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Using activity mapping and placeholders to analyse vulnerability


Activity mapping, placeholder, ethnography, vulnerability, responsibility


In trying to understand human error it is clear that we must also pay attention to how people and systems work together, i.e. how people work with the available technology and artefacts, under pressure, within practical constraints and in unforeseen circumstances. We are developing a method of process assessment in socio-technical systems that will uncover vulnerable areas in order to produce a method for identifying potential failures and pressure points at the design stage of a system. Our aim is to produce a method through which designers could build systems with a greater awareness of the context of the real life setting in which they will be deployed.

Our approach is being applied to a number of scenarios from our ethnographic fieldwork in hospitals: bed management, waiting list management, the multiple responsibilities of directorate managers. Ethnography uncovers the ways in which people actually work, under all sorts of constraints, and gives examples of situations that may be seen as ‘smooth-running’ but which, subject to scrutiny, uncover a range of areas for process vulnerability analysis. Staff routinely, in this and other settings, work with ‘flawed’ information systems without major disasters happening.

Using both the contents of our fieldwork reports and existing artefacts within a hospital setting we will show how activity mapping can be used as a technique to illustrate the temporal flow of stages, people and elements of a system and identify potential weaknesses in the work process. We will use the example of some of the processes involved in getting an orthopaedic patient be seen by a consultant to identify ‘essential’ activities, key personnel involved and processes are that are vulnerable to failure. Our focus is on placeholders as a means of recovery. Placeholders are things in a process which prompt its completion, for example, stages in a process that have to be remembered or which depend on the presence of an individual or are prompted by attention to diaries, calendars, wall charts etc.


Overview of the activity mapping technique

Example: analysing vulnerable processes in New Orthopaedic Patient (NOP) treatment


Devina Ramduny-Ellis (devina at comp dot lancs dot ac dot uk)

Karen Clarke (k dot m dot clarke at lancaster dot ac dot


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