Interactive Technology
for Complex Work Practices

While computers pervade our everyday lives rapidly, there are, to this day, workplaces where people operate with almost no IT support. Firefighters on the frontline who work in buildings full of smoke and heat do their dangerous job without IT that has, however, the potential to support them in communication, navigation or the monitoring of the situation. Currently, the quest for real-time, networked information drives firefighters and computer engineers alike and current computer science research projects push the development of computing systems for safety-critical domains.

For firefighters and in general, computing systems do not only have the potential to solve specific problems or prevent tragic accidents that might originally drive designers’ efforts. Computing systems furthermore are situated in existing configurations, they interact with our patterns of doing, thinking and feeling. Consequently, technology designers have to acknowledge that the systems they are about to build may not solely do good to firefighters’ work. In order to design systems for frontline firefighters that provide meaningful support, designers will need to understand thoroughly the interaction of these systems with existing firefighting practice that has been developed since ancient Rome.

My research in the landmarke and WearIT@Work projects explores the domain of frontline firefighting, its overall configuration and interaction with novel computing systems. The research is intended as a means to support technology designers in reflecting and discussing with practitioners the changes for the practice that new computing systems produce.

The landmarke project has been selected as one of Germany’s most innovative research projects in 2012 as part of the “Germany—Land of Ideas” initiative.

Selected Publications


Sebastian Denef, and David Victor Keyson (2012)

Talking about Implications for Design in Pattern Language

In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Austin, TX, USA, May 5–10, 2012). CHI’12. New York, NY: ACM Press. p. 2509-2518

Abstract | Download

In this paper we present our approach to capture and share knowledge from field studies using pattern language and thereby inform the design of ubiquitous computing.

In our case, we studied frontline firefighting by observing the existing practice, by developing empathy through participation and by introducing new technology as triggering artifacts. Applying grounded theory, we distilled our findings into pattern language describing core aspects of this practice and their interaction. In a workshop, we introduced the pattern language to developers who had no previous knowledge of this practice and, in follow-up interviews, confronted them with new technology proposals for firefighters.

Our study shows that pattern language, while not to be confused with an immutable description of the status quo or a direct path from contextual analysis to design, supports a reflective discussion of novel technology and the fit with and potential impact on existing practice.



Sebastian Denef, Reinhard Oppermann, and David Victor Keyson (2011)

Designing for Social Configurations: Pattern Languages to Inform the Design of Ubiquitous Computing

In International Journal of Design, 5 (3). p. 49-65

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In this paper we present our approach of informing the design of ubiquitous computing by using pattern languages of human practice. By linking ethnography and design, this approach allows tackling the social dimension of ubiquitous computing in design processes.

Adding to the existing research on patterns of human practice for design, we solidify the methodology for creating pattern languages by identifying its links with grounded theory and action research and via an example of a navigation support system for frontline firefighters, show how a pattern language becomes part of the design process.

Reflecting our work, we conclude that the pattern language approach provides a framework to design for existing practice and helps to reflect the impact of novel computing artifacts.



Sebastian Denef, David Victor Keyson, and Reinhard Oppermann (2011)

Rigid Structures, Independent Units, Monitoring: Organizing Patterns in Frontline Firefighting

In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Vancouver, BC, Canada, May 9–12, 2011). CHI’11. New York, NY: ACM Press. p. 1949–1958

Abstract | Download

Providing firefighters working on the frontline of interventions with ubiquitous computing support remains an open challenge. Designing meaningful solutions for this complex work environment requires reflective thought and conceptual understanding of its social configuration.

This paper presents organizing patterns of firefighting frontline practice as a means to inform ubiquitous computing design processes. The patterns originate from a qualitative analysis of an extensive range of user studies conducted with French and German firefighters. As the patterns show, firefighting on the frontline is based on a rigid structure that gains its flexibility through independent units whose safety is ensured by a number of monitoring activities.

We conclude that the interaction between the presented patterns forms a balanced whole and needs to be recognized by ubiquitous computing design.



Sebastian Denef, Leonardo Ramirez, Tobias Dyrks (2009)

Letting Tools Talk: Interactive Technology for Firefighting

Extended Abstracts of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Boston, MA, USA, April 4–9, 2009). CHI’09. New York, NY: ACM Press. p. 4447–4452

Abstract | Download

In this work-in-progress report we present the results of a preliminary analysis of a set of fieldwork studies conducted in collaboration with a firefighter school and a firefighter brigade. To inspire the design of ubiquitous computing systems, we provide a description of the equipment used by firefighters, practices built upon them and a set of common properties.



Sebastian Denef, Leonardo Ramirez, Tobias Dyrks, and Gunnar Stevens (2008)

Handy Navigation in Ever-Changing Spaces—An Ethnographic Study of Firefighting Practices

In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Symposium on Designing Interactive Systems (Cape Town, South Africa, February 25–27, 2008). DIS’08. New York, NY: ACM Press. p. 184-192

Abstract | Download

This paper presents an ethnographic study, conducted to gain an insight of the practices around navigation of firefighters on the first line of intervention.

We argue that the common approach of looking only at the technical aspects is incomplete. We show instead, that navigation of firefighters in ever-changing spaces is a collective craft or art, where technology is only one of the relevant pieces, but not the only one. Therefore design should take a deep look at existing navigation practices of firefighters.

In order to identify relevant work practices, we conducted our ethnographic study to find out patterns of navigation work and based on our findings, we provide an outline of how the navigation practices can be supported by ubiquitous computing.