Supporting Interdisciplinary Design:
Towards Pattern Languages for Workplaces
Apple Research Labs
(Now at: IBM T.J. Watson Research Center)
I am concerned with design, particularly with the issue of how to design systems
that mesh gracefully with the practices and activities of particular workplaces.
This concern gives rise to a number of questions: How do designers come to understand
a new workplace? How do they get a sense of the sorts of activities that occur
within it, and with which their design must coexist? How do designers avoid
or minimize disruptions caused by the inevitable changes a new system will introduce?
How do they figure out how to design things that are useful, and not just usable?
Workplace research is a vital part of any answer to these questions. However,
from my vantage point as a practitioner of design, it seems very unlikely that
a thorough research phase will become a standard part of design practice. Systems
design and implementation typically takes place under considerable limitations
of time and resources; it seems unlikely that this will change. To me, this
suggests a clear conclusion: we need ways of allowing the results of workplace
studies to be reused in new and different situations.
But in what form should the results of workplace studies be presented? This
is a difficult problem because most designers are not versed in the disciplines
and assumptions that underlie workplace research; workplace studies are not
accessible to those who need them the most. The problem is compounded by the
fact that those involved in systems design lack any core discipline.
Systems are being designed by computer scientists, anthropologists, psychologists,
visual designers, and industrial designers; furthermore, the advent of new technological
domains such as multimedia and virtual spaces are creating roles for architects,
interior designers, musicians, and film makers. Even end users (who are actually
no more homogenous in their backgrounds than 'designers') are involved in design.
I suggest that we are faced with a problem of representation. We need ways
of representing knowledge about the workplace so that it is accessible to the
increasingly diverse set of people involved in design. Ideally, we want not
only to represent workplace knowledge, but to provide a framework within which
it can be discussed, explicated, extended, and generalized. In the absence of
a shared discipline or conceptual framework, I believe that this means that
knowledge must be embodied in a concrete, recognizable form, in the terms of
the design's target domain: the workplace. This brings us to pattern languages,
which, I suggest, deserve serious consideration as a representational mechanism
for workplace design.
The concept of a pattern language has been developed by Christopher Alexander
and his colleagues in architecture and urban design [1, 2]. In brief, a pattern
language is a network of patterns of varying scales; each pattern is embodied
as a concrete prototype, and is related to larger scale patterns which it supports,
and to smaller scale patterns which support it. The goal of a pattern language
is to capture patterns in their contexts, and to provide a mechanism for understanding
the non-local consequences of design decisions.
Alexander's pattern language is more than an engaging theory. It has been in
use for two decades, and has been applied to the design of everything from rooms
to communities (see  for references to a number of published accounts). Alexander's
approach has a relatively small following among architects, many of whom are
hostile to his methods or alienated by his rhetoric. Most of its use appears
to be by those outside the mainstream of the architecture profession - designer-builders,
and people with no design training who simply wish to expand or build their
own houses, either by themselves or in collaboration with pattern-language-friendly
architects . A piece of corroborating evidence is that Alexander's book
of design patterns, A Pattern Language , continues to be a best selling
architecture book after two decades on the market, even though it is available
only as a rather expensive hard back.
Over the last decade the pattern language approach has attracted a lot of interest
in the field of object oriented software design. There is an active software
patterns community with an annual conference, mailing lists, and web sites (see
the patterns home page ). Software patterns have been receiving increasing
attention from mainstream computer science, with a special issue of The Communications
of the ACM on software patterns  joining the growing number of books
on the subject (e.g., [4, 6, 7]). In contrast, the approach discussed in this
chapter is very much in its exploratory phase; to my knowledge, no workplace
pattern languages have been published.
It is important to note that the approach discussed in this chapter differs
from those taken both by Alexander and the software design community. The principle
difference is that this chapter emphasizes the use of pattern languages as a
descriptive device, a lingua franca for creating a common ground among
people who lack a shared discipline or theoretical framework. In contrast, both
Alexander and the software patterns community tend to use patterns more prescriptively.
The software patterns community focuses on using patterns to capture accepted
practice and support generalization; Alexander's central concern is using patterns
to achieve the ineffable "quality without a name," which characterizes
great architecture. But these are differences of emphasis; in spite of my focus
on patterns as a lingua franca, generalization, reuse of design knowledge,
and increased quality of design all seem to me to be possible and desirable
outcomes of pattern languages for workplaces.
The Alexandrian Pattern Language
Alexander's pattern language is described in two books, one of which provides
the theory and usage model , and the other a language for planning and building
which consists of a network of 253 patterns . The patterns range in scale
from a pattern for the distribution of towns and cities down to a pattern for
walls. The patterns are loosely connected across scales: any given pattern typically
points to smaller scale patterns which can support it, and larger scale patterns
in which it may participate. For example, the Identifiable Neighborhood
pattern (aimed at creating neighborhoods with their own sense of place) invokes
smaller scale patterns such as Street Cafe, Individually Owned Shops,
and Corner Grocery, and participates in larger scale patterns such as
Mosaic of Subcultures that specify characteristics of communities.
The pattern language is not intended to be a book of patterns that is
followed by rote. It is actually a meta-language which is used to generate languages
for particular sites. For any particular situation a subset of existing patterns
is selected; in addition, designers modify existing patterns and create new
patterns that reflect the culture, environment, history, customs and goals of
the site's location and inhabitants. These patterns - old, modified, and new
- form a site-specific language which is used to guide reflection and discussion
about the relationships among the site, the proposed design, and the activities
of the inhabitants.
Each pattern is presented in a standard form. For example, the Street Cafe
pattern  begins with its name, number, and a photograph of a sidewalk cafe.
The first paragraph describes some of the larger scale patterns of which it
is part (e.g., Activity Node). Next is a statement of the essence of
the pattern which illustrates the various forces responsible for the existence
and nature of the pattern. This is followed by an often lengthy rationale section
which describes the background of the pattern, evidence for its validity, ways
in which the pattern can be manifested, etc. For Street Cafe, the rationale
ranges from a careful description of the experience of being in a cafe, to an
analysis of the elements of successful street cafes, to a discussion of a survey
on the role played by student-oriented cafes in educational settings. Street
Cafe concludes with a diagram and short statement describing how to implement
the key features discussed in the rationale, and with a paragraph describing
smaller scale patterns (e.g., Opening to the Street, A Place to Wait,
and Sitting Wall ) which may be used to strengthen this pattern.
Pattern Languages as Representational Systems
Alexander's pattern language has a number of attributes that make it an interesting
candidate for a lingua franca.
Concrete Prototypes: Alexandrian patterns are embodied as concrete
prototypes, rather than abstract principles. Every pattern comes with a name
(generally sufficient to evoke an image), a picture of an archetype of the
pattern, and a diagram of how it is implemented. This is true for patterns
at large scales (e.g., Agricultural Valleys; Ring Roads) and at small
scales (e.g., Thick Walls; Child Caves). Whereas abstract principles
require users of the principles to understand some conceptual framework, and
to be able to map the principles onto their domain of concern, the concrete
prototypes in pattern languages make direct contact with the user's experience.
Anyone who has experience with the situation can quickly understand, discuss,
and contest Alexandrian patterns.
Grounded in the Social: Another characteristic is that the patterns
tend to focus on the interactions between the physical form of the built environment,
and the way in which that inhibits or facilitates various sorts of personal
and social behavior within it. Thus, Street Cafe emphasizes the importance
of the cafe being located along a busy path because this facilitates casual
meetings, people watching, etc. This linkage between the design components
and usage reinforces the concrete, grounded nature of the pattern language.
Expresses Values: Alexander's pattern language is not value neutral.
Patterns such as Individually Owned Shops, Bike Paths and Racks, Farmhouse
Kitchen, and Old Age Cottage all manifest particular values in their names
alone (and more explicitly in their rationales). While this aspect of A
Pattern Language can alarm those who mistakenly believe it to be a universal
prescription for architecture, I see its ability to explicitly express values
as part of its representational power, and as yet another way the language
becomes grounded for its users.
Towards a Workplace Pattern Language
An important aspect of Alexander's pattern language is that its aim is to support
the design of the built environment. In contrast, a pattern language for describing
workplaces has to embrace considerably more than the physical architecture.
What else should such a pattern language include? What would it look like? How
would it be used? The best way to answer such questions would be to develop
a workplace pattern language - however, this is far beyond the scope of this
chapter. Nevertheless, I believe it is instructive to make a small beginning
in order to get a feel for what a language might be like and how it might be
An Example: A Consulting Firm
My point of departure will be a study of a design consulting firm by Bellotti
and Bly . The company works with many clients at the same time, and provides
a wide range of services. Its designers and engineers work on project-oriented
teams (often more than one at a time), which form and reform as new projects
begin and old ones end. The company culture encourages kibitzing and informal
collaborations across team boundaries. The consulting firm is geographically
distributed, and it is not unusual for the members of a project team to be located
in different buildings, or even in different cities. While Bellotti and Bly
did a general study of the company, their report focused on what they called
"local mobility" (the tendency of workers to be away from their desks)
and its impact on collaboration with local and remote coworkers. What I'm going
to do is recast some of their results into pattern language form.
In recasting the results of this study as patterns, a couple of issues immediately
arise. First, it turns out that some of the patterns from Alexander's architectural
pattern language are relevant. For example, the Alexandrian patterns The
Flow Through Rooms and Office Connections discuss the way in which
the interconnection of rooms and the traffic through them can facilitate or
inhibit spontaneous interaction - something that is an issue in Bellotti and
Bly's study. Thus, a workplace pattern language might be able to build on some
of the work that Alexander and his colleagues have already done. However, it
is also clear that new patterns need to be added to describe the consulting
firm offices; for example, a pattern language for this site would need to include
patterns for Model Shop, Central Scanning Station, and Open
Plan Offices, all spaces which play important roles in the life of this
In addition to new patterns describing spatial components of the workplace,
new patterns are needed to describe two other entities: activities and roles.
Activities range from formal events like a Client Presentation, to informal
activities such as Kibitzing. Roles found in this workplace include Manager,
Engineer, Designer, Receptionist, and so on. As with spatial
patterns, patterns for roles and activities would describe the role or activity
itself, its context and rationale, and its relationship to other patterns.
A Sketch of a Consulting firm Pattern Language
Let's look at some of the patterns that could describe the consulting firm.
Because space is limited, I'll summarize the patterns; normally a pattern takes
up several pages, and has a well-defined canonical structure. After describing
a few patterns, and alluding to others, I'll discuss some of the ways in which
a consulting firm pattern language might be used.
The largest scale pattern might be called Consulting Firm: its goal
would be to characterize the consulting business by describing the various forces
which shape it. Thus the pattern would depict the firm's need to act quickly
and flexibly to get, keep, and complete projects, balanced with its need to
do this with a relatively fixed set of human resources, and limited amounts
of time and materials. Consulting Firm would also describe the multiple
clients, simultaneous projects, loose teams, and informal collaborations that
occur in the firm. It would end with pointers to the smaller scale patterns
which support Consulting Firm.
These patterns would include:
Maintaining Mutual Awareness
Bellotti and Bly observed that it was important for designers and engineers
to keep up-to-date with what was going on, regardless of the projects with
which they were involved. This practice helped the company bring a wide range
of expertise to bear on problems, and was a good counterbalance to the potential
inflexibility of project-oriented teams. Maintaining Mutual Awareness
is supported by a number of smaller scale activity patterns, ranging from
Blanket Email (the custom of addressing email messages with questions
or answers to large groups) to Kibitzing, to what one engineer called
Doing a Walkabout (i.e. wandering through the work areas just to see
what others were up to). Maintaining Mutual Awareness was also supported
by spatial patterns such as Open Offices, Model Shop and Central
Locally Mobile Workers
This pattern captures the fact that many engineers and designers spend
considerable time away from their desks, but are still in the general vicinity.
On the one hand, workers are pulled away from their desks by the need to get
access to immobile shared resources such as Model Shop and Central
Scanning Station, or to find local coworkers with whom they need to collaborate.
On the other hand, they are pulled back to their desks by the need to use
desk-based personal resources (PCs, telephones, voice mail) or to collaborate
with remote colleagues. Thus, the engineers and designers spend considerable
time moving about, a fact which - as Bellotti and Bly note - has considerable
consequences for how they accomplish their work. Clearly to the extent that
locally mobile workers encounter others (determined, in part, by Open Offices),
this pattern supports Maintaining Mutual Awareness, at least for coworkers
in the same locale.
Another pattern that goes hand in hand with Locally Mobile Workers is:
Receptionist as Hub
The mobility of many workers produces a need for coordination, a way for
one person to locate another when the need arises. In this workplace Bellotti
and Bly discovered that the receptionist played an important role in keeping
track of people. This arose because her location and continuous presence at
the entrance enabled her to observe the arrivals and departures of people.
This was facilitated by her role as the conference room coordinator, which
resulted in her being aware of the time, location, and composition of meetings.
Finally, some employees, recognizing her role as de facto coordinator,
had adopted the practice of informing her of their anticipated whereabouts.
Many other patterns could be described - Open Offices, Shared Resources,
Kibitzing, Blanket Email, and Doing a Walkabout - but this
is enough to give a flavor of what the consulting firm pattern language would
Let's stop and look at what's emerging here.
First, even in this fragment of a pattern language, we're seeing the basic
characteristics of the Alexandrian language for built environments. We see the
growth of a set of interrelated patterns at multiple scales: Maintaining
Mutual Awareness is supported by Locally Mobile Workers, Kibitzing
and Blanket Email, and Locally Mobile Workers, in turn, is supported
by Receptionist as Hub. These patterns also focus on the interplay between
the social and the physical, as in Receptionist as Hub being facilitated
by the need for a person to coordinate the conference rooms. We also see that
this language embodies values: Kibitzing and Doing a Walkabout
are positive patterns that are supported by this firm's culture; it is easy
to imagine workplaces in which such activities would be frowned up.
Now let's look at some of the ways a consulting firm pattern language might
be used. One use could be to better anticipate the impact of new systems on
the consulting firm. For instance, imagine that the consulting firm is considering
the purchase of an automatic scheduling system. While the first order effects
of this might be to reduce the receptionist's workload and to provide employees
with more immediate access to room scheduling, Receptionist as Hub suggests
that such a change might have less beneficial second order effects: reducing
the receptionist's involvement in meeting scheduling might well reduce her effectiveness
in keeping track of employees whereabouts. Similarly, switching from open offices
to closed ones would clearly have impact Maintaining Mutual Awareness
and Kibitzing. The point here is not that these patterns and their relationships
should be used to reject or approve changes, but rather that they can be used
as a language for discussing changes and reflecting on their possible impacts.
Another use of the consulting firm pattern language would be as a starting
point for understanding a different type of workplace. Patterns from the consulting
firm language can be sought in other types of workplaces. For example, a design
team charged with implementing a new system in a hotel might, beginning with
the consulting firm language, investigate the extent to which Locally Mobile
Workers was present. If so, the workplace pattern language developed for
consulting firms becomes a rich source of questions and hypotheses: What are
the forces that sustain the Locally Mobile Workers pattern in this context
- are they similar to those in the consultancy domain? In the consulting firm
language, Locally Mobile Workers is supported by Receptionist as Hub
- how do workers in the hotel domain achieve coordination? And so on.
Finally, we can see how, over time, the consulting firm pattern language might
be generalized. For example, the design team studying the hotel might find that
hotel workers achieve coordination primarily by means of shared objects, like
bulletin boards and work sheets, rather than by relying on a person. The design
team might devise a Coordination Object pattern that captures their findings,
and also the findings of other researchers (for example, other coordination
objects in the literature are flight strips in air traffic control , navigation
charts in ship piloting , and time tables in control rooms for the London
Underground ). Over time we might see the development of a large scale pattern,
Activity Coordination that can be supported by either artifacts (Coordinating
Objects) or by social roles (Coordinator).
Design is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary. Neither 'designers' nor
'end users' are homogenous groups; they lack common disciplines, practices,
and conceptual frameworks. All that we can realistically expect those involved
in design to share is access to the situation for which they are designing.
As a consequence, pattern languages, with their emphasis on embodying design
knowledge as a network of concrete prototypes, have the potential to serve as
a lingua franca for workplace design.
One question that might be posed is what advantages pattern languages offer
over the more traditional means of presenting the results of workplace studies.
In the course of this chapter, I've suggested the following:
- Patterns, especially smaller scale patterns, are more concrete, more tightly
bound to the situation at hand, and thus more accessible to an audience that
lacks a common disciplinary framework.
- Recasting the results of workplace studies as a network of interrelated
patterns results in the modularization of workplace knowledge, and thus makes
it easier to take a subset of a pattern language and apply it to a new type
- This modularization also makes pattern languages more amenable to generalization
However, the most important advantage is a side effect of the form of representation.
I believe that patterns are most likely be created, developed, and utilized
by an audience that is largely distinct from those who read and write research
papers. The fact is that the communicative goals of pattern languages and research
papers are quite different. The values that underlie research, and lead to the
publication or rejection of workplace studies, have to do with accuracy, careful
examination and analysis of particular cases, and new contributions to the literature.
However design teams faced with a new workplace and a short schedule have considerably
more pragmatic needs. They need information that can be mastered quickly, applied
to new situations, and used as a basis for dialog with their users. While researchers
may, with full justice, be wary of the simplification and generalization encouraged
by casting workplace research as patterns - this is precisely what design teams
need. If pattern languages can assist design teams in communicating effectively
with their users, noticing connections between activities and artifacts that
would have been otherwise missed, or simply decrease the time between encountering
a workplace and being able to ask useful questions, they will be a boon to design.
Thanks are due to Victoria Bellotti, Paul Dourish, Beki Grinter, Don Norman,
Lucy Suchman, John Thomas, Mike Tschudy, and David Warren for comments on and
discussions of various aspects of this paper. I am indebted to two architects,
Dale Mulfinger and Robert Boylin, who spent considerable time providing me with
practicing architects' perspectives on Alexander's pattern language, as well
as helping me to understand its reception and use by layfolk and by professional
architects. Finally, discussions in the CHI '97 Workshop on Interaction Pattern
Languages deepened my understanding of these issues.
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