Suchman cast her findings as fitting into a small movement already under way at parc to shift research from an office automation viewpoint to the wider perspective of the “knowledge worker.” The basic thrust was to use the power of computing-for such tasks as generating, recalling, printing, and transmitting forms-to support the way work actually gets done. At its core were technologies such as the graphical user interface pioneered at parc. Building programs around a desktop metaphor allowed users to view items as icons or lists, either individually or as a group, providing the benefits of computerization without stripping people of control and flexibility. By adding fuel to this movement, Suchman boosted the status of her anthropology work.
But the first real milestone came about a year after her arrival when Suchman and computer scientist Austin Henderson made the two films showing researchers grappling with the 8200 copier. The machine was outfitted with powerful new capabilities such as automatic feeding and double-sided copying. But what Xerox had billed as a self-evident copier was proving a disaster in the real world. As customers complained in droves that the machine was too complicated, engineers brought the problem to parc. Suchman and Henderson had an 8200 installed at the facility, announced their intention to set up video cameras, and asked colleagues to try it out.
Around the time John Seely Brown aired their results to various management groups, the researchers were doing the same for Xerox engineers in Rochester, New York. The more serious film (without Jane Fonda) was called “The Machine Interface from the User’s Point of View.” Because it featured doctorate-wielding computer scientists, it couldn’t be dismissed on the grounds that people were technically incompetent-and it made a deep impression. “They were really sobered by it,” relates Suchman. But rather than chastising the engineers over the 8200’s shortcomings, she tried a positive tack. “The point I really tried to make was that they should not take it as evidence of their failure, but as evidence of the difficulty of the problem they as designers had to solve.”
Rochester rose to the challenge. Today, instead of the 8200’s flashing error codes that had to be looked up in flip cards attached to the machine, a display panel on Xerox’s Series 10 and 50 copier lines shows a picture of where the trouble lies. The friendlier user interface has helped slash the average time needed to clear a paper jam from 28 minutes to under a minute. Of more fundamental importance, the films opened Xerox’s eyes to the potential of workplace studies. “That was what really got us going,” asserts Brown, “recognizing that it’s technology in use that creates value, not technology per se.”
It wasn’t long before that realization brought parc’s anthropologists out of the lab to encounter machines in their natural habitat. Today, from a lone practitioner initially focused simply on observing work practices, such “ethnographic” efforts have swollen to about a dozen anthropologists, artificial intelligence experts, and computer scientists striving to create technology based on the nature of real workgroups in the real world. Their twin goals-probing fundamental aspects of work while designing technologies to make specific jobs easier-have established anthropology as at once one of parc’s farthest-out pursuits and one of its most targeted. “The idea of a corporate research center investing in anthropology may seem exotic,” admits Suchman. “But in many ways we think of ourselves more as champions of the mundane. Others dream of far-out widgets. We’re saying we really have to give people more useful widgets.”