The trees that hide in the forest

Sometimes when we make studies on a work environment, e.g., as a preparation for software development, there seems to be a tendency to overlook the smaller things; things that actually have a greater effect on the work situation than we might think at a first glance. There is, of course, never any doubt that big software systems will play a big role in a person’s work over the day. When there are problems with these, this often causes large breaks in the workflow and are (hopefully) sorted out fairly quickly. But there are also many small things; those annoying nuances that might not be causing disasters, but merely make a person frustrated in the long run. These smaller inconveniences are often not detected or considered in the cognitive workspace design.

The idea of a cognitive, ergonomic work context was widely discussed in the 1980’s. (c.f., Hagert, Hansson and Oestreicher, 1987, Wærn 1988) . However, the overall combination of software systems as a work environment seems today to be stressed mostly as an issue of incompatibility, e.g. causing unnecessary copying and processing of data and similar issues. Even if we manage to make the systems compatible and exchanging the data between themselves there are many other environmental factors that will still be affecting the cognitive work context negatively. These factors are sometimes well hidden in the work procedures and may be difficult to assess for software designers, and sometimes they are actually not even software issues but rather involving advanced hardware solutions.

During our previous study visits at a hospital, there were many small things happening that were hardly noticeable, but which at the same time constituted important factors in the work situation. In some cases, these small things were not directly concerned with the software systems used (although it is possible to see some of them as relevant to the overall software systems design), but proper workspace design might actually include these parts in the larger software network.

Just after Easter, in 2018, I was hospitalised for a week with an evil strand of pneumonia. Apart from being sick it also meant an interesting and close view of the nurses’ work context and the tools that they used. Since I was actually a real patient (albeit of an observing kind) I think that the nurses were more relaxed than during the earlier study visit. So, I started to observe several things that happened all around me and in this and some following articles I will go through some of the ideas that fell well into the work context situation.

One thing that was quite apparent, both in the study visits and during my week-long stay at a clinic, was the fragmented workflow for the nurses. Among the ordinary work tasks, there were many local interruptions, from alarms for a certain patients medical condition (mostly false ones, but more about this later), to calls for non-urgent requests from patients for water, tending or other less acute matters. Also, there were incoming medical transports and phone calls which, although part of the work, often tended to interrupt the nurses in their work. This kind of phenomenon is very difficult to catch in a work design study since it more or less requires a longer period of observation in order to properly judge its significance for the work. In this way, we tend to see the forest (of tasks) as a single unit, whereas the nurses instead are working on all the small trees and shrubs (of smaller activities) that actually constitute it.

Another factor that has appeared is that while the design of the main computer systems often is very thoroughly prepared, both in terms of requirements on the software and the hardware, much less effort seems to be spent on the personal software and hardware(!). This means that even if we get very advanced software systems on the ward, the personal equipment often seems to be pretty much left out of the equation. Essentially, this is also very similar to working hard on defining the forest, but lacking the ability to see all the trees making it up.

In my following blogs, I will try to disseminate these issues into a few more concrete examples of this and even make some suggestions for how to proceed and also enhance the situation at a hospital ward with these observations as a base.

Lars Oestreicher,
DISA

(this blogpost is also published on my personal blogpage: moomindad.wordpress.com)

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