The House of Commons & Distributed Cognition: Stretching the mind

This text was edited to appear in The Ergonomist No. 492 June 2011 (p.4-5) – The news letter of the Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (IEHF):

On 14th March I visited the House of Commons as part of a research competition. The annual event is called SET for BRITAIN, which invites early-career research scientists, engineers and technologists to present their research. The day was divided into three sessions, and about 60 people were presenting posters in the engineering session I was in. I didn’t win but it was a great achievement getting that far, a fulfilling experience, and I got the chance to promote ergonomic issues to MPs and members of the scientific committee.

I presented my work on developing DiCoT (Distributed Cognition for Teamwork), which was initially developed to analyse the London Ambulance Service control room (Furniss & Blandford, 2006). At a high level it allows one to effectively organise field observations into five models: 1) information flow – the way tasks are processed; 2) physical – the desk and room layouts; 3) artefact – the representations and tools used; 4) social – the people, roles and knowledge in the system; and 5) evolutionary – the way the system has changed over time. These interdependent models form a picture of the socio-technical system where insights into performance can be made.

Each of these models is associated with Distributed Cognition (DC) principles, which provide an accessible way of engaging with its theory. DC emphasises the concept of an extended mind, and sees socio-technical systems in cognitive terms, e.g. a shopping list could be seen to support memory in the system. Two of the most well known studies involve looking at how the bridge of a ship manages navigation (Hutchins, 1995a), and how a cockpit remembers its speed (Hutchins, 1995b), both in cognitive terms. A more trivial example I like is playing Scrabble. Here, people will often rearrange their tiles making parts of words and changing the external space for inspiration. So we do not just perceive, think and do in a detached manner; instead our environment is entwined with how we think and behave within a wider cognitive system.

Since the conception of DiCoT in 2004 it has been used by other institutions and has featured in internationally peer-reviewed publications. DiCoT is now taught on the HCI and Ergonomics MSc programme at UCL. To date, six MSc thesis projects have used DiCoT, and three of these have won best thesis prizes (including mine). DiCoT has been applied in the healthcare, transport and software development domains. DiCoT is now a major component of the CHI+MED project, which is a large EPSRC grant looking at the usability of medical devices. Here it provides the methodological core for studying the design and use of medical devices in context. I now travel to different hospital contexts identifying problems and potential problems.

DiCoT contributes to engineering in four main ways: in understanding the basic mechanics of a socio-technical system; gaining deeper conceptual insight into these systems; small design modifications; and revolutionary design proposals (Furniss & Blandford, 2010). DiCoT’s work continues to improve CHI+MED’s understanding of medical contexts. For example, recent work has identified two proposals for infusion pump design: 1) to allow nurses to skip a programming step when they do not have the number to enter; and 2) warning the nurse when their requested infusion program will last longer than the device’s battery charge (Furniss, Blandford & Mayer, 2011). These insights are being shared with the manufacturers and medical practitioners so safer medical practice is engineered. Further studies will include wards, intensive care units and patients’ homes.

One pleasant surprise on the day was bumping into David O’Neill, Chief Exec. IEHF, who was there in his role as a scientific adviser. He was pleased to see me there and thought we should try to have a better presence at events like these to promote ergonomic research and issues – particularly as the IEHF tries to progress with its Chartership application. I had a great day and would encourage other early career researchers to have a go. I had an extended discussion with Rt Hon Frank Dobson and my local MP David Evernett. Both of them engaged with my research and were receptive to the broader CHI+MED mission to improve patient safety by making medical devices easier to use.


Furniss, D. & Blandford, A. (2006). Understanding Emergency Medical Dispatch in terms of Distributed Cognition: a case study. Ergonomics, Volume 49, Issue 12 & 13 October, pp 1174 – 1203

Furniss, D. & Blandford, A. (2010). DiCoT Modeling: From Analysis to Design. Proc. CHI 2010 Workshop Bridging the Gap: Moving from Contextual Analysis to Design.

Furniss, D., Blandford, A. & Mayer, A. (2011). Unremarkable error: low-level disturbances in infusion pump use. To appear at British HCI, Newcastle, 4-8 July 2011.


E. (1995a). Cognition in the Wild. MIT.

Hutchins, E. (1995b) How a cockpit remembers its speed. Cognitive Science, Vol. 19(3), pp. 265-288.


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