Challenges for Embodied Interaction when Considering Social Computing in a Global Context

By Linda Hirsch.

In his book “Where the action is“, Dourish describes the role of sociology in embodied interaction as the “mediation between user and system designer”, explaining it further as a set of organised actions within a certain context between a specific group of members who have a common understanding of the meaning as well as of the execution of each action and its context. Additionally, he mentions that the field sociology enriched the profession of human-computer interaction with its methods on human societies, stating that a deep insight analysis seems well possible by conducting anthropological methodologies.

In other words, a system designer is challenged to create a system that provides the necessary information (exchange) to a social group by considering the users common commitment and communicative means, but also by including each individual’s cultural and organizational background as well as the individual point of view and perception of the world. To create a system based on all the mentioned aspects, a system designer needs to reach the same common understanding of the social group’s members, communication as well as of its workplace.  The results are bundled on a higher, abstracter level, so that the implementation includes all required functionalities based on consolidated and unified requirements that are practically realisable.

The latter point is excluded in Dourish’s analysis of the role of sociology in computation. In total, by focusing on a working environment only, he claims very well the composition and the drivers of a social actions within a momentarily, spaciously limited context. However, referring his research to today’s situation, there are several social areas missing that should be taken into consideration to be aware of possible risks and enhancements when designing. This shows also that embodied interaction today is much more complex than perceived in 2001.

Looking into today’s companies’ organizational structures, it shows that in the context of globalization, many teams are spread out all over the world and working virtually together (. A conc11214142-social-media-network-connection-conceptrete example including references to Dourish’s observations is shown in the following by considering a project team with a main seat, including the team’s customers, in Europe, developers in Asia and testers in USA. The team shall update the system, so that it cannot only be used for regional customer services, but also for global administration works. The required functionalities and processes are partly conformed, but need very fine distinctions on a deeper system-level due to varying understandings and habits to put the unified requirements into practice. In this example, taking Dourish’s approach into account, a system designer would have to identify the different social groups and the varying actions per group, at first. One suggestion to create groups is to split the users according to their geographical location. Another approach could consider the different roles and responsibilities of each user group. Already there, at the beginning, we are facing problems that are based on the complex composition derived by globalization and weak separations of tasks and responsibilities which are often found in the industry. So, where does a social group starts and where does it end? Which activities can really be assigned to one group only and how do we identify those? According to Dourish, two aspects, accountability and abstraction, build the foundation of an analysis about which relationships between a social group and the technology it uses, should be considered. However, he misses the identification of a social group in the first place. Additionally, as the mentioned relationships depend mainly on individual perceptions and meaning-making, it might work in a very strictly separated workplace where processes and activities belong already to a routine, where almost everyone has the same understanding and every process is rather static, but less in an agile, growing and changing group. Also, before a new aspect has established within an existing organization, a system designer will neither have the basis to conduct his/her analysis based on embodied interaction due to missing routines about processes and task distributions, nor, depending on how big the impact of the new aspect is, can he/she make design-decisions as the activities have never been conducted before. As an example, the customer service was only available as website and should be adapted to mobile conditions, so that the customer can contact the service in various ways including on the road while driving.

bigstock-A-man-presses-a-button-beside-19630346-620x620This leads to another aspect which is worth mentioning when talking about sociology in embodied interaction. Dourish1 points out that we design for interaction. Successively, we design not only for interaction, but also for changes; changes that have to be accepted, established and embodied within an organization and the considered social group members. Referring to the earlier example, this reveals another complexity as the customer is in many cases not the end-user that a designer creates the system for. This means that the expectations, intentions and goals of the end-user group might vary a lot and not be known in the design phase. Even though, many companies work with an agile approach and therefore have design phases as part of every iteration, resources like time and money might have been spent already for the wrong requirements. So, a designer faces the challenge of translating the input given by one social group (the customer) that has a certain relation and perception of the required embodied interaction, to an output understandable for another social group with different standards and behaviours (and therefore another way of embodied interaction). So far, it was mainly discussed what embodied interaction is based on as well as what it means. However, all these statements are made on a rather higher level with lower complex environments and compositions. As a next step, social actions should be observed and analysed on a deeper level, considering also passive and active roles of members of a group as well as affecting input and output activities. The assumption is that all these aspects correlate with the extrinsic and intrinsic motivation of the individual and therefore derive to an explanation of how embodied interaction can be used as a method for establishing and accepting changes quicker and easier. Additionally, besides the individual perception, it would be interesting to analyse the differences of embodied interactions based on varying cultural backgrounds. As today, most companies set value in having cross-cultural teams. Both sides, the system-designers’ point of views as well as the end-users’ point of views are influenced passively and actively by much more diverse perceptions, actions and experiences. Therefore, the former context, in which social computing was considered in the context of embodied interaction, should be extended and reviewed.


Dourish, P. 2001, Where the action is: the foundation of embodied interaction [pp. 55 – 97] Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001

Choksi, N. 2017. Out of the Office: More People Are Working Remotely, Survey Finds. NY Times. (accessed April 6th 2017)


  1. Global Network: (accessed April 5th 2017).
  2. Accepting Change,×620.jpg (accessed April 5th 2017).

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