Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-Machine Communication (Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives) Paperback – 26 Nov 1987
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'This book should be required reading for every serious student of computer system design.' Terry Winograd, Stanford University
'Lucy Suchman's book is a uniquely creative anthropological approach to human and machine intelligence. Her book poses a closely argued challenge to central assumptions in the cognitive sciences.' Jean Lave, University of California, Irvine
'This book should be required reading for all who deal with the study of human action, whether they be cognitive scientists interested in how people work or practitioners who wish to make systems for people to use … A most important work.' Donald A. Norman, University of California, San Diego
This lively and original book offers a provocative critique of the dominant assumptions regarding human action and communication which underlie recent research in machine intelligence. It presents a compellining case for the re-examination of current models underlying interface design.
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. Absolute certainty is impossible and the quest for it is costly and futile. Instead of trying to overcome the uncertainty that is in the world, the system designer should embrace it and use it as a tool to solve the problems that it creates.
This is a book that should be read by anyone who has set the task for themselves of developing any system that must function in an uncertain environment. In short this is a book that should be read by anyone who is developing a system that will have to function within the real world
That said, I think this book is reasonably accessible, and certainly more so than has been suggested by some reviewers. Suchman was writing to counter a prevalent mindset in the AI community of the time. Basically, Chapters 2 and 3 set up a technical and philosophical strawman (human action as the execution of plans), Chapters 4 and 5 provide an explanation of some necessary theoretical background, and the rest is an analysis of interaction in the context of these theories that serves to knock down the strawman. It's fairly hard to have a more clear and logical organization than that. There's no part of that organization that could be left out and still have the book make sense.
Furthermore, by comparison, the theoretical parts of this book should be easier for the uninitiated to read than are Garfinkel's writings on ethnomethodology (or most CA writings by almost anyone). They may or may not do justice to those ideas, but that's a separate question. And for someone with any background at all in these areas (though as suggested by other reviewers, this does not include a huge number of people), this book should be a very straightforward read.
The bottom line for me is that this book (like Paul Dourish's "Where the Action Is") is an interdisciplinary gem that has the potential to change how you think about how people approach technology. There aren't that many books for which that can be said.
This book doesn't tell you how to "do" very much - it's not a step-by-step method book. This is a mix of theory and method that will force the engaged reader to reflect on his/her own work.
This book stands as perhaps the best example of a socio-cognitive analysis of technology, and is therefore correctly treated as fundamental in HCI and related fields. For a researcher who is interested in the relationship between technology and people, or technology and the world, this is a must-read. AI and HCI stumble into each other frequently, but this is a book for both audiences.
As for the debate of plans vs. situated action, well, to some extent I find it irrelevant. Suchman never claims that plans don't exist or are unimportant. Even if your work is completely plan-oriented - say, AI planning (e.g. path planning), you should read this book - it will challenge some of your assumptions, and force you to grapple with problems that exist when technology interacts with the world.
That having been said, this is not an introductory reader on HCI, AI, or any other topic. Suchman's terse language frustrates even some very intelligent grad students and PhD's, and again, this book is deep. It's a book that has challenged me as I've read and re-read it over the years, and I treasure it.
Ought to be a classic. The fact that it isn't widely known, particularly in contemporary sociology, is something of a travesty.