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Theoretical bases of human tool use in digital environments

Abstract : Tool use pervades our everyday life. We spontaneously manipulate objects as tools, sometimes for tasks beyond their assigned function, thereby re-purposing them, such as when a knife is used as a screwdriver. The Technical Reasoning hypothesis in cognitive neuroscience posits that humans engage in tool use by reasoning about mechanical interactions among objects. By modeling tool use based on abstract knowledge about object interactions, this theory explains how tools can be re-purposed for tasks beyond their original design as a product of knowledge transfer. In digital environments, user interfaces often provide tools with pre-defined functions, such as formatting, scrolling or zooming, meant to be used for a specific set of tasks. However, the literature offers examples of users re-purposing digital tools in unexpected ways. This motivated me to investigate the Technical Reasoning hypothesis as a theoretical model for digital tool use, based on the users’ acquired knowledge of the digital world. First, I studied computer users performing a task in a digital text editor while being constrained to re-purpose some of its commands. While most participants managed to re-purpose at least one command, some experienced difficulty due to biases stemming from their knowledge of procedures and functions learned from similar environments. I relate these observations to phenomena of physical tool use, particularly, technical reasoning and functional fixedness. Next, I studied how users perceive the possibilities for action on digital objects through toolbars in the interface. Using an experimental environment whose objects support both graphics- and text-oriented commands, I controlled the visibility of corresponding toolbars to introduce the environment to participants before performing tasks with both toolbars available. This resulted in strategies where the preferred command types associated with the toolbar presented in the introduction, sugg esting a priming effect, which can hinder the exercise of technical reasoning to use alternative and possibly more efficient strategies. Last, I present a collaboration study about extreme users of text editing tools that led to the design of Textlets: interactive objects that reify text selections into persistent tools for text documents. Textlets constitute a generative concept building on principles of Instrumental Interaction. We observed a user re-purposing a Textlet during an evaluation study, supporting the notion that an instrumental approach may contribute to re-purpose digital tools. This thesis provides evidence of the relevance of the Technical Reasoning hypothesis as a theoretical model for interaction and opens the way to the design of tool-centric interfaces.
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Submitted on : Monday, May 23, 2022 - 2:51:15 PM
Last modification on : Saturday, August 6, 2022 - 3:52:18 AM


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  • HAL Id : tel-03675933, version 1


Miguel A. Renom. Theoretical bases of human tool use in digital environments. Human-Computer Interaction [cs.HC]. Université Paris-Saclay, 2022. English. ⟨NNT : 2022UPASG034⟩. ⟨tel-03675933⟩



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