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What we talk about when we talk about context


The emergence of ubiquitous computing as a new design paradigm poses significant challenges for human-computer interaction (HCI) and interaction design. Traditionally, HCI has taken place within a constrained and well-understood domain of experience—single users sitting at desks and interacting with conventionally-designed computers employing screens, keyboards and mice for interaction. New opportunities have engendered considerable interest in “context-aware computing”—computational systems that can sense and respond to aspects of the settings in which they are used. However, considerable confusion surrounds the notion of “context”—what it means, what it includes and what role it plays in interactive systems. This paper suggests that the representational stance implied by conventional interpretations of “context” misinterprets the role of context in everyday human activity, and proposes an alternative model that suggests different directions for design.

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  1. Although I described the three approaches as characterising theories of social science, they also apply more broadly, and engineering approaches to HCI inherently embody (perhaps implicit) theories of social analysis and social action.

  2. Except, perhaps, in some ironic sense; which, of course, would not be ordinary at all. This is clearly not something that one would ordinarily say.


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The ideas expressed here have benefited from discussions with many people, including Gregory Abowd, Saul Greenberg, Tom Moran, David Redmiles, Tom Rodden, Dave Snowdon, Dag Svanaes and Jack Whalen. I am also grateful to participants at the FX PAL Workshop on Mobile Services and the HCI Consortium on Pervasive Computing, both held in 2001, for their contributions. This work has been supported in part by the National Science Foundation through awards 0133749, 0205724, and 0326105.

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Dourish, P. What we talk about when we talk about context. Pers Ubiquit Comput 8, 19–30 (2004).

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  • Context-aware computing
  • Ethnomethodology