Category Archives: Week 4

Communication & Human-Centered Design

Semiotics is the study of sign and symbol systems and their media of implementation. When we consider the context in which design is studied for cognitive-symbolic technologies in this class we can make inferences on how communication plays an essential role in both enabling design for both the designer and the user of designed technology

What we are trying to achieve and how are we going to achieve it might be two good questions to ask when thinking about human-centered design. Knowing how humans communicate and the conditions that are central to achieving understanding is important in this case. We must also consider how language (including signs and gestures) is changing the way we communicate – with ourselves first and then with technology because symbolic cognition fundamentally means ‘to represent to oneself, the thing through words and without forming a representation of the thing itself’. It is easy to observe how technological advancements have shown great desire to help us articulate and communicate even more consciously taking the way we think (cognition in the brain) and using this as a framework for making representations of everyday signs, reflexes, and languages that we use for communication. These are then crafted into the core functions and operations of many technologies with hopes that we can replicate human functions in technology. 


When we look at computational and media technologies as “cognitive technologies” or “symbolic-cognitive artifacts” we are putting our human needs in front and combining how we might experience the designed technology a lot deeper than the push of a button. For example, in designing a smart home one can assume the need to switch off/on several lights without walking around to many switches placed around the home –  how would you rather switch lights off/on more conveniently? The technology stays the same (switches are switches) but the experience considers how to switch lights off/on more conveniently and here we embed motion sensors or use hand gestures as in the case for wireless switches or other ‘smart’ switch technology.

“The tools which man has invented are powerful influences in determining the course of civilized life. Through the long ages, while man has been inventing tools and learning to use them, his mode of individual reaction has been undergoing a change” C. H. Judd (1926). This statement helps explain why we might feel connected to old methods in news forms when appreciating new/ modern technology since the only thing changing is how we do things and not the things we are doing. A technology like Uber Eats App or a Period tracker enables personalization over time to imitate the user’s choices all recorded by the user and calculated ( this refers to computation in cognitive-symbolic technologies) to match our reality. Using the regular/normal process in a backward flow, we can see how these apps are now considering human needs at the core of their design.



Michael Cole, On Cognitive Artifacts From Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. pg 109

Leont’ev A.N (?1979) The making of mind: A personal account of Soviet psychology. M Cole & S.Cole, Eds. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Andy Clark, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extention (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2008)

Smart Switches as ‘artefacts’

The extension of cognitive function

Jun Nie

Before the development of cameras and mobile phones, people could only rely on their senses and cognitive abilities when they traveled abroad. Saw with the eyes, touched with the hands, listened with the ears and stored all the collected information in the brain as memories. In order to improve the accuracy and efficiency of memorizing, people would repeatedly reproduce what they have seen in their travels by writing diaries, drawing pictures, or communicating with others. By contrast, nowadays, travelers have more reliable cognitive tools. The camera can accurately restore the details of the scene, the massive storage of the mobile phone expands the capacity of the human brain. When we can’t help taking lots of photos during the journey, these devices work as externalization and extension of our senses, fundamentally changing the nature and meaning of “travel”. Before, people only could share stories with families in oral after going home, but the social applications within cellphone provide us diverse channels to communicate with others instantly. During the process, language can help us to embody perceptions in the form of symbols, then organize into concrete texts which can be understood by others exactly.

The film is a collection of multiple cognitive faculties, such as language, space, music and image. Take animated films as an example, the protagonist of “Paddington Bear” is a virtual image constructed by multiple symbols. In order to create a typical “British gentleman image”, the designer extracts symbolic features from the local culture and carries out an organic combination of visual elements. During the process of watching, people interpret these symbolic elements and gradually build a symbolic impression of British characteristics in their mind. In the social range, a universal recognition or cultural consensus will be established. It can be said that symbols generally exist in every period of our cognitive process. The interpretation of natural and social phenomena, the storage of concepts, the extraction of memories and the retelling of contents cannot be separated from the participation of symbols. In essence, “culture” is a symbol system that has accumulated and enriched in the long history.

Computer and media technology are not the inspiration of a genius, but the externalization and extension of people’s cognitive ability, which is constantly modified, reorganized and integrated in the process of historical development, providing us with more powerful tools to interpret, process and transmit symbols. I want to have a further discussion about the “degeneration” of human sensory after delegating cognitive function to cognitive artifacts. For example, if we take a lot of photos during the trip, the memory stored in our mind will become blurred, and we can’t even contact our closest friends without our mobile phone address book. What are the disadvantages of relying too much on cognitive technologies?

Michael Cole, On Cognitive Artifacts, From Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Andy Clark, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2008)

The hidden archaeology

One of the concepts the weekly readings illustrated was that, historical human activities of making symbolic tools and the processes of learning how to use them from preceding generations to succeeding generations provide a firm ground for human’s symbolic-cognitive intelligence later on, as human beings keep re-arranging the information or skills generated by the ancestors and re-creating new artifacts that inadvertently yet somehow inevitably perpetuate the pattern of the indirect mode of actions.

Be the purposes to cater for human’s craving for convenience or simply making more profits, artifacts are never plainly artificial components put together by automated machines. As Michael Cole pointed out in his excerpt, artifacts are well nourished by both their material and conceptual nature. This is true when we start to question the most common artifacts we are conversant with in retrospect, “why are mobile phones of the size of a hand? How come the shape is a compressed cuboid instead of preexistent parts jointed?”. Interestingly, the answers to these questions are also ideological outputs that we took for granted. We can no longer see the world before all the questions were contemplated earlier in history, just like we no longer see the world we saw as an infant. In a word, we cannot un-know the knowns. We have been so immersed in the artifacts that carried on along the human culture, from language we acquire to the physical black boxes we manipulate on a daily basis, that it is sometimes easy for us to obscure the ideal side of them.

Unraveling the ideal side of artifacts under the cover of physical instruments is as vital to the development of the artifacts themselves as it is to the gradual modifications of human culture. From the very beginning, humans created tools mainly to deal with the impending situations. Blades, grindstones, fishing tools, for example, were invented for the dire need of survival; as humans evolved, or more specifically, as human thoughts started to engage with deeper concerns, the intents surpassed secular needs and moved to a more future-oriented direction. From “how to make fire to roast a dead serpent” to “how to take photos and make phone calls in one device”, the impact of modern artifacts has culminated in changing human behaviors, including interpersonal interactions and intrapersonal reflections, which are inseparable constituents of human culture, the efforts of mankind ought not to be forgotten.

By creating and renovating artifacts, humans create a unique culture different from those of any other creatures. Now, the process of cultural modifications seems unprecedentedly speedy, because the cognition of artifacts is a snowball technique, the more tools we maneuver, the more tasks we can accomplish. That being said, this is a picture-perfect conception only when presumably executions we have done to the world converge with the evaluations we eventually make, when every move of us represents a cognitive and conscious decision, when evaluations are not so much based off of human insatiable desires. We stand on one end of the rope, we pull, from the systematic perspective, we were manipulating the artifact to get to our purposes at the other end. But from personal view, is it, in fact, the other way around?


Michael Cole, On Cognitive Artifacts, From Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. Connected excerpts.

Donald A. Norman, “Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll, 17-38. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Read pp. 17-23.

Mind-transforming cognitive artifact: from language to emoji

Xiebingqing Bai

The language we use every day is a kind of cognitive artifact, which mediate us both with the external world and other people. The core generative feature of natural language is the open combinatoriality, rendering the possibility for people to redesign and reinterpret. One thing embodies this combinatoriality is the popularity of emoji.

In this modern age, emoji comes to serve as an aid for language. Within online communication, emoji is integral to text but has become a new cognitive artifact which is used very frequently. Just as language, emoji is associated with different social contexts, and the same emoji could mean differently in diverse areas. The main reason we constantly use emoji is online chatting lacks dialogue context so that the uncertainty of meaning increases accordingly. Emoji can alleviate this uncertainty as a more concrete symbol. What interesting is the emotion expressed in online-chatting emoji is always much more intense than the way we express ourselves in offline conversation. For instance, if one friend says something hilarious to us face-to-face, we may just show a smile for one second. But if it happens online, most of us may send a very exaggerated emoji such as laughing to cry as a response rather than just sending an emoji with slight smile. That’s also because we need an exaggerated expression to avoid misunderstanding resulting in that context uncertainly online. And if we see the whole process in a system view, the emoji as a cognitive artifact also modifies human’s cognitive capability. According to Donald A. Norman, artifacts could enhance human ability by changing intensity and changing nature. I think as for emoji, it works in both these two ways. Firstly, it increases the intensity of emotion expression in our online conversation. Secondly, it changes the nature of online conversation from text to image-oriented, and it could be a still image or a gif.

If we look back into earlier ages, actually we have a long history of using visual information to serve cognitive functions such as conveying our ideas and expressions and informing others some messages, from the ancient totem to transportation sign. Images can always serve cognitive functions better because it have richer information and more concrete context. As what Andy Clark says, language itself is a form of mid-transforming cognitive scaffolding, and the same as image. In these recent decades, the popularity of images and videos on mass media really make us less willing and attentive to read text. In the process of sending emoji, we are actually practicing the transformation this cognitive artifact has exerted on us.


Kate Wong, “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292, no. 6 (June 2005)

Michael Cole, On Cognitive Artifacts, From Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Donald A. Norman, “Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll, 17-38. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Andy Clark, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2008)

How cognitive artifacts mediate between the human and the social world

Zijing Wang

Cognitive artifacts functions as a bridge connecting human minds and the outside world. They reveal human cognitive performance and present it in other forms. From Kate Wong’s article, modern technologies, which based on human beings’ symbolic capabilities, are just improvement inherited from earlier tools. Like the camera, people usually remember and describe what they have seen, but using a camera helps them deepen the impression and record images. Pictures contributes a lot when sharing with others. Before inventing the camera, people draw down what they want to express. Camera display imagination function and enhance human’s memory and expression capabilities.

Another example is the calculator. Calculator make mathematics problems easier. By inputting numbers and choosing methods, we can get the answers at nearly a second. Without a calculator, we can still figure out mathematics problems but only slower. Calculator improve our cognition on math notation.

Considering computational and media technologies as “cognitive technologies” help us better understand the secrets of those technologies. Firstly, it develops a variety of computational opportunities and provides a more accessible path when analyzing the algorithm of these technologies. No matter how complicated these technologies are, they all intend to enhancing human cognitive abilities. So the cognitive technologies view help people understanding abstract patterns and thus better de-BlackBox techniques, which encourage people to create new technologies.

Secondly, it connects technologies with the social world of human beings. Machines don’t exist isolation; they interact with daily human life and become a part of human cognitive capabilities. Only when regarding those machines as symbolic-cognitive artifacts, can we fully understand their design principles.

Thirdly, considering technologies as cognitive artifacts can foresee the benefits and dangers of these technologies. From the system view, cognitive artifacts improve human cognition. From the personal view, the artifact does not enhance perception but change the mission into learning new methods. Human and cognitive technology intermingle and change each other. For example, many people think by implanting chips into the brain, they will be able to upgrade human memory and cognition on a large scale. However, from a personal perspective, cognitive artifacts in different positions mean different ways of accomplishing tasks. The external computer provides the user with a data access interface through which the user can operate the information extraction process and determine the value of the extracted information. It is not clear what form of interface the implanted chips will have to access data. In other words, implanted microchips in the brain means a different kind of cognition, and implementing the new method is not as simple as changing the size and location of an out-of-body computer. We need to pay more attention to the results when applying these technologies on human.

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Cognitive Artefacts for Design Thinking”

Kate Wong, “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292, no. 6 (June 2005): 86-95.

Michael Cole, On Cognitive Artifacts, From Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Donald A. Norman, “Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll, 17-38. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Accumulative cognitive advances in human development and product designing

Xueying Duan

This week’s readings partly remind me of what we discussed in week 2 about the artifacts created by humans and served us as enhanced “tools” on a specific environment or function. However, this week’s articles enrich my understanding of artifacts as “continuum of accumulative cognitive advances” during the development of human beings. What impressed me most this week is the term “cultural mediation”. How can we simply regard everything human created from primitive to modern as tools to cope with the difficulties happened around us. Human created language, which might be the greatest invention across every species down the ages, as a unique intelligence to communicate, record, trade and develop different cultures here and there. Humans also invented fire first as a tool to heat raw food and at a time worked as a bridge and gift to maintain harmony with neighboring tribes and finally turned to weapons and power in technology inventions. Not only does the position of artifacts change as time goes by, but they are also rearranged due to the cognition of humans that posit them differently. As the meditational triangle mentions: the meditational means has an impact on how the subject (human) consider the usage of object (tools) under different context and time period. The use of artifacts and signs has always linked with human activity.

Take Wikipedia as a common example for “Cognitive artifact” which I regard as an encyclopedia plus digital technologies in modern society. Although Wikipedia does not exist until recent years, but its users could be found all over the world nowadays. We now can find more than 5,935,000 articles related to different subjects in different languages all in a sudden. There’s no doubt that it has become an online library that plays the role of traditional library but can we reach it no matter what time and space it is. During its development, we can see people keep updating those articles and improve its immediacy as well as accuracy. And it has also carried the function as community or forum where people can share/implement their own ideas. Moreover, it surprisingly balance the relationship between the privacy of each person as well as regulating their behavior in anonymous commenting and viewing.

Another example is Amazon Prime, which combines the membership which can provide customers with products in a high discount with fulfilling people’s need for fast delivery at one time. Also, it has now developed a wide range of services including TV programs, songs, books and are developing business cooperation with Whole Food, bank services and so on. The mobile payment technology and some recommendation algorithm plus those functions enable its platform to carry and integrate people’s daily needs in one simple APP/platform. This cannot be achieved without collecting people’s “historical psychology” for a long time. We can use Norman’s two views to analyze the evolution: From system view, we think the development of Amazon Prime has improved the efficiency of people’s lives as the installation of online payment and function integrity has saved our time which was distributed more separately before. From a personal view, the integrated and the accessibility has changed our daily habit, and for a designer, he can even use this innovation on the updating and optimizing other internet product.


Michael Cole, On Cognitive Artifacts, From Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. Connected excerpts.

Donald A. Norman, “Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll, 17-38. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Kate Wong, “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292, no. 6 (June 2005): 86-95.

Understand Our Technologies from a New Angle

After this week’s reading, I know that cognitive technologies are those that connect human’s mind with outside world and construct a loop between our body and task, within interaction in environment. Cognitive-symbolic artifacts are embodiment of cognitive technology, symbols and humans’ mind. By using these technologies and artifacts, humans sacrifice parts of their brain’s function, however, in my opinion, the gain outweigh the pay. They further help us address tasks in an easier and more understandable way.

Symbolic-cognitive artifacts appear hundreds of thousands of years ago, and nowadays they exist everywhere in our daily life. They already become parts of our culture and our mind. Computational and media technologies brought by informational and technological revolution constitute important and even necessary part of our work, study and life. Can you imagine your life without any media? Take television as an example. From this “black box”, we can watch soap operas, talk shows, sports event and etc. These television shows happen across time and there are many kinds of technology behind these shows to product them, including video shooting and edition, voice recording and computer processing. These technologies help human store their voice and image, making these symbols not restrict to our mind and body, and coming out to be stored in artifacts so that they can exist beyond time and reach to different people-beyond environment.  In this sense, we understand the artifact television better because we not just see it as a machine- a mechanically, electrically, or electronically operated device for performing a task as described in Merriam Webster Dictionary-but also see the deeper meaning inside it: it represents our mind, our voice, our image and our memory and further keeps them without threat of time and disseminates them without limitation of distance.

“Cognitive technologies” and “symbolic-cognitive artifacts” also help us understand the design principle of computational and media technologies. From the definition of cognitive technology mentioned above, we know that once we look something as an artifact, we can analyze it with the whole system which includes human’s body and mind, outside environment and the interaction between them. The design principle, for example, “constraints” limits interaction between us and artifact. In this way, it decreases the rate of error. In contrast, the design principle “visibility” amplifies the interaction between them. Designers should design products based on conceptual model because it will help human build an interaction with products. They should also design products with consideration of their surrounding environment to make sure that user could interact with the product in a proper way. Kindle can be a good example to illustrate these principles and show us why understanding media and computational technologies from cognitive an artifact’s angle is better. Kindle’s design is quite simple, with only one button, one interface and one black-white screen. This simple hardware design helps users avoid mistakes since there are no more choices for us to insert or touch. Besides, the screen is of reasonable size so that we could read it with more comfort. Kindle is also very light and we can hold it on hand for an hour without feeling our wrist painful, which provides us better user experience than reading paper books. There is no certain environment where we use Kindle because we don’t read books in a certain place in most situations. That’s way Kindle is designed to be portable in order to meet our habit. If kindle is analyzed merely as a machine, it will be difficult for us to understand its relationship with us and the design principle behind it.

In sum, understanding media and technologies as cognitive technologies and symbol artifacts will give us a new angle to analyze the technologies around us and reconsider not only our interaction and relationship between them, but also step forward to another level about design principle.



Donald A. Norman, “Cognitive Artifacts.” Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Andy Clark, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2008.

Kate Wong, “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292, no. 6: 86-95. 2005.

Cognitive Artifacts and Pre-Inscription

Donald Norman’s delineation between the personal and the system view of a cognitive artifact provokes some interesting questions which may be helpful in further consideration of design thinking. The most interesting of these questions, however, may be his assertion that a cognitive artifact might only be conceived of as “extending cognition” from the system view. From the personal view, Norman argues, the artifact does not extend cognition, it merely changes the task by delegating the original task to the object and requiring a new task of the user. By focusing on the latter insight, I believe Norman implies some interesting design insights.

First and foremost, it harkens back to a similar concept which Bruno Latour (under the pseudonym Jim Johnson) introduced several years prior to Norman’s publication: pre-inscription. Latour situates this concept among a number of others which describe the relationships of humans and objects, but pre-inscription in particular has to do with the idea that all cognitive artifacts require some level of learning or work before they can be used by human actors. This pre-inscription can be nearly invisible (like the learning needed for use of a hammer) — we call this intuitive design — or it can be entirely visible and require a great deal of concentration (like the learning needed to understand writing). When it is visible, because the user must focus on the pre-inscription, the user is much more aware of the fact that, as Norman would say, the task has been changed, or as Latour would say, the action has been delegated.

It seems that with a combined view of Latour and Norman, we can understand how complex computational media ought to be designed in order to achieve maximum efficiency on the systems and the personal level. Most simply, successful design of computational media most certainly need to take into account the burden of pre-inscription as well as the actually efficacy of the artifact in relation to the task for which it was designed. In other words, if the designer does not ask, “what must the user now learn to do as a result of the design of this artifact,” he or she runs the risk of designing a product which requires more learning by pre-inscription than toil otherwise required by actual action. I think of a product like Microsoft Excel, which, while extremely powerful, requires a great amount of pre-inscription. For most people, the amount of learning required to master Excel dwarfs the actual amount of time they spend on Excel (or spend googling how to achieve certain functions or asking colleagues the same questions). The way the task is changed via the cognitive artifact requires more exertion from the user than the unaltered task of data entry into cells, so people only use that capacity. Most simply, the dichotomy Norman draws here implies that design of cognitive artifacts are most effective when the exerted effort required by the new task is significantly less than the effort required without the artifact, either in a single instance, or as made evident over time. For some artifacts, like Excel, this imbalance is necessary. However, for those concerned with user-centered design, it ought to be one of their foremost considerations.


Norman, D. (1991) “Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll, 17-38. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press

Johnson, J. (1988). Mixing Humans and Non-Humans Together. Social Problems 35, 298–310.

Cognitive Artifacts: From Paper Books to EBooks

“The special characteristics of human enable them to create artifacts that enhance their life.” From engravement on stones, to ink on parchments, books, a mile-stone artifact created by human, represents human developments. Books, paperback or electronic, as cognitive artifacts support nearly all parts of human symbolic system, from languages and writings to images and information visualization.

System View and Personal View of Books and EBooks

For a system viewer, books help human record and spread knowledge, information and memories, which further enhances human memories and improves their learning outcomes, deepening their cognition of the world.  Initially, books function as a recorder. They not only recording people’s ideas, imaginations, deductions, but also archive past events of a society and a culture. Then, books with educational purpose become text books, aiding people’s memorization and study process; books of people’s thoughts become fictions, enriching people’s life and spiritual world. They translate what seems abstract and invisible (thoughts) to concrete human cognitive symbols (graphics, languages, scientific models).

Analyzing books from a personal view, recording, learning and disseminating information is a task for human. Without them, it is impossible for human to complete the task: remembering all events, knowledge and their thoughts becomes difficult, do not even mention archiving and spreading them to other cultures (horizontally) and passing them to the next generation (vertically). Books replace such task, and create new tasks, such as constructing books, buying books, reading and interpreting books, for human.

As for eBooks, their system view includes what all books can do plus making reading more convenient, which further improving the efficiency of information spreading. The personal view is that eBooks replace people’s task of finding books in library and book shops to choose books from a digital library by interacting with an interface.

EBooks: Media technologies as “cognitive technologies”

EBooks transform the action of reading books from a physical-based action to a digital-based  action. Considering eBooks as “cognitive technologies” highlights the purpose of its invention and the balance between human and the world as well as the virtual and the real world. Books directly engage with human, since they create, read and touch books in person; books give them direct feedback involving human symbols, such as graphics, languages, scientific models etc., as well. Based on the action circle, creating books is what human do to the world. Meanwhile, they want reading to be faster, cheaper as well as more convenient, flexible and achievable. They also want to promote the interactivity among readers. Here come the eBooks. They function as a virtual world between human and the real books. In comparison, the term “manufactured products” sounds isolated and dead, because it makes technologies less meaningful by cutting their connection with human cognition.


Donald A. Norman (1991), “Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll, 17-38. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press

Andy Clark (2008), Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension ,New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA.