Making Tea and the Semantic Web

Abstract. Making Tea is a design elicitation method developed specifically to
deal with situations in which (1) the designers do not share domain or artefact
knowledge with design-domain experts, (2) the processes in the space are semi-
structured and (3) the processes to be modeled can last for periods exceeding
the availability of most ethnographers. We propose a set of criteria in order to
understand why Making Tea worked. Through this criteria we also reflect upon
the relation of Making Tea to other design elicitation methods in order to pro-
pose a kind of method framework from which other designers may be assisted
in choosing elicitation methods and in developing new methods.

Download paper here, by Monica Schraefel and Alan Dix.

I periodically check up on Alan’s homepage at Lancaster University and have a read through any papers he has made available. Earlier today I found an interesting looking paper entitled: Within Bounds and Between Domains: Reflecting on Making Tea within the Context of Design Elicitation Methods – the abstract for which I have transcribed above.

Just reading the title made me smile as I recalled many an evening spent listening to Alan talking to me about an idea, or helping me understand something I was struggling with, all over a cup of tea (actually usually over several cups of tea!). I wasn’t sure what to expect from this paper, but I’m glad I read it, it proved invaluable for a number of reasons but primarily because it actually led me back to the Semantic Web, and some of the work we are doing at Talis. Whilst on the face of it this assertion might sound somewhat tenuous but maybe it isn’t … as I’ll try to illustrate briefly(ish)…

The paper describes some of the history behind an attempt by a group of computer scientists to design a digital version of a synthetic chemists lab book. However because the computer scientists were not experts in the domain or had very little experience in chemistry they struggled to understand the process that the chemists followed. Whilst they could observe the chemists doing their job and glean some information through interviewing them they simply could not understand the critical issue with reference to the lab books – when, how and why certain things were recorded and others were not. If your trying to create a digital replacement it’s absolutely imperative that you can understand what it is the user is doing and why. It’s at this point that Making Tea became so important …

In frustration, among the team of Canadian and British computer scientists and
chemists, the group made tea, a process embraced by both nations for restoring the
soul. It was at this point that the chemist-turned-software-engineer on the team said
“Making tea is much like doing an experiment.” The rest is history. The design team
took up the observation and used making tea to model the process of both carrying
out an experiment and recording it. To wit, the team’s chemist make tea multiple
times: first using well understood kitchen implements, where questions were asked
like “why did you not record that?” “You just did 20 steps to get the tea ready to pour,
yet you’ve only written down “reflux.” Why?” From kitchen implements, the team
moved to chemistry apparatus set up in the team’s design space. From there the team
moved to the chemistry lab. The results of the exchanges in these spaces informed the
design process. Indeed, they also informed the validation process: design reviews with
chemists in various positions, from researchers to managers to supervisors, were car-
ried out by making tea, and demonstrating how the artefact worked in the tea-making
experimental process. This time it was the chemists’ turn to interrupt the presentation
with questions about the artefact and their process.

The paper goes on to describe why ‘Making Tea’ worked so well as a design elicitation/validation method. I won’t provide a summary comparing it to other methodologies (you can read the paper for that) but I will summarise the four criteria that Monica and Alan identified that made it so successful in this example.

  1. Neutral Territory: Making Tea created a neutral space that was not owned by either the system designers or the domain experts – the intended users of the application. In a smiliar vain (although not exactly the same) having a neutral space you can go to to carry out design elicitation activities has proven hugely beneficial in our own experience at Talis. I have seen that removing ourselves from our offices or normal environment to spend time as part of a multi disciplinary team to focus on understanding and designing a solution to a problem both helps to focus us and place everyone on an equal footing in an alien environment. It also forces us to come together … thats important.
  2. Boundary Representation: When the problem domain is understood by both designers and users this forms a point of contact or reference that both groups feel comfortable with, and can relate to each other – it not only offered a way for domain experts to describe their tasks and activities, but also one where software engineers could offer back potential new designs
  3. Disruption: By being similar yet different from the actual process being represented, Making Tea forced the users to reflect on their tacit activities. To my mind this should be simple to appreciate for anyone who has ever pair programmed. When you constantly have someone asking you what your doing, asking you to talk through your thought processes, as disruptive as it might seem it actually forces you to reflect on what your doing. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ll start to explain a piece of code I’m writing to someone, and then find that the actual processes of having to articulate what I’m doing reveals very quickly that I’m doing something wrong or failing to see the bigger picture.
  4. Time Compression: Making Tea reduced the time taken for a normal ex-
    periment into a period that could be completed in a participatory session
    .The net effect of this is at facilitates rapid iteration of both observation of processes and each design. This sits quite well with the Agile mantra of rapid iteration and constant feedback.

I guess I like Making Tea, this entire metaphor feels very comfortable. It also got me thinking about some of the work I’ve been doing at Talis. I’ve been spending a fair amount of time looking at ontologies to represent different kinds of knowledge. Most recently Rob and I have been looking at how to model Workflow’s in RDF … it doesn’t sound particularly tea-like yet I can’t help but think that our current efforts to try and get closer to our users and also others working in this domain is going to help us understand what we are trying to build far better than trying to be purely academic in our approach to researching this area.

Now back to the tenuous Semantic Web link I mentioned earlier. Monica is working at Southampton University on a number of their semantic web projects. She was/is the Project Lead on MyTea, which tried to re-imagine the original work that the Smart Tea Project team mentioned in the paper did in building a digital lab book. What the MyTea project attempted to do was enhance the original work by integrating the tool with Semantic Technologies and what the folks down in Southampton refer to as The Semantic Grid ( they also run an active project called myGrid which appears to bring all this together ):

The Semantic Web and Semantic Grid, however, are motivating a possible sea change in the way scientists make their work available. With the Semantic Grid, a Web-based technology for sharing data and computation, scientists can share information in richer forms than traditional lab books and publishing has allowed. They will be able to make rafts of data generated in experiments available to other scientists, and to the public for compariosn exploration and study; they can share analyses of information and collaborate in new ways.

Now I’m not sure what the current status of either of the projects is since the paper was originally written in 2005, and the sites don’t look like they have been updated in a while other than myGrid. from my perspective im interested in the work flow modelling they talk about. Yet in additon to that there is something that does touch on what we are trying to do at Talis in building a platform that facilitates this notion of a Web of Linked Data – how to find ways of enriching existing applications by providing the means to link data together in ways that have never really been possible before. We have already seen the amazing things we can do with data and applications when you fundamentally accept that what we are talking about is not a technology change as such, but rather a complete paradigm shift.

This post does feel a bit strange due to the somewhat tenuous links and a bit of tangential reasoning but it’s forcing me to reflect on something I’m struggling to articulate at the moment … but that’s not a bad thing.