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Thesis Defense - de Paula

The Construction of Usefulness: How Users and Context Create Meaning with a Social Networking System
Computer Science PhD Candidate

The foundation of an effective design methodology of groupware technologies traditionally hinges on the collection of the "correct" requirements at the early stages of the development life cycle in order to inform their design. By collecting the "correct" requirements, the design and implementation of these technologies are assumed to more adequately support the needs of their target users' everyday work practices. Being able to reveal such needs is contingent on a theory's capability to "model" users' contexts at the design time and thereby predict possible outcomes of the design at the use time. The meaning of these technologies' usefulness is assumed to be determined at the design and implementation stage. Although the research and system development undertaken here initially followed this traditional design approach, the system's eventual deployment revealed that a set of more complex issues affects how users judge "usefulness."

This dissertation work addresses this issue by proposing an alternative perspective in which various possible meanings of the usefulness of a technology co-exist and are constantly being negotiated and co-constructed by the various groups involved in the design, implementation, deployment, and use of a technology. Because usefulness is subject to different interpretations, the acceptance of the technology by a particular group will depend on the extent that the sociotechnical structures embedded in technology and those that are part of the use context can be integrated into one another. While existing design methodologies are still necessary for the design of usable systems, this work proposes this alternative framework for understanding and analyzing their usefulness.

To this end, this dissertation research studied the design and deployment of a social network based system, Web2gether, which was intended to support the development of social networks among caregivers in special education, while simultaneously utilizing these social networks to make recommendations for educational resources and information that users seek. Web2gether is a web-based hybrid recommender and collaborative system. This research employed the sociotechnical design circle as its design method, and has analytically integrated three major theoretical constructs, namely social construction of technology, theory of structuration, and sociohistorical activity, in a coherent framework for the examination of technology design and deployment processes.

Committee: Gerhard Fischer, Professor (Chair)
Walter Kintsch, Department of Psychology
Clayton Lewis, Professor
Bonnie Nardi, University of California, Irvine
Leysia Palen, Research Assistant Professor
Department of Computer Science
University of Colorado Boulder
Boulder, CO 80309-0430 USA
May 5, 2012 (14:20)