As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been quite busy, hence the lack of posts over the past few months. A big portion of my time went into developing a prototype user interface for my thesis titled “Managing Activities in Time and Space in an Activity-Based Computing System”. No worries if you don’t have a clue what that means, as I’ll try to do my best to explain the concept in at least 80 pages less than my thesis. In future posts I will disclose the actual prototype and will work towards a stable beta release. Until then – for the curious – you can already access the open source project, but I still need to add instructions on how to compile it in the readme.
It came to me as a surprise, that the very same idea I had for my thesis was already being discussed in the 80s, in the early days of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) over at Xerox PARC. It came to me as a bigger surprise that even though several research departments have been researching the subject over a course of more than 30 years (including a research group over at Apple Computer), the concept still hasn’t caught on in mainstream computing. Activity-Based Computing (ABC) is a new computing paradigm which attempts to address some of the problems with the current paradigm.
Applications: what a terrible term. What a terrible concept. Applications have little to do with the tasks that people are attempting to accomplish. Look. We don’t do word processing; we write letters, or memos, or reports, or notes to ourselves. - Donald A. Norman
Computers are inherently application and document oriented. This is all good and well for simple tasks, such as using a text editor to write a certain document, but is that still a realistic scenario? Computers nowadays make up a big portion of our daily lives. We don’t just write a paper; we look up information on the internet, translate words, use a dictionary, email with contacts for further information, import images, keep track of the deadline when the work needs to be finished, share a draft version, wait for feedback, and later have to reopen our entire working context again to make amendments. A lot of tasks users need to carry out require the use of several applications and documents, simultaneously. Furthermore, we don’t work on just one task at a time. Interruptions can cause us to suspend work on one task and open up other documents/applications required to continue work on another.
Gaaah! I believe this portrays the problem pretty well. Most likely your desktop never looks this bad, but that’s because you tend to close windows you believe you no longer need, exactly to avoid this kind of situation. But at what cost? Think back for a second how often the following thought went through your head: “If only I hadn’t closed that before.”. We lose a lot of time re-initializing a working context which we already set up before, be it one hour, one day, or a month ago. But that’s not all. Computing has become ubiquitous. We don’t just use one device, but several. We don’t keep documents to ourselves either, we share them. Managing applications and documents has become a task in it’s own right; a repetitive, distracting, possibly unnecessary task. I hate unnecessary repetition.
Proponents of Activity-Based Computing feel a lot of this overhead can be eliminated by using activity as the basic computational unit, instead of the file or application. Activity, as defined in activity theory, is seen as “a system of human “doing” whereby a subject works on an object in order to obtain a desired outcome.” This takes into account the entire setting in which the activity takes place; the tools used, the people you communicate and share resources with, the rules governing the community and how work on the activity is divided between people. Activity being a computational unit implies you can open, close, save and manage activities, not too dissimilar as to how you use files now. “The end-user is directly supported by computational activities which can be initiated, suspended, stored, resumed, and shared on any computing device in the infrastructure at any point in time, handed over to other persons, or shared among several persons.”
Humans perform plenty of activities, and thus within existing ABC systems the question arised how to manage them. The concept I explored in my thesis was to provide an overview of activities in time and space, showing when work was done on them and their inner relationships. I argue it is a worthwhile path to explore using a calendar not only to plan your activities, but also to use them. My prototype works towards this integration of activities as a computational unit managed on a calendar. Since the start of this month I started work as a research assistant at the IT University of Copenhagen where I will be researching how ABC can be used by software developers, specifically in software companies with distributed teams, following agile software development. Exciting times are ahead!