Design for Cognitive Assistance


Arne Svensk



In Sweden over the last twenty years, many people with developmental disabilities have chosen to move into their own apartments with different types of assistance. For most of them it has resulted in increased personal responsibility for household chores and daily routines. Some have managed without any problems, while other have had considerable difficulty. To help them in these difficult situations, communities have arranged for personal assistance and some research has also been carried out on these efforts. Attempts to implement technological assistance, however, have been marginal, and research in this area and on its effects is almost non-existent. This report will show that design for cognitive assistance should also include technological efforts.

This report takes as its starting point the problems that arise when a fictional character by the name of Henrick Person has one of those days when almost everything goes wrong. By using a story format, I try to illustrate some of the typical difficulties a person with developmental disabilities needs to overcome in his or her everyday life. The story will also show how an event that would be considered a trivial setback in most cases, can, under the wrong circumstances, develop in a way that finally pushes a person to the verge of losing control over the situation. 

I use this unlucky day to show that relatively simple means can give a person like Henrick Person the cognitive assistance he needs in order to manage many daily living situations on independently. For background information, I will describe portions of a specific design process that were used to reach the goal. It has a lot in common with many other design processes but also has its own distinctive features. For an artefact or occurrence to be accessible to a person with mental retardation, it should support the person's awareness of context, security, experience/memory and precision.

The STEP method, its name a combination of letters from the words Security, conText, Experience and Precision, is the report's specific contribution to general design science. The STEP method is intended to support the people who the work primarily concerns and the world around them. A fundamental idea is that cognitive processes are distributed over people, time and artefacts and as a result should also be studied in actual interactive situations.

Distributed cognition as a design process model increases the scope of design for cognitive assistance and thereby also increases the opportunities of finding solutions that correspond to the person's needs, wishes and dreams. As the report will demonstrate, those who assist a person with developmental disabilities play a key role in the design process, and consequently the way in which their involvement and knowledge can be put to use is also discussed.

Henrick Person's white Wednesday, an example of cognitive assistance.


The purpose of this report is threefold:

  1. To discuss issues that concern the design of assistance based on a thought model of distributed cognition.
  2. To present a method that offers support in the analysis of different cognitive obstacles that people with developmental disabilities can meet in daily living.
  3. To demonstrate concretely how specific design criteria can give support in design for cognitive assistance based on the person's own wishes.


Design, distributed cognition, ethnography, cognitive artefact, cognitive assistance, personal assistance, technological assistance, developmental disabilities, cognitive disabilities, mental retardation.

Complete thesis (pdf format 1.5 MB)


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Modified: augusti 16, 2007