Designing assistive technologies for workers

Working on the shop floor becomes increasingly challenging and demanding for human workers, as more and more automated and connected systems are deployed (Ludwig, Kotthaus, Stein, Pipek, & Wulf, 2018). At the same time, production environments are increasingly implementing digital technologies aiming to assist employees within their everyday work. The assistive support of these systems is targeted towards coping with the increasing complexity of industrial work environments and does not only focus on the support of people with disabilities through technology.

These assistive technologies include any technology that aims to support employees within their working tasks (cf. Flemisch et al., 2012). For instance, workers can be supported with a robot, an exoskeleton, (mobile) information and communication technologies, or mixed reality applications.

These technologies have the potential to assist workers, but also do shape everyday work practices (Wurhofer, Meneweger, Fuchsberger, & Tscheligi, 2018). Designing successful assistive technologies implies first to meet user needs, which can be ensured by adopting a user-centered design approach (Norman, 2013). But, in this workshop, we focus on another important aspect: We claim that designers should also be aware of, or reflect on, how assistive technologies shape work practices, which brings some challenges for the design of these technologies. By focusing on the topic of assistive technologies for the shop floor, we build upon last year’s ECSCW 2018 workshop on “CSCW and the new Wave of Digitalization” (Ludwig et al., 2018) and dig deeper into the area of digitization in the industry sector.

Within the last year we conducted a number of contextual inquiries (Holtzblatt & Beyer, 2014) that took place in industrial manufacturing and / or assembly lines in order to understand users’ working practices. Through the course of these inquiries, three major areas of tensions appeared to be highly relevant (and frequent in appearance): i) routines and interruptions of work flows ii) the workers (subjective) tacit knowledge in quality assurance, and iii) individual and standardized workplace setup. These were by far not the only issues we discovered, however they are particular in the sense that each of it can positively or negatively influence work practices with respect to supporting or obstructing the worker in the execution of his daily work. We also witnessed that due to this dual-faced characteristic, these areas are particularly complex to address and therefore often left out in being tackled by novel technological solutions. Hence, we deem them of utmost interest to be tackled in a collaborative scientific workshop effort.

Utmost helpful or utmost obstructing: Three areas of tension in industrial work practices.

In this section, we briefly describe three areas of tension, which emerged within contextual inquiries with workers on the shop floor.

Work flow: routines and interruptions

Experienced workers have established routines to be effective and efficient within their workflow (de Carvalho et al., 2018). In general, individuals are seeking for routine; it is described as a preference for predictability and structuring which decreases cognitive load (Neuberg & Newsom, 1993). For instance, workers who have established routines have to attend to fewer information. On the other hand, repetitive work can also result in a feeling of monotony and in a consequence, increases production errors. Interrupting repetitive work to avoid fatigue or inattention can be helpful here (see also job rotation concepts), but on the other hand also be perceived as distracting (cf. digital distractions; Baethge & Rigotti, 2013; Jett & George, 2003).

In the factory context where variability of products to be assembled increases (due to the aimed decrease in lot size) there is the demand to disrupt established routines. The question arises about how technology can help by disrupting routines without creating a feeling of distraction. Another question that comes up is about how to design technologies that helps to create routines in a constantly changing work context.

Quality assurance: worker’s tacit knowledge

There is a wide field of applications of technologies for quality assurance. After a product has been assembled, a machine has been set-up, or a maintenance task has been done, workers are often required to make a quality check of their working task. When experienced workers are asked about how do they do this quality check, they often report something like a sense, or a feeling, or knowing that their work task has been done successfully; they describe their tacit knowledge (Hao, Zhao, Yan, & Wang, 2017).

When products change a lot, even experienced workers cannot check the quality of their working processes adequately at any time. Technologies that are equipped with sensors can support here. However, they may be expensive, and will take away a perceived unique competence of workers. Technologies can also assist workers to apply the needed quality check. The challenge is about how to design technologies that support workers to develop tacit knowledge instead of taking over quality assurance tasks and replace the worker.

Workstation setup: individual vs. standardized

The freedom to personalise the working environment lowers fluctuation intentions and increases job satisfaction (Wells, 2000). As part of our studies, participants told us that when production cycle times are tight, they prefer to set up the workplace to meet their personal (=employees’) needs so that they can act most effectively. Personalisation is therefore necessary for a smooth and efficient workflow. On the other hand, there is a demand for standardizing workstations to enable a flexible use. When designing technologies, the question now arises as to how far this individualization can be allowed while at the same time meeting the requirements of standardization.  

Workshop activity and goals: worst and best practices

Submissions to this workshop should preferably focus on one of these three areas of tensions described above and report on worst practices in these contexts. Contributions should describe either observations of worst case impacts of technological interventions / systems or design fiction of worst case implementations that inhibit rather than support workers in their daily duties. We also welcome reporting on worst practices related to other areas or issues related to assistive technologies for workers.

The aim of the workshop is to jointly work on the best-case side for designing, and developing best practices. In the course of the workshop, we will – based on the presented worst practices – discuss central aspects of best practices of assistance for workers on the shop floor, and then jointly prototype interactive artifacts representing these best practices.

To recruit participants, we will distribute a call for worst practices competition. Therefore, we aim for at least two submissions for each of the areas of tensions. Following a presentation of the worst case contributions, teams should then work on these ‘competing’ best practice artifacts with rapid prototyping methods. With this approach we expect ideas for both good and best practices.


Baethge, A. and Rigotti, T. (2013): ‘Interruptions to workflow: Their relationship with irritation and satisfaction with performance, and the mediating roles of time pressure and mental demands’, Work & Stress, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 43–63.

de Carvalho, A. F. P., Hoffmann, S., Abele, D., Schweitzer, M., Tolmie, P., Randall, D. and Wulf, V. (2018): ‘Of embodied action and sensors: Knowledge and expertise sharing in industrial set-up’, Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), vol 27, no. 3–6, pp. 875–916.

Flemisch, F., Heesen, M., Hesse, T., Kelsch, J., Schieben, A. and Beller, J. (2012): ‘Towards a dynamic balance between humans and automation: authority, ability, responsibility and control in shared and cooperative control situations’. Cognition, Technology & Work, vol 14, pp. 3–18.

Hao, J., Zhao, Q., Yan, Y. and Wang, G. (2017): ‘A review of tacit knowledge: Current situation and the direction to go’, International Journal of Software Engineering and Knowledge Engineering, vol. 27, no 5., pp. 727–748.

Holtzblatt, K. and Beyer, H. (2014): ‘Contextual design: evolved’, Synthesis Lectures on Human-Centered Informatics, vol. 7, pp. 1-91.
Jett, Q. R. and George, J. M. (2003): ‘Work Interrupted: A Closer Look at the Role of Interruptions in Organizational Life’. The Academy of Management Review, vol. 28, no. 3, pp. 494-507.

Ludwig, T., Hoffmann, S., Lewkowicz, M., de Carvalho, A. F. P., Stein M. and Kotthaus, C. (2018): CSCW and the new wave of digitalization. Workshop Website:

Ludwig, T., Kotthaus, C., Stein, M., Pipek, V. and Wulf, V. (2018): ‘Revive old discussions! Socio-technical challenges for small and medium enterprises within industry 4.0’.

Norman, D. (2013): The design of everyday things: Revised and expanded edition. Basic Books.

Wells, M. M. (2000): ‘Office clutter or meaningful personal displays: The role of office personalization in employee and organizational well-being’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 20, no. 3, pp. 239–255.

Wurhofer, D., Meneweger, T., Fuchsberger, V. and Tscheligi, M. (2018): ‘Reflections on operators’ and maintenance engineers’ experiences of smart factories’. In Proceedings of the 2018 ACM Conference on Supporting Groupwork – GROUP ’18 (pp. 284–296). Sanibel Island, Florida, USA: ACM Press.