Analyzing everyday cognitive artefacts

Victoria Gomes-Boronat

According to Cole, a cognitive artefact is, “an aspect of the material world that has been modified over the history of its incorporation into goal-directed human action,” (117). The keyword “goal” is what allowed this week’s readings to finally click for me. I couldn’t help but think of Trello, the organization website that my consulting firm uses to assign tasks, store information/media for clients, and keep clients updated on progress and updates. The website’s and application’s design is optimized to help users meet their personal and professional goals.

Trello descends from the memory and performance aid that we call a “to-do list”. Its design resembles a typical stacked to-do list, and you are able to mark the level of progress, due date, and who the task is assigned to for each task. You can also include descriptions, media attachments, and links in the tasks for further aid.

As you can see, you are able to create stacked to-do lists. However, you can also use that functionality to create a list of resources.

Looking at Trello through the system view, you would see it as a memory aid that enhances performance, however, through the lens of the personal view, Trello would actually be changing the user’s task. As norman explains,

The use of a list instead of unaided memory introduces three new tasks, the first performed ahead of time, and the other two at the time the action is to be done:

  1. The construction of the list;
  2. Remembering to consult the list;
  3. Reading and interpreting the items on the list. (21)

The act of creating a list on Trello would be considered to be “pre-computation”. Not only does it require some sort of pre-planning, but it can also be done whenever is convenient and by anyone on the team (Norman 21). That’s right- Trello boards can be shared with members of your team and/or clients. Team members and clients may then consult the lists, add information, message others, and create and assign tasks. This functionality leads us to distributed cognition.  Distributed Cognition is defined as:

A process in which cognitive resources are shared socially in order to extend individual cognitive resources or to accomplish something that an individual agent could not achieve alone. (Lehtinen)

Trello is a prime example of an “artificial device designed to maintain, display, or operate upon information in order to serve a representational function” (Norman 17). In this case, it’s primary functions are information storage, task delegation, team cooperation, and memory/performance aid.

Another cognitive artifact that we can focus on is a photo-sharing application called VSCO. VSCO serves as an online photo album and journal with the added functionalities of photo editing. What differentiates it from photo social media apps such as Instagram, is that while you can follow accounts, the interaction between accounts is very limited. There are no likes or comments on photos so it creates a vastly different online environment. Users are encouraged to create art with their photography and to not be limited by social constructs or what would be socially acceptable or “liked” on other traditional social media platforms. According to Cole, this characteristic would classify VSCO as a tertiary artifact, meaning that in the world of VSCO  “rules, conventions, and outcomes no longer appear directly practical, or which, indeed, seem
to constitute an arena of non-practical, or ‘free’ play or game activity,” (121).

As I said before, VSCO also functions as a sort of photo album and journal, therefore, it also aids in information storage and memory. It is a wonderful app that allows users to craft/represent the world they live in without the social constructs that you would normally find in other applications.


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

Lehtinen, Erno & Hakkarainen, Kai & Lipponen, Lasse & Veermans, Marjaana & Muukkonen, Hanni. (1999). Computer Supported Collaborative Learning: A Review.

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.

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