Editor’s Note: In last year’s January + February issue Usman Haque, Paul Pangaro, and I described several types of
interaction—reacting, regulating, learning, balancing, managing, and conversing. In the July + August 2009 issue, Paul
Pangaro and I described several types of conversing—agreeing, learning, coordinating, and collaborating—and we pro-
posed using models based on Gordon Pask’s Conversation Theory as a guide for improving human-computer interaction.
Peter Jones responded, noting that there are other models of conversation and prior work in bringing conversation to
human-computer interaction in particular Winograd and Flores 1986 work with The Coordinator. We agree on the impor-
tance of The Coordinator and invited Peter to outline the history of models of conversation and their relationship to HCI. His
response follows. —Hugh Dubberly
The Language/Action Model of
Conversation: Can conversation
perform acts of design?
Peter H. Jones
Redesign | firstname.lastname@example.org
[ 1] Winograd, T. “A
Perspective on the
Design of Cooperative
Computer Interaction 3,
1 (1987): 3–30.
networks has inspired interest in social design and
social systems, particularly in applications to net-
work systems, including business models, online
social activism, and organizational systems.
2] Rittel, H. “Issues as
Elements of Information
Systems.” Institute of
Urban and Regional
Paper No. 131.
Berkeley: University of
January + February 2010
[ 3] Christakis, A. N.
and Bausch, K.C.
How People Harness
Wisdom and Power to
Construct the Future
in Co-laboratories of
CN: Information Age,
[ 4] Warfield, J.N.
Science of Generic
Systems Design. Iowa
State Press, 1994.
[ 5] Cherry, C. On
A Review, a Survey, and
a Criticism. Cambridge,
MA: The MIT Press,
This article will step back in time to retrieve
alternative, influential views of conversation for
design, and then bring the discussion forward
to current situations where we might learn from
Three historically parallel pathways can be
shown as influenced by a common circle of sys-
tems theorists: the well-known language/action
perspective (LAP) [ 1], Rittel’s argumentation
perspective [ 2], and the dialogic design school,
emerging from Christakis’s structured dialogue
[ 3] and Warfield’s science of generic design [ 4].
Distinctions between these three perspectives
are readily apparent in the embodiments of their
design languages in software, with very differ-
ent routines for conversation modeling. They
also share a central concern with the role of
generative conversation for design outcomes. The
current series of On Modeling articles attempts
to coordinate common elements and concerns
among perspectives in the attempt to establish a
workable common ground.
This article focuses on the theory of conversa-
tion embodied in LAP—an influential framework
of phenomenology, pragmatics, and speech act
theory. While LAP has received significant atten-
tion in prior ACM publications, the framework
deserves further consideration in light of renewed
interest in the systemic view of conversation in
design. The emergence of massive social media
A Conversation about Conversation
What are the contexts for conversation? Most
theories of communication assume a dyad model
of information exchange: two individuals talking
with each other. Cherry defined “communica-
tion” as the exchange of normatively defined
meanings and creating understanding between
purposeful social participants [ 5]. Conversation
is seen as a form of communication in which a
particular exchange takes place between at least
two people at a time, representing individual
interests or intentions, or collective interests rep-
resented by individuals.
In everyday parlance, we subscribe to a more
inclusive view. In fact, many and perhaps most
conversations occur as or start with small talk.
Known as phatic communication, it is present
to some extent in most real conversations, and
is identified as “orientation” in the LAP model.
While its power to reinforce relationships should
not be minimized, here we focus on purposeful
conversations that enable the coordination of
multiple perspectives in the activity of designing.
Any design activity is guided by the intention
to change a situation in accordance with a com-