on automation and tacit knowledge

on

We hear a lot about how computers are replacing even white collar jobs. Unfortunately, often left behind when automating these kinds of processes is tacit knowledge that, while perhaps not strictly necessary to generate a solution, can nonetheless improve results. In particular, many professionals rely upon years of experience to guide designs in ways that are largely invisible to non-experts.

One of these areas of automation is document layout or reflow in which a system attempts to fit text and image content into a given format. Usually such systems operate using templates and adjustable constraints to fit content into new formats. For example, the automated system might adjust font size, table and image sizes, gutter size, kerning, tracking, leading, etc. in different ways to match a loosely defined output style. These approaches can certainly be useful, especially for targeting output to devices with arbitrary screen sizes and resolutions. One of the largest problems, however, is that these algorithms often ignore what might have been a considerable effort by the writers, editors, and backshop designers to create a visual layout that effectively conveys the material. Often designers want detailed control over many of the structural elements that such algorithms adjust.

For this reason I was impressed with Hailpern et al.’s work at DocEng 2014 on document truncation and pagination for news articles. In these works, the authors’ systems analyze the text of an article to determine pagination and truncation breakpoints in news articles that correspond to natural boundaries in articles between high-level, summary content and more detailed content. This derives from an observation that journalists tend to write articles in “inverted pyramid” style in which the most newsworthy, summary information appears near the beginning with details toward the middle and background info toward the end. This is a critical observation in no small part because it means that popular newswriting bears little resemblance to academic writing. (Perhaps what sets this work apart from others is that the authors employed a basic tenet of human-computer interaction: the experiences of the system developer are a poor proxy for the experiences of other stakeholders.)

Foundry, which Retelny et al. presented at UIST 2014, takes an altogether different approach. This system, rather than automating tasks, helps bring diverse experts together in a modular, flexible way. The system helps the user coordinate the recruitment of domain experts into a staged workflow toward the creation of a complex product, such as an app or training video. The tool also allows rapid reconfiguration. One can imagine that this system could be extended to take advantage of not only domain experts but also people with different levels of expertise — some “stages” could even be automated. This approach is somewhat similar to the basic ideas in NudgeCam, in which the system incorporated general video guidelines from video-production experts, templates designed by experts in the particular domain of interest, novice users, and automated post hoc techniques to improve the quality of recorded video.

The goal of most software is to improve a product’s quality as well as efficiency with which it is produced. We should keep in mind that this is often best accomplished not by systems designed to replace humans but rather those developed to best leverage people’s tacit knowledge.