (McNeese, 1977). This thesis consisted of an ecological study of how groups use space (personal space and orientations at different architectural or situated contexts within the university setting—library, student union, etc.). This way of considering how people act and think about their actions within the context of space was very much coupled with individual/social awareness and how designed environments afford different use and experiences. The study involved qualitative methods and represented research ascribed to environmental psychology (Altman, 1975), ecological settings (Barker, 1968), and human-social cognition (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Although not specifically representative of the kinds of quantitative cognitive studies I would later be engaged with, this study was important as it (1) represented an initial foray into ecological dynamics within built contexts, (2) explored how social psychological variables interact with the ecology, and (3) studied how systems can be designed to enhance the intended function of an environment (i.e., use). Although this was very early work, it laid foundations for the melded, integrative, and interdisciplinary nature of social psychology, collaboration, human-centered design, and ecological settings—components still facile for CSE in our lab. In particular, the emphasis on studying collaboration in context, and how design influences behavior, set the initial seeds for the living laboratory conceptualization.

Much of the formative years in cognitive systems and the ecological foundations came from the philosophical direction and training of my advisor, Dr. John Bransford (while he was at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee), in the areas of problem solving—problem-based learning—and information seeking. Much of my formal training was in cognitive psychology and design, but my intent was to do experimental work to better understand phenomenon in terms of ecological connections of a human embodied in a context. The theories associated with distributed cognition (Hutchins, 1995), ecological psychology (Gibson, 1979), and problem solving/learning (Bransford & Stein, 1984) started to permeate how I framed cognitive systems within real-world environments (fields of practice). As such, they were very much in play as forces that helped meld a specific methodological framework for the pursuit of cognitive-engineered systems.

  • [1] Note this was my first encounter with a research study involving ecological settings and design work.As mentioned within the preface—my first encounter with human factors and design per se camethrough work as a designer on a school bus monitoring display system circa 1973 with the AutomaticControl Device Corporation, Dayton, Ohio.
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