ProjectsContext Aware Office
Ethnographic Studies Personal Metadata


How do People Work in their Everyday Office Spaces?
An Ethnographic Approach

  Keywords: Context Aware Computing, Context Aware Office, Office Ecologies, Digital Ethnography, Neat, Scruffy, Filing, Piling, Layering  

In order to provide digital support for the diverse ways users interact with their physical desk and other resources in their offices, we are conducting ethnographic studies of real world office workers in their offices. Doing so is enabling us to both develop an ontology of the rich elements populating current offices as well as formulate an ontology of the agent’s actions that can take place in this activity space. Because a Context Aware Office relies on the ability to continuously model the state of an office, we need to categorize all of the possible elements of an office and make note of the opportunities they afford to a user.

By investigating how office dwellers’ tasks are both reflected and shaped by their office space, we can begin to categorize our users into different user types. This in turn is proving helpful in designing digital supports that complement and improve how people work.



Honors Presentation

Watch Justin Kodama and Shailendra Rao's Undergrad presentation exploring the Neat and Scruffy distinction.

153.9MB AVI (PC)
271.2MB MOV (MAC)
38.5MB MP4 (MAC)

Flip through the slides from the presentation to get a closer look at the pictures, charts, and points made in the presentation.

10MB PowerPoint




Among the elements in an office ontology and activity ontology are entities like: containers (e.g. filing cabinets, binders, folders, etc.) that can contain paper documents which support actions such as being sorted by title, relevance, or recency; surfaces (e.g. desktops, shelves, cabinet tops, etc.) where office elements can be placed; and content (e.g. articles, telephone numbers, memos, etc.) which can be linked to other information or people. Based on this sort of ontology which classifies the basic elements in an office and their possible states, we are defining higher order attributes of an office such as entry points. Another virtue of developing an ontology of office elements and actions is that we can begin to explore the sort of metadata - personal metadata - which inhabitants of offices store about the contents of their offices. These two factors, along with higher order ones defined in terms of them, are helping to inform the design of Context Aware Offices. One adequacy condition on such context aware offices is that they should be able to characterize the key elements of an office in a sufficiently abstract and general manner that we can determine how closely related two different physical offices are to each other. Ideally, if there is a deep structural resemblance between two such offices, inhabitants of one should be able to work more effectively in the other. Indeed, in the case where we recreate by digital means the key properties of an office, it should be possible for workers to move from one physical office to another one and effortlessly resume their familiar work practices at the new venue.

Honors Thesis

Read Justin Kodama and Shailendra Rao's complete Honors Thesis including Background, Methods, Results, and Conclusions.

16.7MB PDF

More Than a Desk
It is important to keep in mind that and office space is more than a desk. In order to formulate a descriptive account of an office ecology, we need to consider the various parameters, factors, and context of an office.


What are some of the ways we can use the power of the digital world to deal with paper in a manner that understands how people prefer to work? Before we can propose these digital solutions to enhance our office workspaces we need to develop a better understanding of how people actually work in their actual office environments. We cannot expect that a Neat person will need the same types of digital supports that a Scruffy person will need to help organize their office. One size does not fit all.


Because the world of the office dweller is complex no single method alone can accurately capture the interaction between people and their office environments. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages when employed in isolation. In order to maximize our understanding of what takes place in offices on an everyday level we used research methods from several different schools of thought.
How do we study complex real world environments?


Three Types of Interviews
Interviews varied from our Preliminary Office Tour to our Mid-day Interviews to our End of the Day interviews


Two Types of Subject Filled Logs
Error Logs gave us a story of what went wrong and what happened unexpectedly.
Interruption Logs helped us determine how our subjects responded to interruptions from the outside world.


With the logs our Subjects told us a story of What happened Where, When and also How it happened.



Subject Shot Digital Pictures
Our subjects took pictures of their office surfaces and organizing structures according to a picture checklist.
An sample picture one of our subjects took of their office space.




Two Views from our Wireless Digital Video Cameras
Wide Angle Cameras give a nice view of the entire workspace and allow us to monitor interruptions from the outside world.
Normal Cameras were focused on regions where a lot of activity occurs to give us a close up view.




Sample View from 120 Degree Camera


Filing vs. Piling
Neats like to File.
Scruffies like to Pile.

Our Neater dweller worked with files almost twice as much as our Scruffier one. On the other hand, our Scruffier worker managed 50% more Piles than our Neater one.


Our Scruffy managed multiple layers of documents.
Our Neat avoided layering by creating new surfaces such as their lap.

Layering refers to placing one pile onto another pile with no desire to merge the two piles, thus layering different activities onto one particular region. We found that our Scruffier person added layers twice as often as our Neater subject did.

Impromptu Note Taking Devices: Sticky Notes
Our Scruffy office dweller made liberal use of these highly mobile note taking devices throughout their office.

Our Scruffier office dweller was a big fan of sticky notes, but our Neater subject hated these note taking devices. Given their strong positions on using Sticky Notes, we were not at all surprised to see our Scruffier Office Dweller either refer to or create these impromptu note-taking devices almost 4 times as much as our Neater Office worker.

Mobile Working Space
Our Scruffier Office Dweller could have a more Mobile Working Space because they needed to move and reorder information in their space to help focus their attention on one of many open items in their office space.

One of the key attributes of sticky notes is that they are easy to move around the office and attach to different documents or surfaces. Information written on these impromptu note taking devices is highly mobile and over the course of a week a sticky note can move from a pile of papers to the monitor screen to a filing cabinet and then to a folder on the other side of the room. Looking at how many times an office dweller moves Piles in a day is another way of looking at whether a person’s work frequently moves from one region of their office to another. When a person moves a pile they are moving part of their activity to another location in their office ecology. When we combine the number of times our subjects used Sticky Notes with the number of times that they moved Piles we see that our Scruffier Subject does these activities almost 2 times as much as our Neater one. Connecting this to our findings that our Scruffier Subject handles more tasks at once, one possibility for the more Mobile Working Space is that our Scruffy Office Dweller needed to move and reorder information in their space to help focus their attention on one of many open items in their office space.

  Current and Future Studies  
  • Employing the Participant/ Observer method to acquire a deeper understanding of our subject's job function.

  • Controlling for differences in jobs and tasks

  • Reviewing Videos with Subjects to gain a better understanding of what is occurring in their offices.

  • Increasing Sample Size.

  • Tracking the life history of documents

  • Studying people's emotional investments in their office spaces

  • Considering how the physical world is coordinated with the digital world.
  Project Team  
Justin Kodama
(858) 455-0965
Shailendra Rao
(858) 455-0965
David Kirsh
(202) 623-3624
Office: CSB173
Aaron Cicourel
(858) 534-6958
Office: CSB 150
Korin Lee
Nicole Peterson
David Philp
  Related Work  

Kirsh, David. The Context of Work. Human Computer Interaction. 2001.

Malone, Thomas W. How Do People Organize their Office Spaces: Implications for the Design of Office Information Systems. 1983.