Use of artifacts in design projects

This post started as a presentation I gave to a group of computer science students in a HCI class as an invited practitioner. My first intention was to “talk about work”, show some currently worked-on projects and introduce to the order and mess of roles, projects and tasks in software companies. However, I found it a bit too generic after I wrote the first draft. I then structured the talk by my uses of artifacts and linked to some concepts from anthropology and Science and Technology Studies

In design, I work with a lot of things (aka “Artifacts”). I will give a somewhat subjective overview of what I (and others) use these artifacts for.

Memory Aid and External Cognition

Artifacts can serve as a memory aid; you can cognitively “offload”, so you don't need to keep it all in memory. Writing down a telephone number is an obvious non-design example. An example from user research could be a short, written script that helps you to remember a user workflow which you observed several times.

  1. Search on google scholar
  2. Copy title/author to a file
  3. Go through the file, try to download the articles.
  4. Read the article’s abstract …

With an good representation you can ease thinking, group together information that is used together and enable you to quickly spot similar items 1.

Visualizations of data (e.g. from web analytics) allow to spot curious patterns, which is almost impossible when looking at a table or with a summary statistic for all but the most basic patterns.

I noted that I sometimes discover new ways to communicate research or design decisions when I create the slidedecks to present it. Since there is only few space on a slide I tend to rewrite it several times. I also combine the text with images Both helps to discover new ways to state my point in a terse and accessible way.

Representations can help to make things concrete. Creating a sketch may show what was unknowingly still unclear: Does it all fit on the same screen? Where would you place this control? It is easy to say: “The screen contains the menu, a slider and a visualization of the data”, however, what is suggested in words might not be possible to build, e.g. because there is too few space to fit all suggested elements in.

a representation of an interface consisting mainly of sticky notes Simple representations of a possible interface. It is easy to change since most parts are made of sticky notes.
Image by Jan Dittrich (WMDE), Source, cropped, CC BY-SA 4.0

Such constraints can be very useful in itself when you want to limit something: The Kanban method assumes that too many started, but not finished tasks are bad. Kanban represents tasks on cards or sticky notes which are put in areas signifying the status of the task. If the area at which you can store "in doing"-Tasks is small, it is impossible to represent the undesirable state of work.

Concrete 2 representations might also shape learning: A plan can not only be used to inform actions, it can also be used to check afterwards if the assumed actions did work or if other’s were needed 3. This only works if the plan’s suggestions are concrete enough to actually spot deviations.


You can use artifacts to work together, e.g. by making your thoughts permanently accessible to others in an artifact or by referring to artifacts in conversations.

part of our kanban board. Note that each "doing" area only has space for about 4 sticky notes/tasks at the same time Image: A part of our kanban board. Note that each "doing" area only has space for about 4 sticky notes/tasks at the same time

Our Board, on which we keep which tasks are in Todo, doing or done-state (Kanban-Board) could be seen as shared, external memory of work items.

Others can also manipulate the artifacts to communicate, like moving a sticky note, representing a task from the area for “doing”-tasks to the area holding “done”-tasks on the board.

An artifact can also remind of norms:

Having a kanban board in the room does not only offer the possibility to use it, it can also reminds that we agreed together to use a kanban method to track our tasks.

The artifacts are part of a network of other artifacts, ideas and conversations: You can name things (“our Done-Tasks”) or point to them (“this task”).

When people work with sticky notes, they seem to “point” a lot. I recently was part of a workshop in which people presented ideas, wrote them on sticky notes and then clustered them. When they introduced their ideas they said something like: ”It is important to be able to talk to each other, so I have [looks at sticky note] interdisciplinary knowledge on here” [sticks it on wall, looks at other notes] “I think it goes best with this” [re-sticks note] cluster, here, … understanding each other”.

All these communication (via the artifacts like the sticky notes) is subject to constant re-interpretation 4. This rarely shows, because it usually works well; it can be noted if it breaks down or at least causes friction.

In above workshop, the moderator was transcribing our sticky notes to add them to a trello-board (an online service offering shared "boards" consisting of serval columns which can contain an ordered list of items; usually used to coordinate work) Moderator: “I need a bit help with this clustering group” [reads] " ‘saying No’ – what is this?” Seemingly they needed to understand the note to add it to the digital tool since they were clearly able to read the text itself.

This constant re-interpretation can be seen as a threat to the accuracy and objectivity of the representations. However, it is unavoidable to interpret 6.

Curiously, a common understanding and coordinated acting can be more important than a “true” representation: Karl Weick gives a somewhat extreme example of a group of lost soldiers in a snowstorm using a map of the area to find their way to the next settlement. Afterwards, they discover that the map they used was of a different area—but still helped them to coordinate and by that find their way out of the mess 27.

Boundary Objects

Communication within a discipline is often already challenging—but at least you share vocabulary, practices and values. In a modern work context, one works with people with different roles and specializations all the time: On a normal day, I talk to product managers and programmers, from time to time also to data scientists, people from the education department and from evaluation.

Just like in communication within the discipline, artifacts can ease communication. For example, when I talk to a product manager, we often also talk about a set of personas. A persona is a fictional, although plausible representation of an assumed target group for a product. When we talk about user needs, or tradeoffs we would ask ourselves: “How would this idea affect the persona? Does it meet their needs?”

For a designer/researcher, the persona implicitly hints to the research done on the needs of the target group, the needs that this person has and the products they might be familiar with and from which they draw their assumptions of how an intuitive interface must be like. For a product manager, the persona might be slightly differently interpreted e.g. as a source for thinking of new features, particularly some that satisfy a large user base but which are relatively quick to ship. Also, personas (or rather the decisions they inform) might interact: While one persona profile suggests a stronger focus on very advanced features, another target group might be deterred by too many specialist features.

posters with user profiles ("personas") Image: Two of Wikidata’s personas.
Image by Jan Dittrich (WMDE), Source, cropped, CC BY-SA 4.0

Another artifact could be a ticket in an issue tracker: As a designer, I provide the images for how the screen will look like to the user, describe how it shall change according to user input and provide a rationale how and why the function fits in the larger picture. For a programmer, the perspective on the ticket is focussed on concerns of technology: What shall it do? Can it be programmed? The programmer might remind me then, that I need to specify the exact colors or which distance two elements have from each other. We use the same information but with different perspectives on it.

Such artifacts are known as boundary objects, an idea from a 1989 Paper by Star and Griesemer 25. A boundary object is "…both adaptable to different viewpoints…"—so that e.g. a designer and a programmer can use it according to their needs—and “… robust enough to maintain identity across them.”—so that e.g. design and programmer can still use the same artifact 7.


Artifacts can be part of making your actions accountable. Accountability means that what and why you are doing it, is either immediately clear or at least can be explained when asked for 17. The concept is strongly associated with Ethnomethodology.

The slide decks in which I present my designs sometimes have some slides at which I show the work that happens before I and my colleagues create the detailed, final versions of the design. They show rough sketches or wire frames. This makes it understandable that we need time before the detailed designs are produced. If you look at images representing more concept- and research-oriented ways of design like Design Thinking and Service Design, you will find many photos of people in front of walls with sticky notes and drawings on whiteboards. The work is made accountable by retelling the method and showing representations of what doing it looked like. (See Seitz, 2017, p83 24)

To account for decisions based on research, I might include a ranked list with user feedback, a persona profile or a diagram from a research report. I connect these on the slides and in my narration to the design and show, why I took a decision. Some decisions are based on and accounted for by norms. Some of these norms also have a representation as artifacts, for example a styleguide, a document that holds the colors and widgets one can use in an interface design (see, e.g. this styleguide by Wikimedia ). So if it needs be be explained why I can't make a second button blue, I refer to the styleguide (which says: Only one “primary action” element, signified by a blue background, may be present on the screen).

All these ways of accounting for (design) work assume a shared, implicit background4. The usually smooth process can get stuck. This can happen if “research” is expected to result in numbers and statistics rather than themes and principles; then the “repair work” of the account needs to escalate to negotiating what counts as research or to discussing the way we got to mean two different things using the same word.

Identity and community

Some artifacts serve to show that you are a professional designer.

Using the wide spread software by Adobe (like Photoshop) provides access to a large infrastructure of applications, software extensions, services and interaction with other people using the same tools. However, these tools are also symbols of being professional: You must give a very solid account for not using the de-facto standard for image editing, Adobe Photoshop. Otherwise your non-use will be explained as “not professional”.

Another symbol is using a Apple Mac. Do an image search for “Designer” and you will get a lot of images with that type of computer as part of depictions of designers and their work.

While these examples are tied to digital technology, the signifying of professionalism via tools extends to seemingly mundane artifacts like paper and pens. Tools like sharpie® -pens and post-it® notes are important symbols for designers. This is most visible when these supplies are not there. Lilly Irani studied an design agency in India, where it is hard to purchase these supplies (See Irani, 2010 18). Among other things, she discussed how the team tried to get these supplies that show legitimacy and professionalism to designers as well as clients.

Designers looking at sticky notes Image: Designers looking at sticky notes.
Image by Kalsau, licensed under CC-BY 2

When I worked in a design agency that did not use sharpies (but a very similar replacement) it was indeed a topic that they did not. Being new to the job (and new to the need to have the right brand of markers), I wondered about this, as I was used to using whatever black-ish felt pen was around.

Going more in a less designerly, more technology focussed direction, you can also find stickers and T-Shirts being an important signifier of identity. I work in an open source/programming focussed environment and you can show your credibility by having interesting stickers on your laptop’s lid. While designers seem to prefer the smooth surface or an carefully chosen decal, the more tech, the more you have multiple layers of stickers from products and events. You can get stickers at companies or organizations themselves or at conferences, so it is a proxy for how much you get around and how many people you know 8.

Colorful, overlapping stickers on a laptop Image: Showing off stickers on a laptop

I tried to give an overview of the different uses of artifacts in design work I do. The purposes go from relatively local and mechanistic (like memory aids) over communication with other designers (Kanban board), communication with other disciplines (Personas), giving account of my work (styleguide) to identity support (sticky notes and stickers).

The list of uses is not exhaustive. Also, there is no clear 1-to-1 mapping of an artifact to a kind of use: A kanban board, too, can be used like a boundary object (in cross-discipline project work); the styleguide is not only a tool of giving account but also a memory aid (I look up which color I need to use) and a tool of identity construction (since it makes me belong the group of people applying these rules)


  • Update 2019-02-09: Added data scientist laptop sticker paper.
  • Wenger suggests that communities of practice need both participation and reification in artifacts and documents. Both supplement each other. Participation allows to interpret and for locality, reification helps mobility, clarity and coordination 26 (Added 2019-03-26)
  • 2023-06-06: An interesting paper on how professional status is connected to representations (Engineering drawings) is Bechky’s Object Lessons [^Bechky]
  • 2023-06-06: A classic on the topic of representations in design is Bødker’s Understanding Representation in Design.

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Use of artifacts in design projects by Jan Dittrich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

  1. Larkin and Simon 20 contrast diagrammatic with sequential, text based representation of information, arguing that in some cases, a diagrammatic representation is more efficient to compute. Their explanation is in the tradition of the human-as-information-processor. 

  2. Concrete here means: hard to interpret widely different. An assertion will always assume some implicit assumptions. But the question “did you come to work before 9:00 today?” is, for the most purposes, more concrete than “did you come to work in the morning today”. 

  3. The use of plans as means for reflection is discussed by Rönkkö, 2005: “There is nothing wrong if plans do not work out. In the opposite; one purpose of plans is to make the deviation between the plan and the ongoing practice visible and thus accessible to the due process”23 and Bardram, 1997: “…the interesting issue is not to follow the plan but the deviation from the plan. Deviating from a plan is a breakdown and therefore a potential learning situation.”10 

  4. For a general introduction on the role of implicit background knowledge in communication, see Winograd, Flores, 1987 28

  5. Frederic Brooks states about the creation of models of use and users: “Better Wrong than Vague… An articulated guess beats an unspoken assumption.” 14 

  6. I am aware of this discussion mainly from applied ethnography. The researcher’s account is an interpretation, not the objective information of how the user really is 9. However, in applied ethnography, the positivist claim that research can show how users really are, is often made 22; photos and quotes are used to convey the “realness” 22. Halse and Clark offer an interesting perspective on the use of photos and quotes using the argument that interpretation continues after the anthropologist’s work and allow participation and reinterpretation by non-anthropologists (e.g. managers, engineers…) 16 

  7. Boundary Objects and Design work is discussed in several publications: Bergman, 2007 see their functions as to “promote shared representation”, “transform design knowledge”, “mobilize for design action” and to “legitimize design knowledge” (each of these aspects has the political and functional aspects in their view) 12. Carlile, 2002 views boundary objects’ (dis-) function in different situations in the development of new products—in some situations, an object might be ineffective, because it does not represent needed information. 19 studied visual culture in engineering, finding that “the conscriptive quality of these visual representations is so strong that participants find it difficult to communicate about the design at all without them.” and pointing out that digitalization can take away the qualities that are needed for efficient boundary objects. 

  8. The best academic reference I found on laptop stickers is Lowrie, 2016 21

  9. Anderson, R. J. 1994. “Representations and Requirements: The Value of Ethnography in System Design.” Human-Computer Interaction 9 (2): 151–182. 

  10. Bardram, Jakob E. „Plans as Situated Action: An Activity Theory Approach to Workflow Systems“. In Proceedings of the Fifth European Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 17–32. Springer, Dordrecht, 1997. 

  11. Bechky, Beth A. 2003. “Object Lessons: Workplace Artifacts as Representations of Occupational Jurisdiction.” American Journal of Sociology 109 (3): 720–52. 

  12. Bergman, Mark, Kalle Lyytinen, and Gloria Mark. 2007. “Boundary Objects in Design: An Ecological View of Design Artifacts.” Journal of the Association for Information Systems 8 (11): 546. 

  13. Bødker, Susanne. 1998. “Understanding Representation in Design.” Hum.-Comput. Interact. 13 (2): 107–25. 

  14. Brooks, Jr, Frederick P. 2010. The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist. 1st edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Addison-Wesley Professional. 

  15. Carlile, Paul R. 2002. “A Pragmatic View of Knowledge and Boundaries: Boundary Objects in New Product Development.” Organization Science 13 (4): 442–55. 

  16. Halse, Joachim, and Brendon Clark. 2008. “Design Rituals and Performative Ethnography.” In Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings, 2008:128–45. Wiley Online Library. 

  17. Have, Paul Ten. 2002. “The Notion of Member Is the Heart of the Matter: On the Role of Membership Knowledge in Ethnomethodological Inquiry.” Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research 3 (3). 

  18. Irani, Lilly, Paul Dourish, and Melissa Mazmanian. 2010. “Shopping for Sharpies in Seattle: Mundane Infrastructures of Transnational Design.” In Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Intercultural Collaboration, 39–48. ICIC ’10. New York, NY, USA: ACM. 

  19. Kathryn Henderson. 1991. “Flexible Sketches and Inflexible Data Bases: Visual Communication, Conscription Devices, and Boundary Objects in Design Engineering.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 16 (4): 448–73. 

  20. Larkin, Jill H., und Herbert A. Simon. „Why a Diagram is (Sometimes) Worth Ten Thousand Words“. Cognitive Science 11, Nr. 1 (1987): 65–100. 

  21. Ian Lowrie (2016) Caring for Computers: How Russian Data Scientists Refashion Their Laptops, Anthropology Now, 8:2, 25-33, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2016.1202578 

  22. Nafus, Dawn, and Ken Anderson. n.d. “The Real Problem: Rhetorics of Knowing in Corporate Ethnographic Research.” Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings 2006 (1): 244–58. 

  23. Rönkkö, Kari, Yvonne Dittrich, und Dave Randall. „When plans do not work out: How plans are used in software development projects“. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) 14, Nr. 5 (2005): 433–68. 

  24. Seitz, Tim. 2017. Design Thinking und der neue Geist des Kapitalismus: Soziologische Betrachtungen einer Innovationskultur. 1st ed. Bielefeld: transcript. 

  25. Star, Susan Leigh, and James R. Griesemer. 1989. “Institutional Ecology, `Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39.” Social Studies of Science 19 (3): 387–420. 

  26. Wenger, Etienne. 1999. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, And Identity. 1st edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

  27. Weick, Karl E. 1995. Sensemaking in Organizations. SAGE. 

  28. Winograd, Terry, and Fernando Flores. 1987. Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. First Printing edition. Boston: Addison-Wesley Professional.